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Are "calling" and "purpose" the same thing?

Is a person's calling in life also their purpose in life? For years I've said it is, but now I'm changing my mind.

For the last four years I've been a contributor to Younique, the gospel life design process. I wasn't one of the co-creators—in fact, I started out just as one of the many users whose life was changed by it. But after that I became a part of the team and helped to refine, flesh out, and extend the process and to deploy it in other formats, most prominently as the main person to compose and edit the book of the same name.

I firmly believe in the power of the Younique process, and I am thrilled that its price tag is now zero. Beginning this month, all the materials we used to train Younique coaches (and more) are available on the web for free. You can use it to walk yourself through a peerless process of learning what God has created you to be and do and how to live it out, and you can learn to help others do the same. I am pumped about what's possible for God's people now that there are no obstacles between you and this content.

In Younique we used the terms "special calling," "purpose," and "(personal) mission" interchangeably, with emphasis on the foremost. We called it your "what," the "one thing" you're called to do, the unique way God created you to honor him and help others. I still believe that such a thing is real, is knowable and nameable, and is extremely important. Yet I'm challenged today that perhaps "calling" and "purpose" aren't equally appropriate labels for it.

This challenge I received comes from the team at WiLD Leaders, particularly from its founder, industrial-organizational psychologist Rob McKenna. Rob uses the example of a hammer to illustrate the difference between calling and purpose. An ordinary carpenter's hammer has two purposes: to pound nails and to pull them. If you could somehow engage a hammer in conversation and ask it about its purpose, that's what the hammer would say. But could a hammer be called upon to do something other than pound or pull nails? Of course it could. It could be called upon to hold down a stack of loose papers on a breezy day. It could be called upon to prop a door open. There are any number of things a hammer might be called upon to do according to the situation it finds itself in and the need of the moment.

Rob observes that purpose is about what—a thing you are well-designed to do. But historically, calling—going back to its roots in biblical religion, medieval Christianity, and the Protestant Reformation—is about who, the person issuing the summons to act, principally but not exclusively God. Indeed, I believe Rob would agree that it's not only about who calls you but those to and for whom you are called and even with whom you are called to go and to work. Purpose is functional, but calling is personal.

As importantly, purpose is intrinsic while calling is extrinsic. Rob notes that the phrase "my calling," which we are exceedingly accustomed to today, is a rather newfangled phrase. For most of history, calling wasn't conceived as being hard-wired into a person, as something that comes from within. Now, in our hyperindividualistic and therapeutic age, in which interior emotions are treated as the supreme guide to truth ("my truth"), of course we believe our calling comes from within. Nevertheless, although we may have to go inward to discern calling at times, the source of a true calling is outside the self just as a phone only rings if a call is coming in from a different number. No phone dials itself: a calling comes from God, from a fellow human who makes an appeal, from a crisis we must respond to, from a need we see with our physical eyes that we can't turn away from.

Consequently, a purpose—by which I mean not an objective in some job or other but the larger matter of your "purpose in life," so to speak, your unique contribution to God's human project—is a durable, lifelong thing. That doesn't mean you know your purpose your whole life long; to the contrary, your understanding and articulation of it—heck, even your awareness of it—gets refined bit by bit over time. But that doesn't mean that your purpose changes; rather, your apprehension of it does.

Calling is different. It is the place God intends you to live out your purpose at a given time, among certain people, for a specific reason.

When people who haven't spent a huge amount of time parsing these words are asked, "What's your purpose?" their answer (other than "I don't know") is usually an action they perform everywhere ("to make unloved people feel loved") or an achievement yet to be accomplished ("to make crime a thing of the past"). But when asked, "What's your calling?" people usually respond with a role ("to be a teacher"), a relationship ("to raise my kids"), a people ("to help victims of rape"), a place ("to do my part for this neighborhood"), or an organization or institution ("to keep the business my grandfather founded going strong").

For this reason, a calling may last a lifetime, but it often doesn't. We find ourselves called to a problem until it's solved, a job until it's time to move on, a relationship until our loved one dies. We find ourselves called to many things at once in overlapping journeys. And we often find ourselves called simply to do our best in our circumstances, given by God's providence, until those circumstances change and our calling with them.

This resonates strongly with my own experience. Thanks to Younique, I've come to describe my purpose as putting the whole truth (centered in Christ) in perfect words. I genuinely believe that I've had this purpose since before I knew any words, that I've been doing it my whole life, even before I knew it, and that I'll still be doing it in the Coming Age. But I also believe that God called me to attend Taylor University, that he called me to serve as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Passaic, New Jersey, and then of First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, that he called me to help leaders and organizations through my enterprise Fulcrum Content and then through the Future Church Company, and that he called me to marry Kelly Jo Wise and then with her to raise Jack, Orphie, Arwen, and Izzy. All of those callings had a beginning, and all have ended or will someday end. (With apologies to Latter-Day Saints, that includes my family roles at death, though I believe the personal relationships will live forever.)

So with these more careful and discriminating definitions of "calling" and "purpose," I would cast the language we use in Younique a bit differently if I were doing it today. I can illustrate with a model we use in the Younique Primer called the Calling Sandwich.

This model locates special calling—what God has called you to do—between general calling (what God has called everyone to do, like love him and love others) and a range of important features of your life. The matters of general calling and the stuff in the bottom slice of bread are multiple, but special calling is single. Special calling is the way you best fulfill general calling, and it's also the common thread that binds together your abilities, heritage, life story, passions, and roles.

I'm still all on board with the substance of the Calling Sandwich, but I want to relabel it. "Purpose" takes the place of "special calling." And all the things in the bottom slice (other than abilities, at any rate) may be special callings. I say "may be" because in some cases, you've probably engaged in things or been eager for things that no one called you into but yourself, but in other cases you really were drawn to or placed in them (or they in you) by others, including God himself. (You may also note that I added "communities" and "surrounding needs" to the bottom slice. That's because in the full Younique process, we did a very good job exploring a person's ideal context as an indicator of their calling, but we paid little regard to their actual context.)

I'm finding this way of talking about calling and purpose helpful, because it's making sense of my own life story and my life in the present. And it helps me keep straight how God made me versus what God said to me (and where he put me) and relate them to each other.

Most importantly, it's a guardrail. If I view calling and purpose as the same, I'm naturally prone to believe that what I'm made to do is the top concern in every situation and at every crossroads. But it isn't—the top concern is what God wants. Now, because the God who commands me is also the God who designed me, I can trust that by and large and in the end, the things he calls me to will have a lot to do with my purpose. My knowledge of my purpose may even help me discern his voice rightly. But the life that's really living is hear-and-obey, not desire-and-actualize. I can do the latter without God—or more likely, make myself miserable trying. But I can't do the former without him. Life stinks when I can't fulfill my purpose, but purpose is worthless if I don't heed his call.


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