At Work

Is Discerning Your Calling Becoming Your “Holy Grail”?

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If you’ve recently graduated from college, simply having a job is cause for gratitude. Through our work, God provides not only for our sustenance, but for all of creation as well. Understanding this allows us to appreciate the value of all honest work, not just the “glamorous” jobs.

Nonetheless, you probably have persistent questions about the larger significance of your life and how your work plays into that: What was I made for? What does God want me to do with my life? And how will I know?

Those questions never stop being relevant, but they weigh more heavily on young men and women fresh out of college. Fears about the future might rattle around in your mind until you ultimately think the outcome of your life hangs on a single choice. But God’s call on us is much bigger than any given moment or crossroads, as I hope to show you today. Again, my inspiration comes from Erica Young Reitz and her helpful book, After College.

Two Kinds of Calling

The first thing we should know about calling is that it is not, as Reitz points out, “simply about finding our career.” In fact, it is not even the case that there is only one calling on our lives—as Christians, we have several. Hugh Whelchel writes:

Our first call is to follow Jesus out of darkness into light and out of death into life. This “principal calling” includes a call to faith in Christ (Romans 8:28-30; 1 Corinthians 1:9), a call to the Kingdom of God (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12), a call to eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12; Hebrews 9:15), and a call to holy living (1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Peter 1:15).

To use the terminology of Christian author Os Guinness, our call to Christ is our primary calling. Our secondary callings (note the plural) are concrete ways in which we fulfill our primary calling—following and serving Christ—by serving others.

Secondary callings fall within four distinct areas of life: the family, the church, our community, and our vocations. It is in this last area, vocational calling, that we seek to discern the work we might do “based on giftedness, desires, affirmations, and human need.” This vocational calling is what theologian Frederick Buechner describes as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

What do these two kinds of callings—primary and secondary—tell us about our vocational calling and our work specifically?

Serve and Explore

Perhaps the most important implication of our primary calling is that it goes a long way toward answering the perennial question, “What does God want me to do with my life?” Working in a particular job—even if it fits our gifts and inclinations—will only ever be one part of God’s larger callings to love and serve him by loving and serving others, a truth Reitz captures well:

When we think we have to find one “right” calling nugget in a deep river of choices, we may fail to steward our here and now lives for God. If we think instead in terms of faithfulness in each of our many stations, we can look and listen daily for ways to steward every area of our lives. We can listen for, discover and act on the good works God has uniquely prepared in advance for us (Ephesians 2:10) in our jobs, neighborhoods, relationships, leisure and everyday comings and goings.

If you’re currently in a job that doesn’t feel right or is somehow misaligned with your vocational calling, you still have opportunities to fulfill your other secondary callings, whether it be in your family, church, or community. As Reitz puts it,

We can live out our central, general calling no matter where we are or what we’re doing for paid work.

God uses the work we do in any job to bless others, so we have no cause to feel idle even if our current job does not correspond to our vocational calling. But, you might say, this ignores the pressing question: how do we discern what our vocational calling is?

If you’re anxious to figure this out sooner rather than later, I have good news that may sound like bad news: you’re probably not going to lock down your vocational calling (as manifested in a particular job or career) in a way that means you never have to think about it again. It is, in Reitz’s words, “a lifelong, life-wide process”:

As we grow and change professionally (as does the job market and our employers), we reevaluate and recalibrate. It’s normal to change jobs, or even careers multiple times over a lifetime.

This may strike you as condemnation to a life of aimless uncertainty, but it’s actually liberation from the need to exhaustively define yourself, now and for all time, by whatever job you happen to have at the moment. As theologian Thomas Merton rightly observes,

Our vocation is not a sphinx’s riddle which we must solve in one guess or else perish.

Some people do transition smoothly into a career after college—a career that fits them perfectly. Reitz says that most of us, however, should expect to spend some time reflecting on what our vocational callings might be:

We may feel pressure to know exactly what we want to do for our occupation when we graduate, but the reality is it can take years to discover. We may have no idea what we want to do, and we won’t know until we try things.

Note that part of the discernment process is simply trying different jobs—the best way to get an idea of whether a field is a good fit for you is to get experience in it. You can narrow your search by thinking deeply about life experiences where your gifts and the joy of exercising them have coincided. Throughout this process, be patient and don’t expect immediate, definitive answers. If there’s any good time for vocational experimentation, it’s life after college. To quote Reitz, “The twenties are for training, previewing, and prototyping.”

Always On Call

Your current job may be suggestive of your larger vocational calling. Or it may not. Either way, God is calling you today to love him and your neighbor, both through your job and outside of it. Continue to discern your vocational calling, but don’t become so preoccupied with trying to figure out where you need to end up that you are not present where you are right now.

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