I was originally put off by using the word “glory.” I’ve come to believe that only God has glory, I do not. As I read further though, I found that Barkalow wasn’t using the term to emphasis that, yes, God has made us for a purpose in his plan, but to show us that God’s creation is wonderful. The way God created us is the glory he has given us. We glorify him when we recognize and use it.
The writing isn’t all that compelling. I would often put the book down for a day or two. There is a lot of repetition, especially of Barklow’s own story. It was worth making my way to the end, though. The final chapter pulls it altogether for the reader. I’m glad I made it to the end.
David C. Cook; New edition (October 1, 2010)
***Special thanks to Audra Jennings, Senior Media Specialist, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***
The Weightiness of Your Life
Calling is the most comprehensive reorientation and the most profound motivation in human experience.
The truth is, I was jealous.
I was watching a nature show about lions in Africa. It was an amazing production following a lion’s life from birth through adulthood. I watched the lion as a cub rolling in the grass, wrestling with his siblings, pouncing on his father, being groomed by his mother. As the cub got older, I watched him on his initial hunts—finding some success but mostly failure. In later life, he found a mate and had his own cubs. His days consisted of guiltlessly resting in the shade in the heat of the day, confidently hunting for food, and valiantly defending his family from predators. Something about the simple clarity of his life and his sense of “being”—untouched by the nagging questions of “who am I?” and “what should I be doing with my life?”—stirred something along the lines of jealousy in me. It wasn’t necessarily a simple life I wanted, but rather his simple clarity. He was just being what he was … a lion.
Can you relate to my jealousy? You know you’re created to be something, to do something, to contribute something, but it’s so hard to figure out what that something is.
In C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia we read of a great prince imprisoned by a witch’s sorcery. Under her spell, Prince Rilian would lose all recollection of who he was and where he came from—“While I was enchanted I could not remember my true self.”1 During his brief moments of clarity (though the witch told him that those moments were actually times of insanity), the prince would be involuntarily bound to a chair until he would come back into his “right mind,” which he later described as a “heavy, tangled, cold, clammy web of evil magic.”2
I believe this is how life feels for most of us; we’re lost in a fog of confusion and dullness with only brief moments of clarity and desire that seem so hard to hold on to. And when we are able to capture those moments that have a ring of authenticity about them, we quickly start to doubt their legitimacy. Could we be under some web of evil magic? Some spell?
We live in a time that is brutal on a person’s search for purpose or place in the world. The world of science tells us (with a voice of reason and certainty) that, whatever we feel—be it pleasure, despair, anger, lightness, heaviness, or even a sense of meaning—these emotions are just a series of chemical reactions in our brain to some outside stimuli. Beauty, purpose, meaning, romance, pleasure, and even God are nothing more than by-products of chemical reactions. Science tells us there is no meaning or transcendent purpose in life, only the random reaction of one thing to another. As philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Henri Bergson believed,
Since the Renaissance, modern science has gradually extended its causal explanations to one phenomenon after another, psychological and biological as well as the purely physical, accounting even for life and consciousness in purely physical or chemical terms. Creative novelty, human purpose, and
freedom have often been disregarded.3
Then we have society, largely encountered through laws and media, which tells us that any sense of purpose or meaning outside the realm of economic or scientific advancement is unhelpful and dangerous. Laws portray society’s desire to separate faith from any type of cultural influence. And most movies, TV shows, and news reports show religious conviction as ignorant and the source of hatred, suffering, and war—or, at best, ineffective for positively changing the world.
And what about the church? In the past, the church held an elitist view of people and their callings, where only a few were chosen to do something sacred. These select few could be easily recognized by their religious title, position, or clothing. If you did not have the desire or opportunity to do something within the church, your life’s work was not of eternal consequence. Your expected position in life was simply to subject yourself to the church’s teaching and direction, with your highest goal being to live a moral life and to support the church’s vision and institutions. But I want to state clearly: There is no “elite” group in the body of Christ.
More recently the church has adopted a utilitarian view of man, focusing on usefulness. There is much to be done for the kingdom of God, so we need to be a servant, to be dutiful, to do whatever needs to be done. And thus the commonly heard expression: “I just want to be used by God.” When you attach this phrase to another relationship such as a friend or pastor, or a situation such as a work environment or marriage, something surfaces in our hearts revealing how unhealthy or undignified this way of thinking really is. This life on earth and your relationship to God are about so much more than your usefulness.
And lately the church has added on a stewardship view of life, the thought being that God has given us something to contribute to His kingdom work, something by which we will be scrutinized and judged. The unstated goal here is not to get in trouble on our job evaluation. I believe God has instead given us something glorious to bring to this world that has to do with joy and intimacy with Him, not a forthcoming job evaluation.
Several years ago I ran across an article in USA Today in which adults were surveyed as to what they “would ask a god or supreme being if they could get a direct and immediate answer.” The largest percentage (34 percent) of adults said they would ask, “What is my purpose in life?” Second (19 percent) and third (16 percent) to that question were, “Will I have life after death?” and “Why do bad things happen?”4
That most commonly asked question is very telling. It demonstrates that we were created for a specific purpose. As C. S. Lewis said, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe, and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know that it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”5 So the question we are all asking—“Is there a specific purpose or calling for my life?”—is self-answering: YES!
The Barna Research Group concluded a nationwide survey with these words: “One of the most stunning outcomes was that born again Christians and non-Christians were equally likely to be seeking meaning and purpose in life.”6 Barna was also amazed that so many born-again Christians were puzzled as to their purpose in life: “One of the primary values of the Christian faith is to settle the issue of meaning and purpose in life. The Bible endorses people’s individual uniqueness but also provides a clear understanding of the meaning of life—that being to know, love and serve God with all of your heart, mind and strength.”7
The question of purpose, meaning, and place is universal to every human heart. The answer that your life does have purpose or meaning is not enough. Instead the answer begs another question, “What specific, irreplaceable purpose does my life play?” Coming to faith does not settle the issue of meaning and purpose in life. As Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker said,
There is a hunger in us…for assurance that our lives have not been merely successful, but valuable—that
we have accomplished something grander than just another well-heeled [well-off], loudly publicized
journey from the diaper to the shroud. In short, that our lives have been consequential.8
The truth is that we are here to do something, a contribution that only each one of us can make. There is an outcome that hinges on us and therefore a fear that we might miss it—our moment, our part, our potential, our purpose, and our life. This is not some peculiar fear experienced only by a certain generation or culture or religion. I believe it is a fear born out of a desire written on every human heart, a desire for meaning, to know that my existence matters to someone and something. In short, that I’m good for something.
The hunger or desire to find and live the life that we have been given, to live a life that is consequential, is good and noble. Scripture says, “[God] will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness” (Rom. 2:7–8 NLT). There is a life of glory, honor, and immortality that God offers and that we are meant to seek. But it will take God’s help for us to find and live the life we were created to live.
Now with God’s help I shall become myself.
Too Easy, Too Hard
We have been raised in the modern scientific era, where our culture has tried to reduce life down to its essence, to a fundamental formula to explain and replicate everything. This is as true for calling as it is for health, finances, relationships, and parenting. As a result, most of us settle for describing our personality or “strengths” in terms of letters like “High D” or “ISTJ” or as an animal like “Golden Retriever.”
As is often the case, this has spilled over into the church. We can now state our spiritual gift(s) because we’ve used an assessment tool or been given a prophetic word by someone “in the know.” It all seems so authoritative and affirming. But as many of us have discovered our “passions,” we’ve realized an absence of joy. We experience a sense of guilt for feeling so little about the list of what the “truly spiritual” should care most deeply about. It all just feels so foggy. If it’s really so easy to find our calling or purpose, why does it feel so hard? Why don’t these methods work, really work?
The Myth of Understanding
Unfortunately, we have equated understanding with attainment. In the academic world, you learn the required material and attain your degree. But life is not always academic; it’s often much deeper. Understanding the components of a good marriage does not make one. Understanding the principles of money management does not keep you out of debt. Understanding the techniques of a good golf swing does not get you closer to the green. Understanding the practices of healthy living does not keep you healthy. In the same way, understanding your complexities or propensities will not necessarily usher you into a meaningful, purposeful life.
There is a depth—what I call a weightiness—to your life that cannot be released or entered into by way of testing, analysis, goal setting, or determination. Understanding alone, or as the primary approach, cannot do the job. Have you found this to be true? Have you tried some of the tests, indicators, surveys, formulas, and processes that have been offered in the last several decades, but here you are, reading yet another book, hoping for some meaningful clarity and purposeful movement toward your calling in life?
Most of the various twentysomethings I have met with over the years have been disheartened, if not immobilized, by the expectation that after graduation they should know exactly who they are and what place they have in this world. Some have been assaulted with Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Fearfully, shamefully not knowing who they are or what is being required of them, these beautiful young people take on the life scripts that others have handed them, defining what they should do and how they should live their lives. A friend moved to Washington DC to take a public policy job on the recommendation of an older man because the man spoke with a confidence and excitement about what my friend could accomplish for the kingdom of God. The job and the environment literally almost took my friend’s life—emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.
Or, like a hiker lost in the wilderness with a GPS unit, there are those of us a little older who’ve attempted to find our place in life using the coordinates of salary, position, and advancement. After several years in the military in a rather prestigious job, Ted felt that something needed to change vocationally. Having retired, he then felt pressure to quickly find the “right place” for the next season of his life. However, having little knowledge of who he truly was, even though he had been given a great deal of personal assessment (outplacement) data, he had no idea in what direction he should go. Ted accepted a position with a large international company that offered him a fast-track program to a top position with a high salary. After years of relocating from one city to another, doing work he did not enjoy or value, Ted resigned and once again sought to find the “right place” that would lead to the fulfillment of his calling in life. He realized that he was searching for guidance using the wrong coordinates.
When Jesus referred to something being “given” (Luke 12:48) to us, was He referring simply to assets? Assets like education, training, money, possessions, skills, and influence—things that for the most part can be acquired? Or could He have been referring to something much deeper, something more weighty, that God offers us?
Years ago I took my kids out camping in a part of the Colorado wilderness. One morning we set out to reach a high point that we could see from our campsite. After an hour or so of hiking and climbing we reached the summit and took in the spectacular vistas. Then, before starting back, we visually located our campsite and identified several landmarks to guide us back on our descent. What I did not realize at the time was that the rock outcroppings I was using as markers were inadequate for guiding us to our destination. Though they were part of the landscape, they were not specific enough to our campsite. Walking toward these markers actually distanced us from our destination.
In the same way, there have been two misleading ideas by which people have tried to navigate, ideas that have taken them off course in the pursuit of their calling. The first is that your calling or purpose is to find the right job (paid) or position (unpaid). This idea is treacherous for a couple of reasons. For one, this puts your calling in the hands of another (i.e., some level of corporate, church, or nonprofit leadership). Over my years of working in the nonprofit ministry realm, I have had many individuals tell me they were called to a position in my area. In other words, I was the gatekeeper to the fulfillment of their purpose in life. Now if I had the power to give them their calling by offering them a job, then it was just as true that I had the power to take it away. How can something be required or asked of you that you do not have influence over? Your calling or purpose is not determined by the mood or opinions of those in authority, or by the job market, or by the current economic situation. I have heard too many people use these circumstances as excuses for living small, unfulfilled lives.
Your calling cannot be fully contained and fulfilled by a job or position. How could the weight of your life be defined by a list of functions or tasks? In almost all jobs, after a while you kind of “get the job down” to the point that you can do it without thinking, most often halfheartedly. The purpose or calling of your life will require all of you—a wholeheartedness.
While I was managing a gymnastic center in Southern California, I had a locksmith come in to fix one of the doors. Halfway through his repair work I asked him if he enjoyed his work. He said, “No, I could train a monkey to do what I do.” He hated the fact that his job really didn’t require much of him, at least not anymore. It wasn’t lost on me that a locksmith, someone usually with “the keys,” had come to a place of complaining, discontentment, a loss of creativity, and distraction (always looking elsewhere). He was locked out of the life he wanted to live—which is where many of us end up living.
Second, if finding your calling is tied to finding the right job or position, your calling would be limited to the extent of that work. In a typical job, your life’s purpose would be limited to forty hours a week.
Or if you believed your calling was to a position such as a Sunday school teacher, your calling would be limited to perhaps one hour a week. What do you do then with your life’s purpose the remaining hours of the week? Does your life not count during those “off” hours? Is your life split somewhere between the mundane and the sacred?
While some have been misdirected by the idea that finding their calling is finding the right job, others have been sidelined by the belief that their calling is to be like Jesus. After all, the Bible says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Just what exactly does it mean to be like Jesus? For many people, being like Jesus is simply being moral. Is that all Jesus was—moral? Was that the purpose of His life on earth? There was far more to Jesus’ life than being sinless. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Jesus came with a mission, a purpose—to bring life to others. In His first public statement about the mission of His life, He read from Isaiah 61: “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for
the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.… [And they will become] oaks of righteousness … for the display of his splendor” (vv. 1, 3). Jesus’ life, as well as yours, is not about the absence of something (sin), but rather the presence of something (a splendor or weightiness).
So are we to be like Jesus? Absolutely! But His morality is not to be our goal. As the apostle Paul said, “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Phil. 3:12 NLT). Jesus was a man of purpose and passion, and we are to be transformed into His image: “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored” (Rom 8:29 MSG). Your calling is much more than moral behavior.
Counselor and author Richard Leider asked senior citizens over a twenty-five-year span how they would live their lives differently. Across the board, the older adults say the same things:
First, they say that if they could live their lives over again, they would be more reflective. They got so caught up in the doing … that they lost sight of the meaning.… Second, they would take more risks.… Almost all of them said that they felt most alive when they took risks.… Third … they would understand what really gave them fulfillment … doing something that contributes to life, adding value to life beyond yourself.9
These responses remind me of Moses’ prayer: “Teach us how short our lives really are so that we may be wise” (Ps. 90:12 NCV).
There is a direction, theme, purpose, and orchestration to our lives that we must recognize and understand if we are to discern the lives we were created to live. It is important that we periodically disengage from our daily busyness and examine our lives. If we are to truly “see” and “hear” our lives, we must get away from all the ambient light and noise, as we would if we were seriously studying the stars.
Oswald Chambers wrote, “Looking back we see the presence of an amazing design, which, if we are born of God, we will credit to God. We can all see God in exceptional things, but it requires the culture of spiritual discipline to see God in every detail. Never allow that the haphazard is anything less than God’s appointed order, and be ready to discover the Divine designs anywhere.”10
We must cultivate the spiritual discipline of reflection, seeing God’s choreography in our lives.
We all desire a life that requires something from us, not just our “showing up.” It’s exhilarating to attempt something that is risky, uncertain, and important. I have heard it said that the most spectacular
vistas require traveling the roughest, most dangerous trails. And so it is with our lives—to reach the most beautiful, authentic, fulfilling places in life will require some risk. A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.
Theodore Roosevelt said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive
to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.11
All of us instinctually want to know that there is meaning to our lives and that we add meaning for those around us—that we are living a life of consequence and transcendence. Elton Trueblood wrote, “A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.” We want to live for something more than ourselves. Meaning and fulfillment are only experienced as our lives, in some way, touch another person. Those who live solely for themselves—their needs, their happiness, their comfort and protection—will suffer a claustrophobia of the heart, the acute discomfort of living in a story far too small. A person’s heart is as large as the things he loves.
So, possessing a calling (a weighty purpose in life) is not just for a few—the “elite.” It is the design and destiny of every person. If there was not great meaning to our lives, we would not be asking questions
about our calling. A life of calling is by no means limited to the categories that we have been given: church, missionary, public office, the “professions.” Nor could our calling be fully contained, utilized,
or fulfilled in a job or position. The calling on our lives is as broad, as large, as grand as the story we are living in. The creative scope of our calling is, as Dallas Willard put it, to live as a “co-worker with God in the creative enterprise of life on earth.” Our calling is about something deeper, something more profound and pervasive than any assessment, test, or indicator could ever fully touch or grasp.
I believe most of you reading this are with me so far. But here is where the questions arise: How do I navigate these unfriendly, confusing waters of calling and purpose? What coordinates should I use? How do I become my true self? How do I find my passion and purpose? I want to invite you to come along with me as we walk forward with the intent to live out the answer to the question we’re all asking—what am I doing here?
©2010 Cook Communications Ministries. It’s Your Call by Gary Barkalow. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.