A Biblical View of Purpose, Part 2: Discerning God’s Calling

Make sure you’ve read “A Biblical View of Purpose, Part 1” first.


We can’t lay hold of God’s unique purpose for our lives without spending time with him and inviting him to clarify his purpose for us in his timing and way.

It is never too late to begin wrestling with the reason for our earthly existence, since God, in his sovereignty, can use all of our previous experiences to prepare us for our true mission. Ask the Lord to give you a personal purpose statement and a passion to fulfill it.

Primary and Secondary Callings

Our primary calling is to know and love God; our secondary calling is to express this relationship in everything we do and with everyone we encounter.

If our secondary calling is not related to our primary calling, we slip into the error of dichotomizing the “spiritual” and the “secular” when they should really be integrated. When this happens, our relationship with the Lord is disconnected from the everyday activities of our lives.

The opposite error occurs when our secondary calling replaces our primary calling. When this occurs, work becomes an end in itself by turning into our principal “vocation” (from the Latin word vocare, or “calling”). In this way, the visible and horizontal swallows up the invisible and vertical. Or to use Francis Schaeffer’s expression, “Nature eats up grace.”1 When we keep our primary calling first and seek to express it in and through our secondary calling, we become more holistic in our thinking and practice.

The Intertwining of Passion and Purpose

Although you cannot completely know or express the fullness of God’s calling on your life, it’s still wise to ask the Lord for a clearer vision of his unique purpose for your earthly existence. Prayerful development of a personal purpose statement can give you focus and passion, particularly when you review and rethink it from time to time.

In a significant scene of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, the main character, Eric Liddell, takes his sister, Jenny, for a walk in the hills of Scotland to explain his commitment to training for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. He tells her, “I’ve decided—I’m going back to China. The missionary service accepted me.” Jenny rejoices to hear this, since she fears her brother’s calling to be a missionary is being threatened by his interest in running. However, Eric goes on to say:

I’ve got a lot of running to do first. Jenny, Jenny, you’ve got to understand it. I believe that God made me for a purpose—for China. But he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt. You were right. It’s not just fun. To win is to honor him.

Eric Liddell was a man of focus and passion because he pursued a growing sense of God’s purpose for his life.

What do you do that makes you feel God’s pleasure? Frederick Buechner put it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”2 As you become a person of calling and purpose, you come to realize that God’s good pleasure is also your good pleasure. Seek satisfaction apart from him, and you will never find it; seek to please him first, and you’ll discover that satisfaction is a by-product of the pursuit of God.

Although we will never arrive at our final destination in this life, God has called each of us to a purposeful journey that involves risks along the way and is sustained by faithfulness and growing hope. This calling, or vocation, transcends our occupations and endures beyond the end of our careers. As we seek the Lord’s guidance in developing a personal vision and clarity of mission, we move beyond the level of tasks and accomplishments to the level of the purpose for which we “live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28). We are first called to a Person, and then we are called to express this defining relationship in the things we undertake, realizing that the final outcome of our lives is in the hands of God. We have a sense of destiny, but our ignorance of the invisible geography of the new creation means that we must trust God for what he is calling us to become.


Our calling, or vocation, transcends our occupations and endures beyond the end of our careers.


There is always a chasm between our aspirations and our accomplishments, between our capacities and our contributions. This discrepancy turns from an occasion for despair to an opportunity for hope when we see it as our nostalgia for our true home. This hope is the realization that our purpose is not measurable and that our earthly calling is but the preface to the endless creative activity and community of heaven.

Defining Life Backwards

In the words of Václav Havel, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”3 Many business and professional people get on a fast track in pursuit of an elusive vision of success without questioning whether they are selling themselves too cheaply by investing their precious years of life in something that, even if attained, will never satisfy.

Remember the story of the airline pilot from Part 1—and his announcement of both good news (due to a strong tail wind, the plane was making great time) and bad news (the plane was hopelessly lost)? Many people appear to be making great time on a journey to futility. They may experience the thrill of the bungee jump without realizing the cord is not attached to their ankles or waists, but to their necks.

It is much wiser to follow Kierkegaard’s advice to define life backwards and live it forwards—start from the destiny and define the journey in light of it. Few of us would think of taking a two-week vacation without any plans as to where we will go or what we will do. But what many wouldn’t dream of doing on this scale, they do on the greatest scale of all: their entire earthly existence. To avoid this fatal error we should ask ourselves, What do I want my life to add up to, and why? At the end of my sojourn, what will I want to see when I look back?

From a biblical perspective, the real question is not what we will leave behind (the answer to this is always the same—we will leave everything behind), but what will we send on ahead (cf. Matthew 6:20)?

Few of us would think of taking a two-week vacation without any plans as to where we will go or what we will do. But what many wouldn’t dream of doing on this scale, they do on the greatest scale of all: their entire earthly existence. —Ken Boa

Facets of Biblical Purpose

Many people define themselves in terms of their activities and accomplishments. But those who have experienced the grace, forgiveness, and newness of life in Christ are recipients of a new source of identity that redefines their mission and purpose on earth. Instead of seeking purpose by comparing themselves with others, they can discover God’s purpose for their lives in the pages of his revealed Word.

There are three dimensions of purpose in Scripture.

1. God’s ULTIMATE purpose in creating all things

Prior to creating time, space, energy, and matter, God alone existed, complete and perfect in himself. As a triune (three-in-one), loving community of being, he had no needs, and it was not out of loneliness or boredom that he created the realms of angels and men. We know from Scripture that part of God’s ultimate purpose in creation is the manifestation of his glory to intelligent moral agents who bear his image and who can respond in praise and wonder to his awesome person, powers, and perfections. But in our present state, we can hardly scratch the surface of the unfathomable wisdom of God’s ultimate purpose for the created order.

2. God’s UNIVERSAL purpose for his people

God’s universal purpose is the intention he has for all people who acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. This level of purpose is shared by all believers and is communicated to us in a number of passages. There are various ways of expressing this universal purpose, but they can be reduced to two essential areas:

  • Knowing God experientially (spiritual growth);
  • Making God known to others (spiritual reproduction).

Knowing and Growing (Edification)

In his high priestly prayer after the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). This knowledge is not merely propositional and theological, but also personal and devotional. Eternal life is the experiential knowledge of God, and it involves a growth process that is inaugurated when a person trusts Christ and receives his gift of forgiveness and new life. The greatest treasure a person can own is increasing intimacy with the living Lord of all creation. Although this should be our highest ambition, many believers give their hearts to the quest for lesser goods and boast and delight in things that are destined to perish. This is why we should frequently heed the powerful words of Jeremiah 9:23–24:

Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord.

The Scriptures expressly communicate the purpose for which we have been created:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29)

God’s purpose for us is nothing less than Christlikeness!

Observations on God's Universal Purpose for Believers

1. Christlikeness is impossible for us to attain on our own. Only when we recognize our weakness and inability to be conformed to the image of Christ on our own will we be ready to allow him to live his life through us. This is the genius of the spiritual life.

2. We will only be as spiritually mature as we choose to be. If we do not engage in the disciplines of discipleship, such as habitual time in the word of God and prayer, we will not become more intimate with God.

3. Growing intimacy with God is crucial to Christlike character. The personal, experiential knowledge of God transforms the heart and expresses itself in sacrificial acts of love and service toward others.

4. If God’s purpose for us is not the focus of our lives, something else will be. And whatever that something is, it will not be worthy of our ultimate allegiance. Therefore, ask God for the grace to make it your highest ambition to be pleasing to him (2 Corinthians 5:9).

Going (Evangelism)

The second aspect of God’s universal purpose for all who know Christ is making him known to others (spiritual reproduction). While experiential knowledge of Christ relates to the question, “Who do you want me to be, Lord?” spiritual reproduction relates to the question, “What do you want me to do, Lord?” It is prudent to consider the first question before launching into the second because, biblically speaking, being precedes doing; who we are in Christ is foundational to what we do. Typically, we reverse the order, putting activities and objectives before purpose, and therefore we define ourselves more by measurable accomplishments than by godly character. The result is that our activities determine our purposes. Developed in this way, purposes are shaped by comparison with peers and role models and never lead to the universal and unique purposes for which God created us. Instead, we should embrace a biblical perspective of our purpose and let this perspective determine our objectives and activities.

3. God’s UNIQUE purpose for you

If God’s universal purpose is for his followers to grow in the knowledge of Christ (edification) and to make him known (evangelism), how do we develop a vision of the unique ways God would have us apply this larger purpose in our lives? The answer is that we must launch a prayerful process of discovery that involves a thoughtful assessment of what God has gifted, called, and equipped us to do as individuals.

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 he has not equipped us to accomplish (1 Thessalonians 5:24), but we can also be certain that the development of our life message and purpose does not happen automatically or overnight.

The Lord will not call you to a task he has not equipped you to accomplish. —Ken Boa

The most critical component in the process of discerning our unique purpose is persistent prayer. We would do well to persist in asking God to clarify the vision of our calling, since we will never be able to discover it on our own. This is a divine–human 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. But commitment must precede knowledge (John 7:17); we must trust God enough to commit ourselves in advance to whatever he calls us to be and to do.

Another essential component in this process is our time in the Scriptures. God uses his Word to train and equip us for ministry, and our effectiveness is related to the depth of our Bible reading, study, and memorization.  The price tag is time and discipline, but the benefits are always disproportionate to the expenditures. If we are shallow in the Word, we will be superficial in our knowledge of God and less effective in our relationships with others.

Other components that relate to your unique purpose are your personal experiences, skills, education, temperament, and roles, as well as your spiritual gifts. Each of these elements is relevant to your vision of the specific outworking of God’s universal purpose in your life.

Developing a Personal Purpose Statement

The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do … to find the idea for which I can live and die. —Søren Kierkegaard

Jesus wants us to have the incredible aliveness of doing something wonderful with our lives. Most of what we do won’t amount to a hill of beans before God. Our credentials won’t matter much at the judgment seat. We are all going to die one day. What do we want to have lived for? When we know that, we can begin to prayerfully develop our personal purpose (or mission) statement.

Begin by asking God to clarify your personal vision of purpose. Don’t increase your activities, but through prayer, exposure to Scripture, and times of reflection, ask for discernment. This process may take months or years, but it should lead to a brief (one sentence, if possible) written statement of purpose that defines why you think God has put you on this earth. It’s your unchanging reason for being and holds true regardless of your circumstances of life.

Next, use your concise purpose statement to determine and evaluate your objectives and activities. What goals follow from the purpose you’ve defined? Prayerfully reflect on your global and role purposes (see example below). Then consider what specific goals and objectives would assist you in fulfilling these purposes for your life.

Over time, ask God to help you refine your purpose statement and goals so they become something you can live by (with God’s help). The key is to examine your activities in light of your purpose, rather than the other way around. In this way, your life will be determined more by the Word than by the external pressures of the world. Seek to live by this purpose every day, and notice how much it (and your list of specific goals) helps keep your life on track. You may be amazed how much a Christ-centered purpose brings harmony to all areas of your life (family, work, finances, ministry, etc.).


EXAMPLE: Here is my own purpose statement, along with the global and unique role purposes that flow from it.

My personal purpose statement: “To be a lover and servant of God and others”

To fulfill my purpose as a lover and servant of God and others, three global purposes follow from Scripture:

  • Global purpose 1: Love God completely—know God and his character and grow into the image of his Son in faith, hope, and love.
  • Global purpose 2: Love myself correctly—see myself in the light of God’s character and grow in humility and obedience.
  • Global purpose 3: Love others compassionately—see others in the light of God’s character and grow in love and service.

From these global purposes, I’ve determined seven role purposes for my own life:

  • Role purpose 1: Husband—love and serve my wife and help her live up to her full potential.
  • Role purpose 2: Father—love and serve my daughter and son-in-law in such a way that they know their parents love God.
  • Role purpose 3: Son—love and serve my mother and father, to let them know they are honored and cherished.
  • Role purpose 4: Friend—love and serve my friends through commitment, transparency, and vulnerability in relationships of mutual acceptance and esteem.
  • Role purpose 5: Neighbor—love and serve my neighbors in such a way that they want to know Christ or grow in him.
  • Role purpose 6: Minister—love and serve unbelievers and believers in such a way that believers are edified and unbelievers are evangelized.
  • Role purpose 7: Writer and publisher—love and serve readers in a way that helps them manifest eternal values in a temporal arena, drawing them into intimacy with God and better understanding the culture in which they live.

For more on discerning God’s purpose and will for your life, watch Dr. Boa’s teaching series on the topic. 

Footnotes

  1. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Downer’s Grove, IL :InterVarsity Press, 2007), 32.
  2. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 118–119.
  3. Václav Havel, Letters to Olga (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 235.