Chapter 1: Searching for a SoulPurpose
I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people. (Nora Watson)
One of the fundamental desires we humans have is the desire for significance. We want – we need – our lives to count for something.
This is a longing that increases as we get older. In the movie About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays the role of a recently retired insurance middle manager. This sobering story charts Warren Schmidt’s struggle to find significance and meaning in life. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of his wife and fellow workers he feels useless and redundant. Soon his wife dies and his only daughter, who has made a life for herself in another city, marries a man whom Warren despises.
He is alone and desperately unhappy. But he finds some solace in the sponsoring of a small boy in Tanzania. Though he has never met the child, Warren begins to write letters to him, expressing his frustrations and deepest emotions about his life. In one letter he says:
I am weak and I am a failure. There’s just no getting around it. Relatively soon I will die. Maybe in twenty years. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.
Once I am dead and everyone I knew is dead as well, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made anyway? None. None at all.
Shortly after, Warren receives a letter from the Catholic sister responsible for the care of the sponsored boy. She explains that even though he cannot read, the small six-year-old orphan keeps his letters and thinks of him every day. He is grateful for Warren’s help and it has enabled him to get medical attention for an eye infection. Enclosed is a picture, drawn by the boy, of Warren and himself. The movie finishes as the realisation begins to sink in that maybe something of his life has mattered.
Warren Schmidt is right about his life. Much of it has counted for little. His relationships with his family, workmates and friends are largely broken and dysfunctional. Retirement has only accentuated the dismal lack of meaning. And yet, in the midst of all this gloom, there is something positive. Warren is able to appreciate and understand the difference that small acts of kindness can make to the lives of others.
Sadly, Warren’s deep angst is a common experience for many of us. We too long for significance and yet so often we stumble through life with serious questions about our lives. Do they really count for anything?
The book of Esther in the Bible provides a fascinating true-life contrast to Warren Schmidt. It tells the story of the Jewish girl Esther, “drafted” into the harem of Xerxes, Great King of Persia. Eventually she becomes his Queen. It all seems like a fantasy come true…
But a storm is brewing. Esther’s adopted father Mordecai has aroused the hatred of a powerful noble. Haman is advisor to the King, and Mordecai has refused to pay homage to him. Haman is furious and turns his anger on Mordecai and his people. He is determined to rid the land of all Jews. Haman’s goal becomes nothing less than their total annihilation.
Up to this point Esther has kept silent about her Jewish background. But now Mordecai turns to her for help. He implores her to intervene and try to influence the king in order to avoid impending disaster. Initially she is reluctant, fearing for her life, but Mordecai is emphatic. He sends her a message…
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 13-14 (NIV))
The story ends well. Esther takes the risk and gains an audience with the king, where the evil intentions of Haman are exposed. The king’s response is rapid. He orders Haman hanged on the very gallows he has erected for Mordecai. The Jews are saved. Mordecai is elevated to Xerxes’ second-in-command. And Esther, once a poor Jewish child, having saved her people, continues to live as Queen of the super-power of her day.
Esther is not alone in her experience of divine destiny. Down through the ages countless men and women have risen to the challenge of particular tasks that seemed to be part of their destiny. That towering figure of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, is another example.
Full of caustic wit and glaring personal weaknesses, nonetheless Churchill was “made” for the challenge of leading Great Britain through the desperate days of World War II. His morale-boosting strength of character and his magnificent oratory impassioned and inspired a nation to stand against the evil of the Nazi empire.
Churchill was 66 when he became Prime Minister. All his life, he said, seemed “mere preparation” for the Herculean task of leading a nation at war. As he wrote in his memoirs, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour, and for this trial.”
Discovering your SoulPurpose – yeah, right!
Inspiring as these true stories may be, they often have the opposite effect for many of us. Frustratingly we end up thinking that this level of meaning and significance is simply the preserve of a fortunate few. We may not feel exactly like Warren Schmidt, but we certainly don’t imagine ourselves as an Esther or a Churchill.
Heroes like them may have “seized the moment” and lived out what they were made for. But for the rest of us, stuck firmly in everyday life, there are no such paths to glory. The daily challenge – and the daily drudgery – more than fill up our day, thank you. It’s often hard enough finding time and energy just for that.
And anyway, where would we begin? Our day-to-day jobs seem mundane, meaningless and disconnected. At least, that’s the discovery that has led to the writing of this book. As we have talked with hundreds of Christians through the years we have found, sadly, that plenty feel that way.
Yet this is not how God intended it to be. He made all of us for a purpose. That’s why there is a yearning in our hearts to live significantly.
The truth is that God has called us. Called us! This is our destiny – to discover how we can turn God’s purpose for us into a reality, in the way we live and work.
God’s calling is not simply to work in a particular job or profession. Before all else, the call of Jesus is to follow him. We are invited to enjoy his friendship. To share a relationship with him – and with others. The fact that God desires us to know him intimately must be a cause for great optimism and hope. Clearly he rates us astonishingly highly – and that high regard is quite independent of anything we might do or achieve. First and foremost, he values us simply for being us. As far as God is concerned, we all have real intrinsic worth.
However, God does also call us to join him as partners in his work. In fact, his intention is for every part of life to be meaningful – not just employment, but all the work we do, as well as our relationships, our rest, our enjoyment, our learning...
It all counts. Sometimes we develop romantic notions of finding the one thing we were created for. But it would be foolishly simplistic to think we could ever reduce our lives to a single function. We are called to life “in all its fullness”.
Of course it’s easy to say we were made for more than just a single task or challenge. That there needs to be a rich diversity in our lives. But too often that’s the very problem! How do we hold together all the mad complexity of what we’re involved in? The key is the biblical concept of “calling”. Our calling is all about the very reason we were made by God.
Unfortunately, in Christian circles the word “calling” has come to be misunderstood, and often applied only to our job. As you will see in this book, God’s call to us goes vastly beyond that. So we’ve coined a phrase that we will use consistently – SoulPurpose.
What is SoulPurpose? Well, if it was in the dictionary, it might read something like this:
It should be plain from what we’ve already said that discovering your SoulPurpose means more than just finding the one perfect job that fits you best. We’re on about something that gives cohesion to the whole of our lives – the peculiar mix of paid and unpaid work we each do, as well as the relationships we develop and the whole range of activities and interests that are us. It affects everything.
At the very core of this is our relationship with God. This is where our identity lies – not in any particular job or career. Inevitably the types of work, leisure and relationships we are engaged in will change from time to time. These days even careers are no longer for life. When our SoulPurpose is too closely tied to a particular role, if we ever lose that role we are likely to become seriously disoriented and distressed – as Warren Schmidt’s life demonstrates.
In order to grow and maintain a clear sense of SoulPurpose for yourself, we believe you need five particular components in your life. We’ve identified them as Connection, Fit, Service, Balance and Encouragement. The absence of some or all of these components seems to us the reason most people struggle to experience a strong sense of destiny and significance.
SoulPurpose makes a connection between God’s work and your work. What you are doing in your small corner of the universe fits neatly into God’s cosmic purposes.
Easy to say! Of course, to make it happen the first step is to understand what God is doing. Now to be sure none of us knows the mind of God, but what we do have is a Bible chock-full of examples of God at work … and Jesus as our prime model! Understanding God’s purposes, then, in the world God made is an achievable goal. And when you have consciously seen how you can work alongside God you will come to appreciate how you are participating in something of far-reaching significance.
Whatever you are doing and wherever you are, as you begin to understand and put into practice your SoulPurpose, your faith and your life will gain a real sense of direction. This can even happen if the situation you live or work in falls woefully short of your dreams. A SoulPurpose will stimulate you to make your life increasingly creative and satisfying.
Our SoulPurpose is inextricably linked to our own uniqueness. The Psalmist saw it:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:13 (NSRV)
In making you the way you are, God has taken exceptional care. He wants you to reach your potential by using and developing the mix of temperament, gifts, talents, skills, motivations and yearnings that go to make up the person that is you. You have a unique “psychological DNA” that marks you out from every other human. As you work your way through this book you will identify the building blocks of that DNA. They are the ingredients that equip you for your life’s work. Assembled together (as they will be if you make the most of the exercises in this book) they will give you clues to how you “fit” into God’s broader purposes.
In fact, they will give you a glimpse of your destiny.
Os Guiness notes: “God normally calls us along the lines of our giftedness, but the purpose of giftedness is stewardship and service, not selfishness…Giftedness does not stand alone in helping us discern our callings. It lines up in response to God’s call alongside other factors, such as family heritage, one’s own life opportunities, God’s guidance, and our unquestioning readiness to do what he shows.” 
So part of your journey calls for self-discovery. How am I made? How has God put me together? What situations has he placed me in?
The process of getting to know yourself is therefore incredibly important. The better you understand yourself – your unique combination of gifts, abilities, passion and personality – the better you will understand how and where you “fit”; that is, the role in which you can best use your strengths. Be clear that your “fit” is not just what you do. It is also who you are – the values you hold, the dreams you nurture, the kindness and compassion you offer, the energy and enthusiasm you harness.
Service is a given. It’s half the reason we’re here. Just as it’s why Jesus came to earth. Finding our SoulPurpose means learning to be of service to others. It means finding our significance through investing in God’s wider purposes and in the lives of other people.
(We’ve chosen to use the word “service” rather than “ministry”, because unfortunately “ministry” has been hijacked. It has come to reinforce the false idea that sacred and secular are two different parts of our lives. As a result ministry is used to refer only to certain set forms of “religious” service. Diakonia – the Greek word which is translated “ministry” – can just as easily be translated “service”. It refers to any kind of service which is motivated by the love of God. )
It’s encouraging to be where we “fit” most comfortably. But do remember that God often pushes us out beyond our comfort zone. So always be ready to see your “fit” tempered by the call to serve. This may mean that sometimes the need of a situation is so great that you won’t have any choice but to respond, even if it means venturing outside the logical boundaries of your “psychological DNA”.
That’s usually not easy. We always feel at risk when we’re doing things that don’t come naturally to us. But then, often those nervous ventures produce new levels in our growth. Learn to welcome them when you’re sure they’re the right step. But as a general principle, don’t make the mistake of wasting your life in places or tasks that just don’t suit you at all.
We are not one-sided beings. We are complex creatures. As we said above, God made us for far more than just a single task. So you need to establish a balance in your life which enables you to express your SoulPurpose not just through your “job” (whether paid or unpaid, whether at home or in an office or factory) – but also through a mixture of domestic, voluntary and church work, and in ways that include relationships, rest and recreation. In short … every aspect of your life.
Balance is needed to get all those parts into a healthy harmony. This balance will never be easy – but you’ll find in the chapters ahead helpful guidelines for achieving it. And it will never be final, either. It will always need fine-tuning. In fact, at certain definable stages in life it will need to be renegotiated.
Finally we also need to understand that living out our calling was never meant to be a solitary task. For discipleship is not a solitary word. It was designed to be lived out in solidarity with a supportive community.
This is our dream for the church – a group of committed companions who want to see each other equipped and supported as they live out their faith in the world. While in this book we won’t specifically address the issue of how we support one another, it is an assumption that permeates all of the chapters that follow. In fact, we have designed those chapters so that groups of people can read and discuss them together – as it were, fellow pilgrims on the road, helping each other discover their SoulPurpose.
Os Guinness, The Call (Nashville: Word, 1998) page 46.
Now, let’s put all that together. In our SoulPurpose our plans will be connected into God’s plans, so that we are part of his wider purposes. Our role will be mainly dictated by how our strengths fit the needs we identify around us. Comfortable in our fit we will be able to offer genuine service (following the example of Jesus) to the world that God made. Because it is now a fallen world we don’t expect that service to be easy, but we will be helped by consciously keeping in balance all the ingredients that go to make up our lives and work, and by the encouragement and support of our fellow-Christians, the Body of Christ of whom we are a part.
Your own, unique SoulPurpose? A life plan that you can identify, and then use to transform your living? Is that just a fantasy? Is it wild optimism? We don’t think so. We are convinced that it’s within the grasp of every person. It is not elitist – only for those with extraordinary talents and opportunities. Neither is it limited to the few who have the freedom to spend their time doing whatever they want. Most of us do not have that luxury and life is not like that.
That is because God’s intention has always been for our SoulPurpose to centre not on what we do, but rather on how we do it and who we become.
If you yearn for more than you are presently experiencing, you can be sure that this is a sign that you were created for more. The hunger for significance is not a sadistic attempt by our Creator to push us to the brink of despair and frustration.
Rather, it’s a call to destiny – a pointer to a greater measure of purpose and fulfilment.
SoulPurpose can shape your life. Read on if you want to find how!
A personal meditation
If the level of meaning and significance in life was a scale of 1-10, with Warren Schmidt being 1 (almost no sense of significance) and Esther and Winston Churchill 10 (an extraordinary sense of significance), where would you place yourself? Why?
What are some of the hopes and dreams you have for your life?
Who were some of your early role models and heroes? What was it about them that caused you to admire and try to emulate them?
Do you regard yourself as a person with a destiny? In what ways?
What specific hopes do you have that reading this book will help you discover more of your SoulPurpose?
We listed five important components to growing a sense of SoulPurpose. Rate yourself from 1 to 5 on each of these areas (1 = seriously struggling; 5 = doing really well).
Encouragement (both receiving and giving)
Which of these components do you most need to learn and grow in?
3. For each of us our SoulPurpose is worked out through five overlapping spheres of involvement – the marketplace, community, church, family-and-friendships, and leisure. (See the diagram below.) The time and energy each of these spheres demand of us, will vary greatly from person to person – and from season to season. Some of us invest most of our effort in the marketplace: in the worlds of business, law, education and industry. Others are able to give a majority of their energy and time in the family, in the community, or in the church.
The boundaries between these spheres of involvement are not very distinct. They blend and overlap. Many of us are involved in all five of them – but to varying degrees. Discovering the right balance (or mix) is something that will differ from one person to another, and likely change throughout our lives.
Step 1: Using the diagram below, create segments in the circle proportional to the amount of time and energy you give to each sphere of involvement. For example, if you operate a retailing business, the marketplace segment on your diagram will probably take up more than half of the circle. If you are employed in a shop it may take up a quarter or third of your circle.
Step 2: List all the activities you’re involved in on a regular basis, grouping them in the appropriate segment.
Questions to reflect on:
Which spheres of involvement dominate your time and energy?
Are you able to see ways in which these activities and relationships are connected to what God is doing? Do you see these tasks as having significance and value?
Look again at where most of your energy and time is spent; has this always been in the spheres that currently dominate? Are you content with how your energy is being spent?
Feedback from friends; personal reflections in a small group
Different exercises, activities and questions will suit different groups. Throughout this book use those that are appropriate to your group.
Share the results of the Self-Discovery exercises with the members of your group.
How much is the Christian journey an individual responsibility, and how much should a group (a church, a family, your group?) be responsible for the well-being of its members?
In what ways do you feel supported and encouraged by others in your journey to discovering your SoulPurpose?
What forms of encouragement could this group of yours offer its members?