A Life Worth Wanting

Following Jesus to purpose and meaning


Surrounded by some of the most influential pastors of our time, I once witnessed my mentor and friend, theologian Miroslav Volf, talk about how Jesus has become a moral stranger. In other words, what was deeply important to Jesus is too often of little importance to many Christians. And what matters to many of us was of little importance to Jesus. 

If there is one thing Christian leaders might concern themselves with in 2024, discipleship regarding Jesus’ vision of a good life is at the top of the list. In other words, what was important to Jesus? What mattered? And in what ways might we focus on and cultivate a life of habits and loves toward what matters most?

At both Yale and Baylor University, I taught courses about the life worth living, what it takes to live a good life. In addition to how meaningful it was to journey with students in this way, the most extraordinary thing was how many college students wanted to have this conversation. 

The students in my courses were bright, hard-working, loving, with an incredible desire to live a life worthy of their humanity. But most of them told me they had never been guided in conversation about what makes for a good, true life. Even at Baylor, most of the students who took my class, and many who took a campus-wide survey, said that one of the biggest struggles they had was, “What is the larger meaning of my life?” 

The course that was initially designed by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz at Yale and then co-developed by Matt Croasmun and myself sought to help students articulate a vision of the life worth living that could sustain them on every kind of day. 

We did this by posing big, important questions like “What is the place of suffering in a good life?” and cultivating dynamic conversation about the questions in a community. We chose people, living and dead, to be extra participants in our community, so to speak. Together, we reflected on how they answered and lived out answers to these questions in light of the religious and philosophical traditions they were committed to.

Lately I have wondered, what if discipleship in our churches was centered on big, important questions? What if discipleship was less about being sure people could recite a series of beliefs and more about helping them articulate what kind of life is worth wanting for themselves, their community, the world, and future generations?

When I look at how Jesus taught, it seems to me that he was always more interested in questions than answers. 

“Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:27)

“Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?” (Mark 8:36)

“And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20)

In fact, as he did in the Good Samaritan story, Jesus often answered people’s questions with a question: “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” (Luke 10:36)

As we think about our own discipleship approaches, it is worth considering how Jesus taught. 

In all four of the gospels, upon meeting his closest disciples, Jesus said “follow me.” (In fact, this is one of Jesus’ most often repeated sentences in the gospels.) It was not immediately apparent where the disciples were being asked to go. But it was evident that they were being asked to go somewhere. For contemporary Christian educators, this point is of utmost importance. Christian religious education is not about offering ready-made answers. It is a quest. It is about making decisions, choosing, visioning, practicing—living with Jesus. 

And even the earliest followers of Jesus were people of the way. It is a way of life that Jesus invited people into. 

The disciples’ quest with Jesus makes them witnesses to his life and teaching. They watch him heal people and perform other types of miracles (for example, walk on water and feed five thousand). They participate in embodied activities like eating together. They hear Jesus teach—but his teaching is not easily outlined. He shares parables, and speaks in metaphors and hyperbole.

As he interacted with people, healed them, taught, prayed, Jesus pointed again and again to the good, to what makes for a meaningful, true life. 

What if we centered our discipleship on considering, in light of the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus…

  • What should we hope for? What is life for? 
  • What does it take to live a meaningful life? How should we live? What does it look like from the outside? What kind of people should we be trying to become?
  • How should we respond to moral failure?  
  • What is the place of suffering in a Christian vision of a good life? How should we respond to suffering?
  • How does a life that imitates Jesus feel? How does it feel on the inside?

At Baylor, I realized we are not just dealing with contending visions of a good life in society but in our Christian communities. Indeed, there are Christian visions of meaningful life (not just one) and yet there are more things we should be agreeing on that we are not and there are certain visions being promoted that do not align with Jesus. 

A kind of discipleship marked by capacious, compelling questions and interactive, participatory conversation could truly enliven a Christian community. It would be a kind of discipleship that invited people to hear the words and reflect on the actions of Jesus in new ways. In this way, Jesus would not be a stranger that we falsely claim to know well but rather we would embrace that his ways, his aims, his loves, are too often unknown to or missed by us and deserve closer examination. 

It would be a kind of discipleship that addressed the deepest longings of people while inviting them to truly reflect on Jesus’s life and what matters most. It would inspire more of us to more closely align our desires, goals, habits, and loves with the life and teachings of Jesus and his followers. 

Angela Williams Gorrell’s Faith+Lead Academy course, Following Jesus to Purpose and Meaning, gives an example of how you might lead a journey of discipleship based on the questions in this post.

  • Rev. Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell

    Rev. Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell is the author of Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape and The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found. She speaks and writes about joy, meaning, finding the life worth living, and the intersection of spiritual and mental health. Media sources such as the New York Times, NPR, and Christianity Today have highlighted her research. She has taught at several schools including Yale University, Baylor University, and Fuller and McCormick Seminary. Angela is a consultant and thought leader for numerous organizations. She utilizes her expertise to help create collaborative communities of prevention specifically working to lower suicide and addiction rates. You can find her on Instagram @angelagorrell. Angela and her sister, Stef, co-host The Grief Sisters podcast and The Grief Sisters book club & support group on Facebook.

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