Don’t Look In, Look Up

 “I have to figure out my purpose!”

I listened as a young woman shared her anxiety about missing her calling in life. She was in college and wanted to live for God but felt stuck in the waiting room until she discovered what God had made her to do. How could she start living for God when she wasn’t sure of the path He had for her?

Have you ever felt this way? She was verbalizing the modern understanding of purpose:a purposeful life is found when we discover the unique set of tasks that we were made for and then do them.Though this sentiment may sound lovely, it’s not biblical. It’s a worldly understanding of purpose that is often clothed in Christian language, but it’s not something taught in the Bible.

Endless Self-Discovery

The problem with this definition of purpose is that it sends us looking inward. To discover our purpose we take personality tests and coaching courses, asking ourselves questions like What am I good at? What makes me happy? What am I uniquely wired to do? To the average person, meaning comes from within. It is something to be discovered within yourself. This is what much of today’s literature on the topic of purpose is about: helping you discover the purpose within. 

So we ask questions that begin and end with us: What is my calling? How do I know what a calling is? What are my unique gifts and talents? What if I don’t seem to have any? If mine look like everyone else’s, does that mean I don’t have a unique gift? What are my dreams? What if my dreams change every other day? How do I know which dreams are God-given and which ones are self-centered?

We take personality tests and spiritual gift tests, hire coaches, and take courses in an effort to figure out our purpose in life. This seems promising because we’re all desperate to live meaningful lives. But it’s actually incredibly burdensome and confusing.

Take me, for example. What are my unique gifts and talents? I love to problem solve, and I am good at it. It’s why I loved algebra. Is this my purpose? I also love to teach. Maybe that’s my purpose? What about my organizational and administrative skills? I often tell my husband that I would be an excellent administrative assistant. I could kill that job! Maybe this is my purpose?

But what about my dreams? I dream of owning a house down the street from our own that we could offer to those who need a place to stay. Is this a dream God gave me that I should pursue? Or there’s my dream of learning Spanish to be able to minister to those who speak Spanish in my community. Is that a God given dream? I have always wanted a big family with lots of kids. Is this the dream to pursue? And what if my dreams conflict with one another? Which one is most important?

Wait, there’s more. What about my calling? Is my calling to be an author? I have surely had some unique opportunities to write that have been orchestrated by God. And it fits perfectly with my love of teaching and my problem-solving skills. Does that mean this is my calling? What about Bible teaching? Maybe I need to stop writing so much and start teaching more in my local church and around the country. . . . 

The problem with locating meaning within ourselves is that we are given the impossible and endless task of searching ourselves, our lives, our histories, and our opportunities to discover that one thing that will forever give us meaning and purpose and joy and fulfillment. Like playing the slot machines, we are held captive by the allure of the jackpot of a purpose-filled life but constantly disappointed as each pull of the lever doesn’t quite do it.

Don’t Look In, Look Up

There’s a deep-seated fear under all this searching: What if we die without realizing our life’s true purpose? What if we miss it because we’re too busy surviving a life full of suffering or a life full of children and aging parents? What if we waste our lives? It’s a scary proposition, of course, because we were made for meaningful lives. But meaning doesn’t come from within, and our purpose isn’t something we need to figure out. If we want a life of transcendent meaning and purpose, we don’t need to look inward, we need to look upward. To discover why we exist we must look to the One who created us. And when we look to our Creator, we see that we weren’t made to do something great but to know Someone great.

Colossians says it this way: “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him”(1:16 esv, emphasis added). First Corinthians says, “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist”(8:6 esv, emphasis added). Finally, Isaiah says, “Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. . . . The people whom I formed for myself” (43:7, 21 esv, emphasis added). 

Our purpose isn’t something buried inside of us that we have to discover. And that’s wonderful news! We don’t have to go searching anymore. We can rest knowing that our purpose was settled in the moment of our creation (Gen. 1:26–27). Our purpose is far greater than some set of tasks before us; we were made to know, enjoy, and reflect the most significant, unique, astounding Person in existence—the triune God!

As I told that young college student in my life, you’re not called to something unique, you’re called to Christ. Your purpose is, in fact, the same as everyone else’s. Our purpose is a Person. We were made for Him, and we each find our meaning and significance in the same way—not by looking in but by looking up at the One we were made for. 

Hear more from Kelly on why chasing your dreams will never be enough, in this interview from a recent episode of the Grounded videocast. And don’t forget to tune in to Grounded every Monday at 9 a.m. (EDT). 

About the Author

Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham teaches the Bible at her home church where she co-leads a Women’s Teaching Program, training women to accurately handle the word of truth. She is the author of Friendish: Reclaiming Real Friendship in a Culture of Confusion and … read more …

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