and critical counter-truths to hold on to.
There is an ever growing interest in the concept of calling, and its many synonyms, in both the church and broader culture. This isn’t a new phenomenon (Purpose Driven Life was published almost 20 years ago), but I do think the conversation is evolving because of how the pandemic is amplifying christian concern for activating everyday disciples into simple church expressions (microchurch, house church, missional community), and the overlapping development of a more robust theology of vocation and faith-work-economics.
Simultaneous to this christian stream of concern, there is a parallel movement happening in broader culture around self-discovery, self-actualization, motivation, hustle, destiny, generating platforms and changing the world. Everyone’s talking about calling and purpose, but we are not talking about the same thing, and it’s more important than ever to disciple followers of Jesus in a Kingdom understanding of calling and vocation, lest they drink the world’s koolaid and discover it leads not to abundant life, but something else entirely. Here I’ve reflected, not exhaustively, but on just five unique distinctions that are important for followers of Jesus to hold on to.
Lie 1: Calling is about Self Actualization. Calling is about being your best you. Your vocation is that which frees you from any inhibitions or barriers to being your most true and full you. Purpose is discerned entirely through individual introspection and emotional reasoning. Anything that infringes on your rights, comforts, and freedoms should be renounced. From Jen Sincero’s new best seller, “You are perfect. To think anything less is as pointless as a river thinking that it’s got too many curves or that it moves too slowly or that its rapids are too rapid. Says who? You’re on a journey with no defined beginning, middle or end. There are no wrong twists and turns. There is just being. And your job is to be as you as you can be. This is why you’re here. To shy away from who you truly are would leave the world you-less. You are the only you there is and ever will be…Do not deny the world its one and only chance to bask in your brilliance.”
The truth? Calling is about submission. What a dirty word. The front door of Kingdom calling is admitting that my wisdom is foolishness without Jesus, my strength is weakness without Jesus, my sight is blindness without Jesus, and my righteous deeds, discerned on my own and pursued on my own, are like filthy rags to him. Calling is something that comes from Him, outside of myself, and I am invited to surrender entirely to. It is ALWAYS uncomfortable, ALWAYS sacrificial, ALWAYS restricting of my rights, and ALWAYS inhibiting of my carnal desires. But it is a gift, because it is a holy form of self actualization, God inviting me graciously into the version of me that only he knows instead of the false self that my imagination is limited to.
Lie 2: Calling is about Self Fulfillment. Find your happy. Settle into the well crafted algorithm of your contentment. Only do work that both makes you happy and makes possible the quality of life that you want. Quit everything else. Surround yourself with people that inspire you toward that same quality of life. Forget everyone else.
The truth? Calling is about self forgetfulness. From Tim Keller’s simple little book The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, ““…the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less…The problem with self-esteem — whether it is high or low — is that, every single day, we are in the courtroom.” Focusing on our self fulfillment is a fools errand, the cup will never be full, and we stay in the courtroom forever. Counterintuitively, Kingdom calling pulls our attention outside of ourselves to give our lives away for the sake of others, and a byproduct of this self forgetfulness is, you guessed it, fulfillment. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
Lie 3: Calling is about Doing. Your calling and purpose are entirely about your job, and have nothing to do with your personhood. This results in hustle culture, you can sleep when you turn 65, and spend more time with your grandkids than your actual kids. Busyness becomes virtuous, boredom is condemnation on your worth, and every empty moment must be filled.
The truth? Calling is about being. God cares about your whole life, your whole personhood, and Kingdom calling is a comprehensive and integrated vision of who you are, and how your spiritual formation is coming to bear on the world around you. In Strengthening the Soul, Ruth Haley Barton puts it this way, “The soul of leadership begins with who we really are. Not who we think we are, not who we would like to be, not who others believe us to be. God’s call includes (yet is not limited to) the particularities of our life, our heritage, our personality, our foibles, our passions and deepest orientation, and even our current life situation…Our calling is woven into the very fabric of our being as we have been created by God, and it encompasses everything that makes us who we are: our genetics, innate orientations and capacities, our personality, heredity and life shaping experiences, and the time and place into which we were born.” God cares not just about what you do, but who you are becoming. Our labor is never from deficit, but always an overflow of our adoption as sons and daughters. Calling harmonizes mission, worship, and intimacy as not pinned against each other, but entangled in the same pursuit.
Lie 4: Calling Comes with Maturity. If calling is about doing, and knowing deeply what you are wired for and passionate about, then it will take a couple years, or a couple decades, to figure out your calling. Calling emerges with the clarity of seasoned maturity. Youth is marked by uncertainty and experimentation. I hope to one day know my calling.
The truth? Calling is ever present, has many seasons, and might narrow with time. Especially realizing that calling has more to do with your being than your doing, you don’t need to wait to know your calling. Followers of Jesus are called to Great Commission faithfulness from day 1, to proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom of God wherever we live, work, and play. You are called! I’m called! At the very least to make it more like heaven on earth, starting with my personhood, my family, my street, my break room, my barbershop and my soccer league. Here at the Underground we like to use the idea of concentric circles. The moment I surrender my life to Jesus, the circle of my calling is massive, but over time, through discernment, Jesus may narrow my calling to be more specific, and invite me to join with Him in what He’s up to, go where the grace is. Often when we hear people say “I’m called to (blank)!” that just means they’ve discerned a tighter circle of their calling for this season, not suddenly received a calling for the first time ever.
Lie 5: Calling is determined by you. It’s your decision. It’s your discernment process. It’s down to you. It’s your life. No need to include others, and don’t listen to naysayers. Remove the doubters, include the encouragers.
The truth? Calling is confirmed in community. This can be difficult for people steeped in cultural individuality, but it is obvious for those from cultural collectivism. If God really revealed it to you, he’ll also reveal it to the community around you, who will lovingly confirm, commission, and walk with you into faithfulness. I know this is a bit unheard of, but I think followers of Jesus should actually submit big decisions like job changes, geographical moves, large expenses, life transitions and more to collective decision making among covenant community, and actually be open to the possibility that you could be wrong and should submit to the wisdom of the Lord expressed through the unified voice of loving community.
Considering your calling? Wanting to stir the priesthood of all believers in your church to pursue their calling? Check out the online calling lab. Whether your wondering about your calling for the first time, at a crossroads season, or wanting to help followers of Jesus in your church step into their calling, we’re here to help.
If you have any questions about the calling lab, or need our help to run a group calling lab in your city, contact Tomy Wilkerson (firstname.lastname@example.org).