Which of the 3 layers of calling have you forgotten?

What would you say if someone asked you “so, what is your calling?” It’s a difficult question, I know. Many of us might stumble. But my guess is that whatever you say, your response will only partially answer the question.  Because to understand your calling you need to think about multiple layers.  Here’s a quick guide.

Three very different views about calling

I have three friends (names have been changed) who are serious about living with purpose and yet speak about calling in very different ways.  It’s almost as it they are speaking different languages.

  • Stéphane looks within. He understands his calling in terms of the values he is to live out.  He sees himself called to be loving, to be patient, to be hopeful, to be trustworthy.  It doesn’t really matter what he does – he is more concerned by how he goes about doing it.
  • Sarah is very down-to-earth.  For her, her calling is expressed in the relationships and responsibilities she has acquired: she is called to be a good wife, a good mother, a reliable colleague, a trustworthy friend, and so on.
  • Andy dreams big. He feels called to launch a world-changing movement by training, empowering and releasing individuals in many different countries to work for a specific cause.

These seem to be very different ways of thinking about calling.  I think they are all valid and indeed complementary.

How about we see our purpose as comprising of three layers?  This means that we need to address multiple aspects of who we are in order to get comfortable with our calling.  The layers are also stacked.  That’s to say, if you don’t address the most foundational layers you’ll never truly get closure on the higher layers.

So what are the layers and why do we need to take them all seriously?

Three layers of a rounded calling

#1 ‘Who’: Your person

The most fundamental calling is who are you are called to be.   This layer speaks to your identity (‘who am I?’) and to your character (‘how then do I act?’)

I think people are so often unclear about their purpose in life because they’ve not settled the identity question.  Here’s my tip:  assign concrete labels to yourself.  Some people resist that, thinking labels are restricting and overly simplifying, but they actually bring clarity and allow us to ‘try on’ a label – or multiple labels – and see if they fit.

You see, people who have a vague, wibbly-wobbly idea of who they are end up having a vague, wibbly-wobbly idea of what their true purpose and life work is.

Character comes after identity, because how we behave comes very much out of who we think we are.   Put it this way: we are called to good (morally) before we are called to be great (professionally).  Character precedes competence.  We’ve all see the train-wreck when people of poor character get into positions of influence.

(Whatever your position on matters of faith, you might find this interesting: The Gospels describe Jesus wrestling with his identity – and his resulting character (behaviour) immediately before the start of his ministry. This is the famous ‘temptations’ passage.  You see Jesus clarifying his answer to the key identity question (‘if you are the son of God’?) and defining his character accordingly (‘will you bow down..?’) which enables him to move into his main ministry and mission).

#2 ‘How’: Your priorities

The second layer of calling involves our priorities. It’s how we are called to sustain and steward the resources and relationships we have been given, you might say. It’s the very pragmatic task of managing the conflicting demands of the different responsibilities of our life.

This addresses the question of balance and sustainability.  There is no point feeling called to some act of greatness if in doing so you alienate your family, abdicate your responsibilities and afflict your health.

I’ve already written about my mother who was a great example of making a real difference on the bedrock of a balanced life. Conversely I can think of other wonderful people who achieve great things but at great and needless cost to themselves and those around them.  This doesn’t have to be the typical ‘workaholic not paying enough attention to their family’. For example, Marjorie* is a pillar of our local church and a wonderful, servant-hearted, person.  But she was giving so much that she wasn’t taking the time to rest, recover and be replenished in her own physical, emotional, and spiritual life. Result? Burn-out and ill-health.

#3 ‘What’: Your purpose

The final layer of calling is what we are called to do.  It is our mission, if you like, our life work. This is the most external and visible aspect of our calling, but it has to be built on the foundation of the other layers. We will explore this in more detail in subsequent articles. Indeed, in the next article in the series I will suggest a ‘quick hack’ to get clear about what our mission in life might be.


Your person (identity; character); your priorities (sustaining a balanced life); your purpose (external contribution).  We need all three to fully live with purpose.

Which of these 3 areas of calling are you most clear in your own mind about?  Which are you least clear about?  Please leave a comment below – it will help you get clarity and help others process this too…

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