If I had to guess, I’d say that maybe 20% of people have always had a pretty clear idea of God’s call on their life. These are the people who knew from a young age that God had called them to serve through…say…teaching. As kids, they taught their stuffed animals, forced their siblings to play school, and sent their pets to the principal’s office. They went to college and got their degree in education and then they took a teaching job which they remained in until they retired. They probably still teach Sunday School.
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Just to be clear, I’m talking about calling as in vocational calling. A God-given assignment to a certain type of work to which you are well-suited, whether it be in the world of white-collar work, blue-collar work or the unpaid labor of caregiving and homemaking.
The Mystery of the Call
But what about the rest of us? Why is “finding your calling” such a mysterious, nebulous thing? Unfortunately, that degree you earned may not be instrumental in getting you to where you think you might want to go. In fact, only 27% of college grads in the U.S. end up in a career related to their major. If nothing else, let that statistic reassure you that finding your calling is complicated and your bewilderment keeps you in good company.
Even though there might be 80% of us who fall into that camp lacking clarity, we somehow feel as though we’re in the minority. We sense there is some quality we must be lacking, some deficit in our personality or intelligence, or that we’re just not spiritual enough.
If you grew up in the church, you’ve been told all your life that God has a plan and a purpose for your life. But when the answer you’ve been expecting doesn’t show up it leaves you feeling anxious and adrift.
Finding Your Calling Through Questioning
In reality, of course, most of the time there isn’t and won’t be a definitive answer (burning bushes are the exception, not the rule). Perhaps there isn’t an answer in the normal sense of the word, but I am discovering the call often isn’t the answer, but the question. As Gregg Levoy puts it in,
“You don’t want an answer that you can put in a box and set on a shelf. You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breadth of life, a question that will offer you a lifetime of pondering, that will lead you toward what you need to know for your integrity, draw you to what you need for your journey, and help you understand what it means to burst at the seams.”Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life
In this metaphor, it is the question, not the answer, that is the vehicle that takes you where you need to go.
This isn’t to say, of course, that there isn’t a time and a place for action and decision. Rather, it’s that persisting in wrestling with the deeper questions and being attentive to God’s leading is a more productive approach than 1) disregarding “calling” as an esoteric relic of years-gone-by or 2) clinging to the first safe, socially-acceptable idea you land on.
In a complex, modern world it’s hard (if not impossible) to predict who will be signing your paycheck in twenty years. But we can predict that we will be drawn towards something– like photography, personal finance, tech, or working with victims of abuse. We think to ourselves, is this it?
Embrace the Questions
Remember when you’re torn, conflicted, wavering, and uncertain that it’s often more helpful to shift your mindset from a laser-like focus on getting an answer to the expansiveness of questioning. At the end of the day, finding your calling happens through an ongoing process of questioning and decision-making. Save yourself some angst and surrender to this now.
You know you’ve bumped into a potential calling when you have an experience that makes you “burst at the seams.” Pay attention to the special satisfaction and giddiness that overtakes you in the midst of certain activities.
For example, I burst at the seams when I’m writing, when I’m facilitating groups of people, and when I’m working with someone who has an “aha moment.” For the longest time I brushed these things off, but I have since recognized these pursuits as the calling that they are. Sometimes we’re too close to ourselves to see our own giftings, and perspective is a gift that only comes with time and (you guessed it) a commitment to questioning your own experiences.
Sorry, it’s not all about you
And yet…it’s important to remember that we don’t choose our callings. Just ask Jonah. We are called to something by a Creator God whose methods are usually inscrutable to us.
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.1 Corinthians 13:12
True story: God gave us work in the garden before sin ever entered the picture. So thankfully work wasn’t intended to make us miserable. As believers, we can rejoice in the productive activity of work as part of the God-designed rhythm of life, along with rest, worship, and play.
Of course, there are times in life when you just need a job, so you take what you can get whether you feel called to it or not. There is honor in performing any kind of work to the best of your ability (providing it’s not immoral or illegal) but over the long-term, this is a recipe for everything from restlessness to outright misery. You might not end up in the belly of the whale, but it may feel as though you’re perpetually forced to hold a beachball underwater…easy at first but progressively draining.
The Answer is to Question
Many of us experience calling as the question that will never be fully answered in this lifetime. I like to think the full reveal will happen in heaven, like a satisfying epilogue that ties up the loose ends in a really good book. But that doesn’t mean we are let off the hook. We’re still going to be called to account. How have you stewarded the gifts that God has given you?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?Mary Oliver
Discerning what we think might be our callings, according to Levoy, “requires that we tread a path between two essential questions: “What is right for me? And, “Where am I willing to be lead?”
What is right for me?
This question forces us to reflect on our personalities, gifts, on the areas where we naturally excel, and where our skills are evident and employable. (This is why I use the Myers-Briggs® personality assessment when I coach people. It’s a great jumping-off point from which to begin cultivating self-awareness)
Personal growth and development are a crucial part of discerning whether that nudge you feel towards photography, personal finance or social work is a true call or a passing fancy. If you’re not invested in or engaged in figuring out who you are your best efforts at finding your calling will be about as effective as throwing darts blindfolded.
- What am I naturally good at?
- What do I love?
- Who do I admire?
- What sounds like fun?
- What do I know about my personality?
- Who needs to be served?
- What do others tell me I’m good at?
- What makes me angry?
- When do I “want the ball”?
- What is my proudest accomplishment?
- When and where do I feel compelled to act?
- What did I want to be when I was a kid?
- If I could do anything and not fail what would it be?
- When do I “burst at the seams?”
Where am I willing to be lead?
Frankly, this question is a bit more difficult. This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the question that precedes taking action. Am I willing to go back to school? Invest my savings to start that new business? Take my family to do mission work in another country?
Pretend you’re Jonah for a second. On a scale of Tarshish to Nineveh, where are you? After all, it’s one thing to find your calling and an entirely different matter to follow it. It’s not like Jonah was confused about his purpose. He was certain about his calling, he just didn’t like it. Don’t think for a second that following your calling means your life will be smooth sailing. As with any decision, you must count the cost.
- What sacrifices am I willing to make?
- Where do I see God moving in my life?
- Who else will be impacted by my choices?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- What is the best that could happen?
- Have others confirmed my call?
- What and who am I willing to leave?
- What are my greatest fears?
- Where do I NOT want to end up? (and why?)
- Have I prayed about this?
- Have I asked others to pray about this?
- What am I hiding from?
And let’s be honest. Sometimes what holds us back is our own pride and ego and a fear of failure (or even success). So we engage in all kinds of behaviors to avoid, sabotage, or mitigate our responsibility to our calling. After all, if we haven’t attempted something we haven’t failed at it. As Rachel Hollis asks, “Are you humble enough to suck for as long as it takes to get better?”
Embracing the Discomfort
Most people who have spent their lifetimes studying “calling” will tell you that finding your call is not a one-time event. Rather, it’s something you will come back to again and again. Which, depending on your personality, is either going to be a relief or a burden.
Finding your calling- the good work God has called you to do- (and the business of following it) is a journey of ups and downs. It’s human nature to want to grow and flourish, but I have seen time and time again that we’re actually pretty wimpy when it comes time to do the work. Personal growth is great! (but it also kind of sucks). The lesson here? If you feel uncomfortable that’s probably a good thing.
However, I have a hunch that the 20% who experience certainty from an early age won’t experience the same exhilaration regarding their calling as the 80% will once they begin walking in their purpose. And why would they? When you have to work harder for something it means more.
Certainty is its own reward, but I guarantee there will be times when the confidence and convictions of even the most certain among us will be shaken to the core. Circumstances will force them to dust off those old answers and look at them in a new way. In these times, they must learn the practice and discipline of allowing questions to be their guide.
Perseverance Pays Off
Finding your calling will require trial-and-error, possibly blood, sweat,
and tears, and a willingness to wrestle with the unknown, even if it means
walking away with a limp.
And perhaps this is what we learn, that it is the persistence with which we approach questions about our call that matters as much as the result.
Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.
Matthew 7:7 (NLT)
So take heart, friends. Whether you’re in the 80% or 20%, that is a promise to rest in.
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans and the companion workbook.
Consider Your Calling: Six Questions for Discerning Your Vocation, by Gordon T. Smith