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Os Guinness has penned a classic reflective work on life's purpose. Far bigger than our jobs and accomplishments and higher than our wildest ideas of self-fulfillment, our calling does more than give purpose and meaning to our lives-it completes God's plan for us.
As you know, I have been very fortunate in my career and I've made a lot of money-far more than I ever dreamed of, far more than I could ever spend, far more than my family needs." The speaker was a prominent businessman at a conference near Oxford University. The strength of his determination and character showed in his face, but a moment's hesitation betrayed deeper emotions hidden behind the outward intensity. A single tear rolled slowly down his well-tanned cheek.
"To be honest, one of my motives for making so much money was simple-to have the money to hire people to do what I don't like doing. But there's one thing I've never been able to hire anyone to do for me: find my own sense of purpose and fulfillment. I'd give anything to discover that."
In more than thirty years of public speaking and in countless conversations around the world, I have heard that issue come up more than any other. At some point every one of us confronts the question: How do I find and fulfill the central purpose of my life? Other questions may be logically prior to and lie even deeper than this one-for example, Who am I? What is the meaning of life itself? But few questions are raised moreloudly and more insistently today than the first. As modern people we are all on a search for significance. We desire to make a difference. We long to leave a legacy. We yearn, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "to leave the world a bit better." Our passion is to know that we are fulfilling the purpose for which we are here on earth.
All other standards of success-wealth, power, position, knowledge, friendships-grow tinny and hollow if we do not satisfy this deeper longing. For some people the hollowness leads to what Henry Thoreau described "as lives of quiet desperation"; for others the emptiness and aimlessness deepen into a stronger despair. In an early draft of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the Inquisitor gives a terrifying account of what happens to the human soul when it doubts its purpose: "For the secret of man's being is not only to live ... but to live for something definite. Without a firm notion of what he is living for, man will not accept life and will rather destroy himself than remain on earth...."
Call it the greatest good (summum bonum), the ultimate end, the meaning of life, or whatever you choose. But finding and fulfilling the purpose of our lives comes up in myriad ways and in all the seasons of our lives:
Teenagers feel it as the world of freedom beyond home and secondary school beckons with a dizzying range of choices.
Graduate students confront it when the excitement of "the world is my oyster" is chilled by the thought that opening up one choice means closing down others.
Those in their early thirties know it when their daily work assumes its own brute reality beyond their earlier considerations of the wishes of their parents, the fashions of their peers, and the allure of salary and career prospects.
People in midlife face it when a mismatch between their gifts and their work reminds them daily that they are square pegs in round holes. Can they see themselves "doing that for the rest of their lives"?
Mothers feel it when their children grow up, and they wonder which high purpose will fill the void in the next stage of their lives.
People in their forties and fifties with enormous success suddenly come up against it when their accomplishments raise questions concerning the social responsibility of their success and, deeper still, the purpose of their lives.
People confront it in all the varying transitions of life-from moving homes to switching jobs to breakdowns in marriage to crises of health. Negotiating the changes feels longer and worse than the changes themselves because transition challenges our sense of personal meaning.
Those in their later years often face it again. What does life add up to? Were their successes real, and were they worth the trade-offs? Having gained a whole world, however huge or tiny, have we sold our souls cheaply and missed the point of it all? As Walker Percy wrote, "You can get all A's and still flunk life."
This issue, the question of his own life-purpose, is what drove the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century. As he realized well, personal purpose is not a matter of philosophy or theory. It is not purely objective, and it is not inherited like a legacy. Many a scientist has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world, many a philosopher can survey vast systems of thought, many a theologian can unpack the profundities of religion, and many a journalist can seemingly speak on any topic raised. But all that is theory and, without a sense of personal purpose, vanity.
Deep in our hearts, we all want to find and fulfill a purpose bigger than ourselves. Only such a larger purpose can inspire us to heights we know we could never reach on our own. For each of us the real purpose is personal and passionate: to know what we are here to do, and why. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal: "The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die."
In our own day this question is urgent in the highly modern parts of the world, and there is a simple reason why. Three factors have converged to fuel a search for significance without precedent in human history. First, the search for the purpose of life is one of the deepest issues of our experiences as human beings. Second, the expectation that we can all live purposeful lives has been given a gigantic boost by modern society's offer of the maximum opportunity for choice and change in all we do. Third, fulfillment of the search for purpose is thwarted by a stunning fact: Out of more than a score of great civilizations in human history, modern Western civilization is the very first to have no agreed-on answer to the question of the purpose of life. Thus more ignorance, confusion-and longing-surround this topic now than at almost any time in history. The trouble is that, as modern people, we have too much to live with and too little to live for. Some feel they have time but not enough money; others feel they have money but not enough time. But for most of us, in the midst of material plenty, we have spiritual poverty.
This book is for all who long to find and fulfill the purpose of their lives. It argues that this purpose can be found only when we discover the specific purpose for which we were created and to which we are called. Answering the call of our Creator is "the ultimate why" for living, the highest source of purpose in human existence. Apart from such a calling, all hope of discovering purpose (as in the current talk of shifting "from success to significance") will end in disappointment. To be sure, calling is not what it is commonly thought to be. It has to be dug out from under the rubble of ignorance and confusion. And, uncomfortably, it often flies directly in the face of our human inclinations. But nothing short of God's call can ground and fulfill the truest human desire for purpose.
The inadequacy of other answers is growing clearer by the day. Capitalism, for all its creativity and fruitfulness, falls short when challenged to answer the question "Why?" By itself it is literally meaning-less, in that it is only a mechanism, not a source of meaning. So too are politics, science, psychology, management, self-help techniques, and a host of other modern theories. What Tolstoy wrote of science applies to all of them: "Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important to us, 'what shall we do and how shall we live?'" There is no answer outside a quest for purpose and no answer to the quest is deeper and more satisfying than answering the call.
What do I mean by "calling"? For the moment let me say simply that calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.
This truth-calling-has been a driving force in many of the greatest "leaps forward" in world history-the constitution of the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, the birth of the Christian movement in Galilee, and the sixteenth-century Reformation and its incalculable impetus to the rise of the modern world, to name a few. Little wonder that the rediscovery of calling should be critical today, not least in satisfying the passion for purpose of millions of questing modern people.
For whom is this book written? For all who seek such purpose. For all, whether believers or seekers, who are open to the call of the most influential person in history-Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, this book is written for those who know that their source of purpose must rise above the highest of self-help humanist hopes and who long for their faith to have integrity and effectiveness in the face of all the challenges of the modern world.
Let me speak personally. I've written several books during the last twenty-five years, but no book has burned within me longer or more fiercely than this one. The truth of calling has been as important to me in my journey of faith as any truth of the gospel of Jesus. In my early days of following Jesus, I was nearly swayed by others to head toward spheres of work they believed were worthier for everyone and right for me. If I was truly dedicated, they said, I should train to be a minister or a missionary. (We will examine this fallacy of "full-time religious service" in chapter 4.) Coming to understand calling liberated me from their well-meaning but false teaching and set my feet on the path that has been God's way for me.
I did not know it then, but the start of my search (and the genesis of this book) lay in a chance conversation in the 1960s, in the days before self-service gas stations. I had just had my car filled up with gas and enjoyed a marvelously rich conversation with the pump attendant. As I turned the key and the engine of the forty-year-old Austin Seven roared to life, a thought suddenly hit me with the force of an avalanche: This man was the first person I had spoken to in a week who was not a church member. I was in danger of being drawn into a religious ghetto.
Urged on all sides to see that, because I had come to faith, my future must lie in the ministry, I had volunteered to work in a well-known church for nine months-and was miserable. To be fair, I admired the pastor and the people and enjoyed much of the work. But it just wasn't me. My passion was to relate my faith to the exciting and exploding secular world of early 1960s Europe, but there was little or no scope for that in the ministry. Ten minutes of conversation with a friendly gas pump attendant on a beautiful spring evening in Southampton, England, and I knew once and for all that I was not cut out to be a minister.
Needless to say, recognizing who we aren't is only the first step toward knowing who we are. Escape from a false sense of life-purpose is only liberating if it leads to a true one. Journalist Ambrose Bierce reached only halfway. "When I was in my twenties," he wrote, "I concluded one day that I was not a poet. It was the bitterest moment of my life."
Looking back on the years since my conversation at the gas station, I can see that calling was positive for me, not negative. Released from what was "not me," my discovery of my calling enabled me to find what I was. Having wrestled with the stirring saga of calling in history and having taken up the challenge of God's individual call to me, I have been mastered by this truth. God's call has become a sure beacon ahead of me and a blazing fire within me as I have tried to figure out my way and negotiate the challenges of the extraordinary times in which we live. The chapters that follow are not academic or theoretical; they have been hammered out on the anvil of my own experience.
Do you long to discover your own sense of purpose and fulfillment? Let me be plain. You will not find here a "one-page executive summary," a "how-to manual," a "twelve-step program," or a readymade "game plan" for figuring out the rest of your life. What you will find may point you toward one of the most powerful and truly awesome truths that has ever arrested the human heart.
"In Ages of Faith," Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "the final aim of life is placed beyond life." That is what calling does. "Follow me," Jesus said two thousand years ago, and he changed the course of history. That is why calling provides the Archimedean point by which faith moves the world. That is why calling is the most comprehensive reorientation and the most profound motivation in human experience-the ultimate Why for living in all history. Calling begins and ends such ages, and lives, of faith by placing the final aim of life beyond the world where it was meant to be. Answering the call is the way to find and fulfill the central purpose of your life.
* * *
Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose in your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself? Do you want to go beyond success to significance? Have you come to realize that self-reliance always falls short and that world-denying solutions provide no answer in the end? Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.
He was only sixty-four years old, but battered by the vagaries of life, he was taken to be in his seventies. Nearing the end of his life far from his sunlit Italy, burdened by the irreparable disintegration of his greatest masterpiece, and brooding on his life's grand failures, he was submerged in melancholy. Almost doodling perhaps, he took a sheet and drew a series of little rectangles. Each one stood for one of his life's great endeavors, the dreams and aspirations that had inspired his adult days as the greatest artist of his generation and probably the most versatile and creative inventor of all time.
First he sketched the little rectangles upright. But then, as if he'd pushed them, he drew them toppling one on top of another like collapsing dominoes. Underneath he wrote, "One pushes down the other. By these little blocks are meant the life and the efforts of men."
Who, knowing his story, could blame Leonardo da Vinci? Strong, handsome, gifted, self-reliant, and ambitious, he had set out in life with extraordinary assurance but refreshing modesty.
Excerpted from THE CALL by Os Guinness Copyright © 1998 by Os Guinness
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted August 16, 2003
This isn't another modern self-help book to 'sort yourself out' and then provide you with 'the answer'. Calling is a process of self-reflection and 'tuning in' to God's plan for you. Os Guinness probes into the various aspects of Calling; providing examples and detailed analysis. It is a great 'reference book' to come back to again and again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.