At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Your Calling: Is It Who You Are, or What You Do?

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In a recent Relevant article on calling, Karen Yates raises the question: Who says our job is our calling?

She laments that the term “calling” is over-used, over-emphasized, and over-preached. Perhaps she’s right. Have we forgotten that our calling is more than a job?

Yates makes a great point about our culture’s misunderstanding of the term “calling.” Our expectations are too high:

We want to become instant successes, start a business, invent something unique, write a book that impacts thousands, raise the next Margaret Thatcher, write music that reaches the Billboard Top 100, become the next Rick Warren, or make movies that matter. We’re a culture consumed with numerical impact, with skyrocketing ROI, awards, and the recognition of man, so when our “calling” is to be in the shadows, it’s a tough pill to swallow.

It’s easy to romanticize what our calling should look like or feel like. Our culture has certainly skewed the definition of career success, which is why we need to refresh ourselves with the biblical doctrine of work and the biblical meaning of success.

Yates claims that the overarching problem is that we’ve made “calling” about what we do, not who we are:

The problem I see with that over-used, over-emphasized, over-preached word “calling” is that many of us have limited the definition of “calling” to a profession, a career or a role. In this view, calling is about what we do, not about who we are. Calling becomes about assignment—my calling to be a mother, or a psychologist, or a missionary, or a teacher; my “calling” to “go into ministry” or “go on the mission field.”

But in arguing that our calling is who we are and not what we do, “what we do” is disconnected from “who we are.” Though not suggesting inaction, she seems to dismiss our secondary call “to do.”

In an interview with Values & Capitalism, Hugh Whelchel says we have two callings, a primary and a secondary calling:

Our primary calling is “to be” and our secondary calling is “to do.” Os Guinness says in his book “The Call,” our primary calling is “to be” a disciple of Christ. Our secondary calling, “to do,” involves four areas of our life: family, church, community and vocation. Your calling is not your job; it’s a bigger picture of what God has called you to do based on the talents and skills He has given you. Your job can change over time, but your calling remains constant because it’s who God has created you to be.

God created us with a soul and a body for good works (James 2:26, Ephesians 2:10), so we cannot disconnect who we are from what we do. Our primary calling is “to be” a disciple of Christ by following his will each day. But this requires action, so our call “to be” is precisely what yields our secondary callings “to do” in our church, family, community, and vocational callings. Our primary and secondary callings are not mutually exclusive.

I agree with Yates that our calling is not just a job. The average person will have up to 10 jobs in their lifetime. To define ourselves by our current occupation is as unreliable as it is idolatrous. But let’s not forget that work (yes, even the kiosk job at the mall selling animal slippers) is a gift and a tool God has given us to be salt and light in the world, unleash creativity, and increase human flourishing. Work fulfills a piece of our calling as a disciple of Christ.

I disagree with Yates on this point, though: calling can be an “assignment” as a psychologist, a missionary, or a teacher. But it’s not just a job assignment. Maybe God has called you to be a mobilizer, or a developer, or a strategist. It’s biblical to seek a job that allows you to use your gifts. Our job is one of several ways our calling manifests itself.

Even if what we do seems less important than who we are, our mundane actions are meaningful in a way we are incapable of fully understanding. Being a disciple of Christ means hosting a neighborhood cook out, calling grandma to wish her a happy birthday, passing out programs at church, and showing up at the office at 9am Monday through Friday.

Your calling is who you are and it’s what you do. And as Yates says, your calling is an every day reality.

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  • Tom Cocklereece

    Good article. I considered the questions posed in the article most seriously during a time after serving in full time church ministry for 20 years. I have been without a paid ministry position for 6 months and “tent making” until the is a new ministry opportunity. I have found that even if the “tent making” job paid enough to more than meet our needs, I would still have a heart desire for serving in a church leadership role because of the call to ministry God gave me a long time ago. In the meantime I am praying all the more for the pastors where we worship at church. I do have many opportunities to add value to others for The Lord through my part time discipleship and leadership work.

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