Purpose has enjoyed a much-deserved resurgence in our time. According to Google, the occurrence of “life purpose” in books has increased 15 times since 1980. Two of the fastest-growing Christian universities in the nation over the last decade feature purpose in their taglines—“Find Your Purpose” (Grand Canyon University) and “Live Your Purpose” (California Baptist University).
Purpose is also found throughout the Bible, from the first chapter (“fill the earth and subdue it” Gen. 1:28, NIV) to the last (“and they will reign” Rev. 22:5). Jesus’ commands to “seek first the kingdom” (Matt. 6:33), “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and “feed my sheep” (John 21:17) are all pregnant with purpose.
Purpose is even good for our health. A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that having a life purpose was a more powerful predictor of longevity than exercising regularly or even the negative effects of drinking or smoking.
However, many of us avoid contemplating our purpose. It’s too lofty, too abstract, too guilt-producing, or too difficult...or we’re simply too distracted. Fortunately for us, about a 35-minute drive from Cal Baptist (or an hour during Southern California traffic) where thousands of young Christian coeds are learning to live their purpose, we can find an educator doing just that...while also teaching the rest of us.
Mary Poplin is an education professor at Claremont Graduate University, and as part of our 2020 Rise Up Summit, I interviewed her and became familiar with her story told in her book Finding Calcutta. A self-described former feminist, multiculturalist, and Marxist, Poplin shares her journey of coming to Christ and spending a sabbatical semester with Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta (now “Kolkata”), India. Through the process of reading her book and getting to know Mary, I took a deep dive into the power of purpose and the obstacles that block us from living it out.
Upon meeting Mother Teresa, Poplin found that this world-famous Christian leader was not necessarily all that interested in reproducing herself. Many times, leaders of ministries, schools, and other institutions are focused on raising up others like them to sustain the organization and its mission. Instead, Mother Teresa’s encouragements were to “fall in love with Jesus,” embrace His life for you (suffering and all), and “find your Calcutta”—meaning, finding the specific ways God has called you to serve.
In her book, Poplin describes “finding her Calcutta” when she realized, through tears, that as an education professor, “the only worldview I was leaving out of my classes was the Christian worldview” (p. 148). She resolved to find ways to include the Christian worldview in her teaching.
Poplin ultimately was not called to the slums of Calcutta, and likely neither are you. God has probably called you to be right where you are—teaching your students, encouraging their parents, serving your colleagues, and being an ambassador for Jesus in the specific ways God has gifted you.
Like Poplin, when we wake up to our unique purpose, we find Spirit-empowered energy, life-giving hope, and divinely opened doors.
However, our enemy is always working to rob us of God’s purpose for us, often in one or more of the following ways:
Sometimes the enemy uses the lie that our purpose must be grand in scope as an obstacle to discourage us from pursuing our purpose. Mother Teresa frequently referred to her work in Calcutta as “just a drop in the ocean.” Poplin writes that she never heard Mother Teresa or one of her co-laborers talk about how to rid the world of poverty, but saw them take great encouragement from “a toddler’s first step, a child’s temperature lowering, or a person eating their first meal in a long time” (p. 95).
With the recent emphasis in our nation on social justice and systemic ills, many educators may be tempted to see their purpose in broad, structural terms. Poplin admits that,
I once encouraged this unrealistic zeal in my students who became teachers. Now I see how easily they became depressed and discouraged. Moreover, the “little things” they actually did in their classrooms—which were big things for individual children—could be overlooked amidst an emphasis on, for example, system-wide school restructuring (p. 92).
Rather, Mother Teresa reminds us to do “small things with great love” (p. 69) and with humility refers to herself as “a pencil in God’s hand” (p. 30).
Even if God promotes some of us to be society-wide reformers or system-level leaders, we will all be well-served by reminding ourselves that to be His ambassadors, a necessary part of our purpose is making a difference in the lives of those He has placed right in front of us. Rather than being discouraged by the limits of our reach, we can draw encouragement and joy from the difference we made in a single heart. And we can do it all over again every day.
A second obstacle that our enemy expertly uses to trip us up is shame. I am convinced that most of us live with a repeating soundtrack in our minds that might sound something like this: I’m not good enough. No one loves, likes, or respects me. I will never conquer my weakness. God must be disappointed in me.
This is nonsense. If you are in Christ, you are adopted into God’s family as a son or daughter, have the Holy Spirit living in you, and are no longer under condemnation because of Jesus’ work on the cross. Nothing can separate you from His love. He is crazy about you and understands your weaknesses. If you believe the lies of the enemy, God simply responds, Let Me make My power perfect in your weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). I will live through you the life you could not live on your own—trust Me (Gal. 2:20).
Shame is often rooted in comparison to others. We compare ourselves to other educators, to Christian leaders, and to family and friends. We think, I’m not as patient or as smart as her, or as talented or as humble as him, and we find ourselves wanting. In response to these types of destructive thoughts, Poplin pointed me to a powerful point made by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. Lewis suggests that there is no use in comparing because when Jesus starts transforming us, He starts with our unique temperament and character. If growing in Christ were a race, while there are some common milestones, we all have unique starting lines (not to mention different routes).
God only made one of you. Stop comparing yourself to others and what God does with them, stop listening to the condemnation of the enemy, and step into your purpose with confidence—not in yourself, but in the God who leads you, empowers you, and works through your weaknesses.
A final obstacle that the enemy uses to keep us from our purpose is our desire for security. We tend to avoid risk and choose safety instead. However, the life of purpose is often not the life of safety and security.
Months prior to her spring sabbatical, Poplin had inquired about whether she could come to work alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta. But, her fall semester was coming to an end, and she had not heard a reply. Finally, after teaching her very last class of the semester, she came home to a tattered, yellowed envelope from Calcutta. Inside, words typed by an old manual typewriter on mismatched white paper announced that she would be welcome. However, time was short.
But God intervened with a series of divine appointments that increased Poplin’s faith. Long-lost friends, acquaintances, and even strangers suddenly stepped up to provide expert help getting a visa, a place to stay in India, and even a roll of leftover Indian currency from a trip years before. Poplin discovered how much she needed that cash when, to her dismay, in both her departing and arriving airports the currency exchanges were either out of Indian currency or closed. If not for the leftover currency her friends had given her, she would not have been able to pay for transportation once in India. She had been well taken care of by her heavenly Father.
I know many have found this to be true. When we take that risk of faith, God has already gone ahead of us, meeting our needs in extraordinary ways. We discover that the most secure place to be is the center of His will.
Upon returning home from Calcutta and realizing her purpose was to include a biblical worldview in her courses at a secular school of education, Poplin took a risk. She knew that Christianity was generally unwelcome in higher education, but she had enough sway to offer a summer course on Christian principles in education. She would just need seven students to enroll.
On the first day of class, she only had six, so she resolved to teach the class for free. But after the lunch break, student number seven walked in and apologized for being late! She has taught that class every summer since, more fully living out her purpose and blessing future educational leaders with a real education—one that includes a biblical worldview.
She found hers. What is your “Calcutta?”
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