1st and 2nd-year college students ask: What program do I major in?
3rd and 4th-year college students ask: What type of job do I pursue?
College alums ask: Am I in the right job? The right career?
For many people the question ultimately becomes: Am I called to do something? What am I called to do?
The answers aren’t clear. And the questions don’t end. They don’t end because many times our jobs, careers, and lives don’t jive with our deepest beliefs and values, or God’s Word. You might say, at an archetypal level, we always feel a bit lost because we were created to work and we can’t find work that completely fulfills us; in short, we are looking for a way back to Eden — where we live in perfection relationship with God, humanity, and creation. The truth is that we won’t find it in this world, but in the next. So our quest in faith continues. It has to. We are wired to seek God’s blessing. It is our journey of faith.
What We Are Called To Do
The Gospel of Matthew calls us to be blessed. What does that mean?
It means to be pure of heart. It boggles the mind to think it is a blessing to be pure of heart. To be pure of heart seems so boring. It doesn’t seem like living that way would be any fun. But that is our good culture perverted by sin making us feel that way, not the Word of the Gospel.
So what does being holistically counter-cultural mean for our daily lives?
Three Levels Of Calling
Gordon Smith also tells us that in addition to being called to believe, we are called to a mission and to immediate responsibilities. In other words, I believe that when we choose to accept God’s Word we choose to strive to be pure of heart. To be pure of heart means we accept an invitation to follow Jesus, seek our purpose in life (vocation), and perform our day-to-day work (occupation), forever trying to integrate our occupation with our vocation, which is the key to spiritual growth and happiness.
So choosing to follow Jesus is a fundamental, critical decision. Following that, a fundamental critical decision is discovering our mission, purpose, vocation.
Vocation vs Occupation
These days, when we hear the word calling, we hear it in the context of our job. Or, it refers only to the ministry. Both interpretations are extreme. Our calling is not our occupation, and it is not narrowly limited to working for a church; our mission is bigger than any job. Our occupation may be only a means to an end; or, it may be more. But more than likely we have a greater purpose, a more holy purpose. Even though we can argue that work is part of God’s good creation (Adam and Eve worked in the Garden before the Fall), our work life, the economy, etc. are also part of the fallen world. Our calling may be more pure, yet never (in this life anyway) practiced with moral perfection and purity of heart.
An analogy may be helpful. In our job, we tend to seek upward mobility. That is the way of the world. But Jesus calls us to downward mobility — to be a servant of all, a Good Samaritan. To get a job and career, we tend to advertise our “resume virtues.” We emphasize what we did according to an economic model. Yet when we die, people remember us for our “eulogy virtues,” for who we were according to a moral model. To put it another way, Adam I is the Adam of occupation. Adam II is the Adam of calling. The culture of occupation tends to be one of scarcity and upward mobility; the culture of vocation tends to be one of abundance and downward mobility.
- “Adam I — the creating, building, and discovering Adam — lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic. It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world….To nurture you Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths.
- Adam II lives by an inverse logic. It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. …In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself….To nurture you Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses” (David Brooks, The Road to Character, p. xii).
Other Myths About Vocation
In addition to equating our job to our occupation, we may have accepted other myths about calling.
- Calling (vocation) is not something we find alone. God blesses us through other people. Calling requires accountability and feedback from our community. This reflects or primary, general calling; Elizabeth Newman writes that our primary calling “is to be a people who live in communion with our triune God” (“Called Through Relationship” in Kruschwitz, Vocation: Christian Reflection).
- Calling (vocation) is not something we choose. What we choose is whether to accept it. Calling starts with listening, listening to what grieves us. To be called requires hearing. For example, “Moses did not invent or determine his vocation, he receives it from God….’Vocation’ differs from ‘career’ in this regard; while ‘career’ (related to a Medieval Latin word for ‘race track’) refers primarily to human effort (as in ‘What do you do for a living?’), vocation points in another direction. The initiative resides not with us, but with the One who calls and invites” (Newman, ibid).
- Calling (vocation) is more than “finding our talents and figuring out what to do with them. Rather and more fully, it is discovering and living out of the infinite and gratuitous abundance of God” (Newman, ibid). Think of Moses: sometimes our calling may not match up with our talents.
- Calling (vocation) is more than meeting market needs in a profitable way; calling pulls us into unprofitable situations. Vocations are revealed through grieving about the market’s shortcomings. Bill Hybels writes that calling begins with experiencing “holy discontent.” What in the world we grieve about is something God places on our heart. For example, does economic injustice make you sad? Does racism? Segregation? Sexism? Poverty? Lack of childcare in your church or community? Lack of care or concern for the elderly? Lack of care and concern for the marginalized? The people in prison? Lack of good educational options? Food deserts? The inability to share information among friends and family? Cancer? Alcoholism? The parts of the world’s brokenness that make you sad are those parts that are worth paying attention to.
Dimensions of Vocation
- God takes the initiative. “[Calling] is not generated from within a person but from the outside, and the outside comprises not merely our parents and our society, but God….All calling is based on the reality of a God who takes initiative, who seeks to include human beings in his grand project of transforming everything” (p. 111).
- We are called to be others-focused. “We are called to a way of life…as other-oriented values and goals as the primary source of motivation. The calling is to life — relationships, civic responsibilities, church membership, family, neighboring and work — not just to work….we are called not only to invent, innovate and accomplish, but to do this in a particular way, the way of faith, hope and love, the way of justice, compassion and self-control” (pp. 111, 112).
- We are called to be purpose-driven. “Calling…directs people to approach a particular life role (e.g. work) in a manner oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purpose or meaningfulness….The English Puritans brilliantly distinguished between the ‘general’ calling, by which people are summoned into a relationship with God to become children of God, and the ‘particular’ calling, by which people are guided into particular occupations, such as magistrate, homemaker, pastor or merchant” (p. 112).
- We are called to a contribute to a Grand Purpose, to be part of the Grand Narrative. “Life and work are not merely for our own advancement, not even simply to provide for our families, but we are caught up in a grand purpose, in the grand story of God’s plan for creation and people. The entire notion of calling is rooted in the meta-narrative of the Christian faith and subsumed by it” (p. 113). Thus, “‘Calling is a transcendent summons, experienced as originating beyond the self, to approach a particular life role (e.g., work) in a manner oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purpose or meaningfulness, and that which holds other-oriented values and goals as primary sources of motivation'” (Philip Wu, as quoted in Entrepreneurial Leadership, pp. 109, 110). The Grand Narrative? Creation, Fall, Redemption.
A Process For Discerning Our Vocation
So if we believe God has given us a purpose for our lives as a way to bless us and call us to purity of heart, how do we discern that purpose? Goosen and Stephens give us some advice in the form of self-reflection questions.
- What are our passions and motivations? What gets us our of bed in the morning? What makes us feel fully alive? “‘We ask to know the will of God without guessing that his will is written into our very beings'” (Elizabeth O’Connor, as quoted in Entrepreneurial Leadership, p. 120). “What do we daydream about? In what kind of activity do we lose all sense of time? When do [we] feel fully alive? What are the things [we] obsess about, wish [we] had more time to put energy into? What needs doing in the world that [we’d] like to put [our] talents to work on? What activities reflect deep and consistent interests? This is from God, built into us by the Creator” (p. 120). For Bill Hybels, this list should also include that part of the broken world that causes of grief. It will likely be something we experience personally. You might say, then, with Henri Nouwen, that we are called to be “Wounded Healers.”
- What are our gifts and talents? What are we naturally good at doing? Where might there be an overlap between our skills and opportunities (to serve others and make a living) and our deepest motivations? “God calls us by equipping us to serve in a specific way” (p. 121). However, “God does not have a wonderful plan for our lives as is often proposed….God has something better than a wonderful plan: a wonderful purpose. A plan is terrifying, especially if we make a mistake in reading the directions. A purpose is evocative. A purpose is like a fast-moving stream that carries us along and allows for some mobility from side to side…” (p. 119).
- What is our unique personality? There are many accessible tools to assess this and coaches to help us interpret the results. I have found Myers-Briggs and free on-line knockoffs (“16 Personalities”) to be helpful. Also, I have found Peter Drucker’s class article “Managing Oneself” to be valuable.
- What values and virtues do we cherish? Values are “cherished ways of behaving.” E.g., living with integrity can be a value, as is living according to a vision and purpose. Virtues are ingrained personality traits, such as faith, hope, and love, that determine how we function. Virtues, in contrast to values, have opposites — vices. Christian virtues include the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23)” (p. 122). [Vices might result from our need to be needed, a need for status and approval, a need to be in control — called “blocks and dysfunctionalities” (p. 123).]
- What providential circumstances have led us to this point? It turns out that where we were born and the family we were born into and the one we created are important, as are the messy things in life we experienced. Henri Nouwen wrote a great book, Wounded Healers, to make the point that Christ was wounded to heal us. We too have experienced wounds which help us understand the circumstances of others. Parker Palmer also speaks best to this point. He says, “Let your life speak.” We don’t make the call. We listen to what God is already doing in our lives. Calling is something we see by looking in the rear-view mirror.
- What is God saying about our purpose? Some people hear from God directly. Most of us don’t. “Some locutions or words come from without; they are corporeal and are heard in the ear even if no one else is able to witness the sound. Some come from the inmost parts of the soul. They are imaginary, though not in the sense of fabricated. They are not heard in the ear but experienced as an impression received by an imaginary faculty. And some locutions are intellectual and spiritual as God imprints a message in the depth of the person’s spirit and understanding” (p. 124).
Where do those questions overlap for you?
Re-framing the Questions
As you can see, the questions are not:
- What program do I major in?
- What type of job do I pursue?
- Am I in the right career?
The question is What am I called to do? Or, better, the question is will I accept God’s calling to believe and then choose serve God and love my neighbor? And then, How? That evolving how can be a guiding policy for your life. Your major, job, and career will then take care of themselves. The tension will then be in trying to integrate the your calling (vocation) and occupation together.
There will be tension between your vocation and occupation. Christians live in two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of humanity. God is forever sovereign but those kingdoms won’t perfectly overlap until Christ returns.
Elizabeth Newman outlines some spiritual practices to facilitate the discovery of our calling (vocation).
- Hospitality: “the practice of welcoming another person — even a stranger — into our lives, trains us to be open to surprise.”
- Meditating on God’s Word: the practice of lectio divina, or “holy reading…enables us to grow in dependence not only on the Bible (and thus the earliest Christians) as a rich resource for forming us, but even more on God.”
- Spiritual Direction: “the practice of meeting with a spiritual friend who listens to our stories and joins us in discerning how God is working in our lives….trains us, like lectio divina, to resist the idea that we must discern our vocation alone. Rightly understood, Christian vocation is about growing in our ability to be vulnerable, about listening to and with others for the guidance of God’s spirit.”
- Fasting and Sabbath-keeping: the practice of sabbath-keeping “trains us to participate in the rhythm of work and rest, as we set aside time to rest in God.”
- Prayer: “the practice of prayer helps us resist the idea, so common in our culture, that waiting is of little use….The rich kind of waiting we practice in prayer trains us to be patient with ourselves, others, and even God” (Newman, ibid).
Patience, prayer, and reflection, so counter-cultural to the culture of occupation, are a critical part of the discerning process.
A Prayer for Discernment
So what do I major in? What type of job do I want? “What am I called to do?”
The answer requires patience. Seeking to hear requires prayer. Goosen and Stevens suggest this prayer by Thomas Merton:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire in all that I am doing. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton, as quoted in Entrepreneurial Leadership, p. 125).
Lord, help us listen and may our major, job/career, life, and calling/purpose significantly and holistically overlap so that we may experience the blessing of purity of heart.
Photo credit: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/251628
This article first appear on LinkedIn.