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How Life Purpose Connects with Suffering by Tony Stoltzfus

Sep 7th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Content

It's what's below the surface that counts

Paul, one of my first coaching clients, engaged me to help him discover a sense of purpose in his life. Several months into the relationship, his teenage son was tragically killed in a car accident. That event completely changed Paul’s focus and his sense of what was meaningful in life. Over the next year, we talked about issues like transparency, grieving, how to allow others to support you, who your real friends are, and much more.

When Paul was finally ready to reengage the life purpose question, nothing seemed to really motivate him. We looked at several different business or ministry tracks he could have gone down, but nothing clicked–until he hit on the idea of setting up memorial funds to help young families with the financial burden of adoption. The idea was to help the family that lost a life find new life by investing in another.

He mentioned the idea in passing in one session, so I didn’t think much about it. But two weeks later he had already put together a plan, set up a web site, hired his first staffer, and the thing was well underway. I was amazed at his energy! He had found a genuine passion that re-energized his entrepreneurial side. That passion came not through the fun and fulfilling things of life, but in helping others navigate the kind of devastating loss he had suffered.

Calling through Suffering

Most life coaches look for destiny in the things that energize us and give us joy. That’s a legitimate approach. But what is often overlooked is how many individuals find their sense of call is birthed through suffering. Obviously, this is an important insight for life coaches. For someone like Paul, suffering can lead to a passion that energizes and gives meaning to life. However, it’s a different kind of energy than what comes from feelings of joy and fulfillment, and you have to go down different roads to find it.

Six common calling patterns associated with suffering are:

  1. Confronting injustice you and I now suffer
  2. Preventing you from suffering what I have suffered
  3. Being drawn by compassion to alleviate others’ suffering
  4. Earning a platform through suffering (qualification)
  5. Overcoming difficult circumstances
  6. Adapting to or accepting adversity with grace

Let’s take a quick look at several of them. Martin Luther King Jr. is a good example of the first pattern: fighting a present injustice that you also experience. King channeled his passion for justice through his innate design (gifts of eloquence and leadership) into a Calling-working non-violently for equal rights for African Americans. Individuals with this calling pattern are partners in suffering the injustice they fight; but what makes it into a calling is that they channel the energy of that pain into finding justice for others.

Just to suffer injustice and get mad about it doesn’t mean you have a calling. We are not called to work primarily against injustice, but for justice. Any identity or call grounded in the negative leaves the way of Christ. A person focused on the hope of God’s future becomes more and more like heaven; while the person focused on anger over injustice becomes more and more a child of hell. Those like Martin Luther King who are called to fight injustice are motivated by a vision of God’s ideal future that helps them transcend simply agitating for their own rights, seeing others as enemies or hitting back using force.

A coaching challenge for this kind of calling is to help clients stay focused on what they are called to as they work to end suffering. Samson is a good example of someone who felt called to fight against injustice, but never seemed to figure out what he was for. The result was that his personal life didn’t line up well at all with his message.

The second of these four calling patterns is saving others from what you have suffered in the past. Lance Armstrong’s “Live Strong” campaign (a cancer survivor working against cancer) is a well-known example. This pattern is very common among people who have experienced the worst that life can offer. Those who’ve survived painful divorces may find meaning in life through helping divorcees. Men who have been unfaithful or struggled with pornography end up helping other men escape the same bondages. Children of alcoholism strive to give their own kids the kind of home life they wish they’d had. Past pain translates into present passion to eliminate that suffering for others.

A third pattern is being drawn to the sufferings of others and taking up their cause, even if you personally have not suffered in that way. That’s compassion.

Mother Teresa is a classic example of this pattern. She entered a culture where the poor were at times left to die because that was their karma, and discovered a call to help every dying person pass away with dignity and love. Moses is another example of a leader whose heart was drawn to suffering that he had not personally experienced, and that call led him out of a life of ease to a life of significance.

If you are a life coach, cultivating an awareness of how suffering breeds calling is a crucial skill. If the only place you look for a person’s call is where there is fun and fulfillment, you will often miss connecting with the deepest passions of their lives.

This article was excerpted from the Christian Life Coaching Handbook by Tony Stoltzfus. Tony is a well-known coach and trainer. His resources are available through his life coaching resource center.

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