IT’S THE BIBLE QUESTION OF THE WEEK.
It comes from an old friend of mine, Hondo Ayers, who used to teach a Sunday school class I attended. I know him well enough to call him Michael, which is his real name. Michael, you win a free book for asking the question. Email or message me.
Here’s his question:
How does a Christian determine their unique purpose, compared to “general purpose” for all?
I’m guessing that by “general purpose” Michael is talking about the things we’re all supposed to do: treat our neighbors kindly, take care of the poor, don’t go to a party when our last meal was a bowl of beans – which is another way of saying we should treat our neighbors kindly.
“Unique purpose” sounds like Michael is talking about a “calling.”
Maybe he’s thinking of someone who says they feel “called to the ministry.” And it sounds like he might be thinking we all have a special purpose we should seek out and fulfill.
I’m not a fan of phrasing things that way, though.
For example, when someone tells me they feel “called to the ministry” I translate that in my head. The translation goes something like this: “I think I should be a minister.”
The “called” terminology, it seems to me, comes from Bible times, when God called people to do special jobs: prophets, kings, heroic military leaders like Gideon. But in those “callings” God showed up himself, or sent a messenger, or at least gave the person a vision.
Most people today who say they feel called to do something in particular probably did not have any experience comparable to what those folks in the Bible had.
That’s why I don’t use that phrasing to describe what I do. Interviewers sometimes ask me if I feel called to my writing ministry.
No I don’t.
Not in the way people in Bible times felt called. No angel showed up to tell me I should write books. No human messenger came knocking on my door to say God sent them to tell me I should make my living as a writer.
Here is as close as I got to a calling:
- I knew I enjoyed writing, as early as junior high school
- storytelling runs in my family; my grandpap, a hunter, told great bear stories
- high school teachers told me I should consider writing as a career
- I got a college degree in news journalism, and enjoyed the classes and the work
- Many Christian publications I read back then made me think someone should apologize to a tree; I figured Christian publishers needed my help
- I’ve been making my living as a writer ever since, and I love it.
So for me, the way I found what became my “unique purpose” was to
- consider what kind of work gave me joy, presuming it was God who programmed the joy into me
- listen to the advice of people who objectively evaluated my work (Mom I love you, but I needed to hear it from others, too)
One reason I can’t warm up to the “called” terminology is personal and anecdotal. Nothing scientific about it at all.
It comes from my growing up years. A lady who was my youth leader stood up in church one Sunday during a testimony service and said she was living God’s “second best.” She said what God really wanted her to do was to be a missionary. But she said she chose not to do that, and instead chose to stay at home, have a family, and raise her children. She urged the young people in our church not to make the same mistake she made.
First of all, what kind of message does that send to her children? “Mommy, are we mistakes?”
“No dear. Your daddy was.”
Second of all, what makes her think God would have trusted her out on some mission field? Did Gabriel appear to her and tell her where to go?
Here’s why I have trouble buying into her “I missed God’s best.”
Wherever I go God goes with me.
Why would I call that second best?
And if whatever I do is because I’m trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, why would I not consider that my unique purpose at that given moment?
I think my answer to Michael would be that when we listen to God’s Spirit who lives within us we hear him tell us what we should be doing, when we should be doing it, and for how long.
That’s not how they did it in Old Testament times.
Back then they used sacred lots, a bit like throwing dice. That’s because they believed God controlled the way the lots fell.
I think we would have trouble with that today.
Who would tell God that if he wants us on the mission field, he’s going to have to roll a Hard Six? (In the game of craps, that means you roll a three on a pair of six-sided dice. Not that I’ve played the game. But it is kinda fun typing “craps” in a Bible blog.)
I don’t think we need Old Testament lots anymore.
We have the Spirit. Jesus: “The Holy Spirit will come and help you, because the Father will send the Spirit to take my place,” (John 14:26 NCV).
We have the Bible. Paul: “Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way,” (2 Timothy 3:17, The Message).
And we have family and friends who have the Spirit, the Bible, and opinions—some opinions of which are informed.
I know everyone has gifts, special interests, talents. But I don’t think many people have what we should call a “unique purpose,” of biblical proportion, involving an angel, a vision, or some extraordinary visit from God. But we’ve all got stuff God wants us to do. His Spirit hangs it on our heart like a boulder in a backpack. If we’re sensitive, we feel it hanging there. And we do something about it.
Taking care of that kind of business is a purpose unique enough for me.
The rock I carry might seem small. A tiny purpose, indeed. But when it gets to where it’s going, I might discover it’s part of the Hoover Dam.
Gary Lee Parker
I disagree in part with the comment that God does not still reveal to people today about their call or unique call. Of course, I am only speaking from my personal experience. 1st: In 1974, while driving alone in my 1969 Opel Kadett Ralleye, I sense that God was speaking to me about changing my major to prepare for Pastoral Ministries to reach the counter-cultural or marginalized people. After acceptance of God’s call and a run of some 15 years, while studying at Seminary, I was sitting in my house in meditation and was sensing that God was calling me to begin a plan for the church to begin to fully include people who are disabled and their family members in the full activities of the church whether as lay leaders or clergy leaders. On both counts, I have accepted the calls, but have sensed that the church has misunderstood God’s call upon my life for whatever reasons. This is why I still believe that God is able to speak to people for specific calls to ministry through visions, etc. but too often we are too busy to listen and respond appropriately. God’s grace and mercy with you and your writing that affects people to think more positively towards who God is for our lives today.
Stephen M. Miller
Hey, thanks Gary. I don’t discount the possibility that God still calls people for service in the same way he did in Bible times, with visions, messengers, and such. I just don’t think that sensing God’s call is in the same ballpark. The Holy Spirit might disagree with me; if so, I’d yield. But I don’t see the support from the Bible for the idea that something as subjective as a feeling is quite the same as Gabriel on the doorstep. But, as I said, I could be wrong.