By T.R. Robertson
Is there a difference in the way we Christians talk about calling versus how the rest of our culture pursues calling?
It’s certain many outside the church today have great interest in calling and identity. How can Christians be missionally purposeful in relating to that interest, especially when non-Christians may talk about calling with the same words Christians use?
Oprah Winfrey is a touchstone of all that is popular in the culture at large. If it’s cool, she’ll be talking about it. If it’s not cool yet, she makes it cool by bringing it up.
Winfrey has been talking to people about their calling experience frequently over the past few years, in multiple interviews with the rich and famous.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love, sampled biblical themes when she told Winfrey,
First comes the call, then comes, “Don’t ask me to do this, take this cup away from me. I’m not a hero, don’t look at me, I don’t have the power, I’m just a kid, I’m just a regular guy.” The call won’t leave you alone though. . . . Every quest begins with a question. And the question is always the same question. . . . Here’s the question: What have I come here to do with my life?1
Winfrey has distilled the lessons she’s learned into “Three questions that will help you find your true calling.”
1. How does what you’re doing make you feel?
2. Does it have a positive impact on others?
3. Does it turn up the volume and increase the vibration of your life?
“Whenever you’re engaged in the business of who you’re meant to be,” Winfrey says, “you’re more awake, alive and ready to play a vital part in your world. When others see your light shining, they’ll be inspired to shine theirs, too.”2
It rings true. Most who read those words will find themselves either nodding in recognition or yearning to answer those questions and experience those feelings for themselves.
But is it enough?
Frederick Buechner’s definition of calling is probably quoted more often than any other, and by both Christian and secular writers. Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”3
Meeting “the world’s deep hunger” is also a common theme in popular expressions of calling. Hip-hop performer Kanye West once summarized his calling with these words: “I’m like a tree, I feed the branches of the people.”4
But popular culture leaves out what Buechner—and the Bible—put first. Calling implies a caller, someone outside of ourselves who issues the call. Self-driven, other-focused calling is both elevated and deepened by God’s involvement.
Secular callings have led to great accomplishments throughout history. But without the caller in the equation, the popular concept of calling is not only incomplete, but potentially harmful. Not all inner urges should be trusted or allowed full expression.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in a TED Talk about calling, admitted as much. “I don’t know where you rightfully live, but I know there is something in this world that you love more than you love yourself. Something worthy, by the way, so addiction and infatuation don’t count, because we all know that those are not safe places to live. Right?”5
Why do we all know that? Combined experience has demonstrated the negative results of following our worst inclinations. Science has shown the danger of giving full expression to inner urges caused by neurological and psychological prompts.
But it’s only when a higher power and purpose enters the picture that an additional truth comes into play. Some inner impulses are just wrong.
They’re not wrong just because of their negative effects, which people can and do debate. They’re wrong because God, the One who calls us, is engaged in a level of spiritual warfare that transcends any individual’s inner impulses. There is another caller, Satan, who is also trying to call us in a direction of his choosing. The choices we make about our calling have an eternal impact.
Submitting to the Caller
Popular culture doesn’t see or accept the possibility that some inner callings are inherently wrong. They don’t acknowledge the existence or authority of God, so their only authority becomes themselves, with societal good and empirical data sometimes earning attention on a secondary level.
The biblical concept of calling, however, is anchored in the authority of the Caller. Submitting to his calling can sometimes mean we find ourselves doing things contrary to our own inner desires and perceived best interests.
God sometimes calls people to things they find unpleasant and personally dangerous. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, repeatedly describes the physical pain, weariness, and psychological struggles he experienced as a result of doggedly pursuing the calling God set before him.
Occasionally God calls people to do things that seem at odds with common sense. Jonah certainly thought it was pointless to go to Nineveh and risk his life preaching to a people who would, at best, ignore him and, at worst, kill him.
God’s calling doesn’t always lead to what we might think of as success. We’re called to simply obey. When Jonah finally did follow through, Nineveh repented, much to Jonah’s chagrin. Like a nonbeliever who considers the ways of God foolishness, Jonah pouted at being used to threaten destruction, only to have God choose mercy instead. If you think following your calling will always give you a rich sense of accomplishment, God may have a different plan in mind.
For Christians, the version of calling being talked about in popular culture can’t be enough. Seeking God’s calling first, above other considerations, turns calling into something greater than self, greater than the world’s felt need.
Restoring Biblical Calling
It’s clear the church needs to restore a definition of calling that is both theologically correct and sociologically unique. We need to stop talking about our own callings as though they’re mainly about fulfilling an inner need and doing good for society. When we do that, we’re using the same language non-Christians are using to justify following their inner compulsions.
Those who know the Caller should always clearly identify him and his authority as the most important aspect of our calling.
Beyond standing firmly for the truth, we should also seize the missional opportunity presented by the culture’s fascination with calling.
When talking with someone about their calling, lead with love rather than harsh judgment. Instead of dismissing their incomplete description of their calling, connect with them where they feel that deep gladness. Celebrate with them the joy of channeling their calling toward the needs of the world.
Then take the next step and demonstrate to them how to experience the greater joy of true calling by listening to the One who calls them.
In prison ministry, we deal with people who have unreservedly expressed their inner passions. They use the language of identity to describe how they saw themselves. “I’m a party animal.” “I’m a type A personality.” “I’m gay.” “I’m an addict.”
Living out their passions landed them in prison, about as low as a person can get in our society. The prison system’s rehabilitation efforts are largely focused on helping them find a way to express that identity in a way more acceptable to society, and to be normal citizens.
We try to help them understand the inherent problems with their mistaken identity. The only identity that matters, the only one that offers real hope, is to be “in Christ,” as Paul repeatedly put it. And the only calling that will truly satisfy their hearts is the calling that comes from the God who crafted their hearts.
They’re shocked to discover they are not who they thought they were, that they can actually be something entirely different.
That truth may seem obvious in a prison chapel, but, in God’s eyes, we’re all just as confused. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all landed about as low as a person can get. We all need a new identity and a new calling from God.
1“Super Soul Sunday: Elizabeth Gilbert, Parts 1 and 2”; accessed at www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Elizabeth-Gilbert.
2Oprah Winfrey, “3 Questions that Will Help You Find Your True Calling”; accessed at www.oprah.com/inspiration/3-Questions-That-Will-Help-You-Find-Your-True-Calling#ixzz3mP7CYmww.
3Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
4“Kanye West on Lindsay Lohan, Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson,” Mirror, updated January 27, 2012; accessed at www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/kanye-west-on-lindsay-lohan-taylor-252446.
5“Elizabeth Gilbert: Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating,” TED Talk, filmed March 2014; accessed at www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_success_failure_and_the_drive_to_keep_creating.
T.R. Robertson is a supply chain analyst with the University of Missouri in Columbia and a freelance writer.