Discovering Your Personal Purpose
by Dr. Ken Boa
Some of us come to understand God’s purpose for us when we’re older, others when we’re younger; some after a long process of discovery, others through a sudden insight or vision. Finding our unique purpose can be fun and rewarding. It can also lead to sweat and tears, even persecution. Few stories of finding purpose in life come without some element of pain or hardship. And often the impact of pursuing our calling is largely hidden from us in this lifetime.
Why Have a Purpose Statement?
Purpose is, or should be, the beginning point of any enterprise or activity. Most CEOs of corporations and other entities appoint a committee to draft a purpose (or mission or vision) statement to reflect and guide the organization’s activity. If a proposed activity or venture does not contribute to the organization’s purpose visà vis the purpose statement, it is (or should be) eliminated. A company’s purpose statement isn’t (usually) set in stone; rather, it is revisited and revised from time to time. It’s a starting point, an aspiration—something to get the ship out of the dock and moving in the right direction.
Interestingly, many of the same CEOs who insist on a purpose statement for their organizations don’t have a similar, carefully crafted purpose statement for their own lives, either in their minds or written down. Nor have most extrapolated their purpose to its logical impact on the many facets of their life: family, friendships, ministry and church, workplace, civic involvement, and so on.
Someone once quipped, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Picking up on this journey metaphor again, imagine a friend telling you his family is about to set off on a twoweek vacation. When you inquire about the details of the journey—travel, destination, activities—his answers are all the same: “Not sure yet; we’ll decide later. We’re still thinking about it.” How can a person take a vacation without knowing the destination? Even if the trip is an expression of wanderlust, going wherever the road takes you, even that kind of trip has a purpose—to explore, discover, travel, experience— and thus requires some minimumlevel planning.
Everything has a purpose. And just as a company does with its mission statement, we can revisit (and revise) a personal purpose statement for our lives as God shows us more of the special role he has given us in his kingdom. A purpose statement doesn’t tell us every activity we should do. It’s not a litmus test but a tool for assessing the opportunities that come our way. It gives us a tangible target so we won’t waste time going in circles or stumbling in the dark without a defined sense of direction. It can help us avoid overcommitting or agreeing to do things we’ll regret later.
How to Discover Your Purpose
The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard once suggested the wisdom of defining the journey of life backward. Applying this advice means starting with your ultimate destination and working backward to your starting point (wherever you are right now). This mindset enables you to set out on any given day with confidence that your life is accomplishing the intended goals. Just as no one would set out on a vacation without a destination in mind, no one should live without a clear purpose (destination) in mind. And as long as you haven’t reached your destination yet (if you’re reading this, you haven’t), it’s never too late to begin living with this kind of intentionality on a daytoday basis.
In Conformed to His Image, we are told:
Every believer has a unique combination of experiences, gifts, and relational networks that form a sphere of ministry opportunities. We can be assured that the Lord will not call us to a task for which he has not equipped us (1 Thessalonians 5:24), but we can also be certain that the development of our life message and purpose does not [typically] happen suddenly.
Along these lines, the two most critical components in the process of discerning your unique purpose are
- persistent prayer
- time in the Scriptures
In terms of prayer we must remember that we don’t discover the unique purpose for our lives on our own, apart from the Purpose Giver. Rather, this is a divinehuman process of preparation and illumination in which each of our positive and negative experiences can be sovereignly used by God in such a way that we can, through his power, make a lasting impact in the lives of others We must trust God enough to commit ourselves in advance to whatever he calls us to be and to do.
In addition to prayer, God uses our time in the Scriptures to train and equip us for ministry. We must get past shallow Bible reading (including cherrypicking verses out of their context) and dependence on others (through devotionals and commentaries). The deeper our study, the more of his Word we hide away in our hearts and minds, the deeper our knowledge of God and his will for us.
Besides the two essential components of prayer and time in God’s Word, we do well to identify or review our
- experiences and background
- natural gifts or proclivities
- education and other training and skills
- temperament and personality
- roles and relationships
- spiritual gifts
Finally, we need others. In fact, without wise people speaking into our lives—noticing and telling us, “Yes, this is you” or “No, that’s not your strength”—it is often hard for us to be objective in identifying the things just listed.
Each of these components of our lives is relevant to the specific outworking of God’s purpose in and through us. Our unique purpose is rarely revealed in a moment and may take time and discipline to discover. It may be manifested in different (or expanding) ways across the seasons of life. Regardless, it’s well worth the effort to understand our unique role in God’s kingdom. If we don’t identify our purpose with conviction, we’ll pick it up by imitation or default. We and the church will be better off if we pursue it intentionally, with a mindset of stewardship.
Unique Purpose in the Bible
The Bible is replete with examples and references that point to the existence of this unique purpose for each person. Christianity is unique among the world religions in its attention to individuals—every individual, from any station of life and any epoch. Whether a person is a king or a commoner, a social elite or an outcast, each person has dignity and purpose in God’s eyes.
Jesus Christ. One has to wonder, did Jesus’ earthly parents tell him about the details of his birth—that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that his name meant “the Lord saves,” that he was the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, that he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:2025)? We can’t answer these questions with certainty. But from his words to his parents as a twelveyearold at the temple in Jerusalem—“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)—it’s clear Jesus had some idea, even as a youth, of the purposeful calling on his life. Likely, he grew into his understanding of that calling, given that Luke also tells us that Jesus “increased in wisdom” over time (Luke 2:52). And this realization of purpose no doubt occurred, as it does for us, through intimacy with his Father in prayer.
By the time he began his public ministry in his early thirties, Jesus was quite aware of his purpose. His most succinct summaries of that purpose include the following:
- “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
- “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
- “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I came into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).
Perfect as he was, Jesus never strayed from his unique purpose on earth—never doubted, never deviated from what God was revealing to him. He might have had a variety of names (such as Suffering Servant, Prince of Peace, Son of Man), but everything he did revolved around his singular purpose of glorifying his Father by seeking, serving, and saving lost people, and by testifying to the truth.
Even still, a lifetime of guidance was needed for Jesus to understand and live his purpose. We can learn from his example, regularly seeking God’s direction and wisdom, and remaining open (no matter how old and experienced we are) to new ways God wants to fulfill his purpose for us.
The apostle Paul. The apostle Paul had the unusual advantage of both converting to Christianity and receiving his unique purpose as a (new) follower of Christ in a matter of just a few days. Christ first appeared to Paul (also known as Saul) on the road to Damascus in dramatic fashion. He then led Paul to the house of a man named Ananias, who God used to reveal the unique part Paul would play in the establishment and growth of the early church.
Three days after Paul encountered the risen Christ, “The Lord said to [Ananias], ‘Go, for [Saul/Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel’” (Acts 9:15; see also Acts 22:621; 26:1218).
Paul’s purpose was an extension of believers’ larger mandate to edify and evangelize, to know and please Christ. From verses such as Romans 11:13, 1 Timothy 2:7, and 2 Timothy 1:11, it’s clear that Paul was keenly aware of his unique calling to be an apostle to and a teacher of the Gentiles. And how did the apostle to the Gentiles gain specific direction for fulfilling this unique purpose? The same way Jesus did (and the same way we do): by devoting his life to knowing God, communicating with the Lord regularly in prayer, and then obeying what was revealed to him. (Philippians 3:711, Galatians 1:10, and 2 Corinthians 5:9 offer further glimpses into Paul’s heart to please the Lord and be faithful to his calling.)
The woman with the alabaster flask. It’s not too hard to believe that God had a unique purpose for Jesus or people like Paul or Jeremiah. But consider the anonymous woman who anointed Jesus with very expensive perfume shortly before his death and burial.
While [Jesus] was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:36, 9)
This woman’s extravagant worship of and love for Jesus was an expression (in part) of her unique role in God’s kingdom. And although we don’t know her name, her example edifies believers and testifies to Jesus’ identity to this day. Her story is a great illustration of the fact that we don’t have to be worldfamous or to be on a mission to do great things for God for him to use us.
A mistake we can make in pursuing our purpose is to become so caught up in assessing and fulfilling ourselves that we lose sight of the bigger picture, the larger purpose God has for his church as a whole. One of the most helpful things you can do to understand your purpose is to talk to other people. Talk to those who know you well and to those who know you in different contexts. Ask them, If you could sum me up in a sentence, what would you say? It takes humility and openness to do this. But it can be very valuable because others can assess our strengths better than we can, and they may also see blind spots we can’t. When we’re uncertain, sometimes others can draw us out (Proverbs 20:5).
The paralysis of analysis sometimes prevents us from acting, but any CEO will attest to the fact that a half baked purpose statement is better for a company than no statement at all. The same is true for an individual. You can always revise it! You can also try a statement on for size (say, for a week or month) to see if it seems to fit or capture you. If not, go back to the dressing room and try another one. (This works, of course, as long as your statement stays tethered to God’s universal purpose for believers.)
With a purpose statement in hand and a heart that relies on God and his grace, you’re ready to explore in more concrete ways how God wants you to invest all that he has given you.
As an exercise in recalibration, read and reflect on Luke 19:10 and John 17:4. You can conclude your reflection time with this or your own prayer:
Lord, thank you that you have given me a unique role and purpose among your followers, with the larger goal of knowing you and making you known. Please help me discern and live out the unique purpose that you have for me so that I may ultimately bring glory to your name on earth and in heaven. Amen.
Discovering Your Personal Purpose
Originally written in 2002. My father always hoped that one day, his “ship would come in.” Although he was a bus driver, he spent a lot of time and effort on the side, going from one venture to another in quest of the elusive cash cow. He never nabbed one, but I was able to […]