In Christian circles, it’s not that uncommon to hear people talking about their calling — of whether they’re called to do this or that, to go there or stay here, and so on. There’s merit to this sort of thing, I think, but I don’t always get the impression that people have given very much thought to how calling is discerned or what the pitfalls surrounding it might be. And I don’t know that I’ve given all of it enough disciplined thought either, to be honest.
My favorite quote about calling is from pastor-novelist Frederick Buechner, who wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That, in a nutshell, has provided me with a framework over the past few years for thinking and praying and acting my way through the process of discerning my calling(s).
Calling and vocation are closely related, but these days, the words have become confused. Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “to call.” So one’s vocation is what he or she has been called to. But it’s not uncommon to hear people reduce vocation to a 9-to-5-that-pays-the-bills without giving any thought to the idea that there might be a Caller and that one’s calling might have significance beyond a paycheck.
I just finished reading “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life” by Os Guinness, a crazy smart author and social critic who is also part of the famous Guinness family of Ireland (to whom I say “cheers”). The whole way through the book he navigates through parallel errors, taking a nuanced path. Citing ancient philosophers and World War II generals, Mother Teresa and many from Scripture, he seeks to set out what it means for each of us, and all of us, to answer the Caller’s calls. Importantly, he writes, there are two levels of calling:
Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or outer Mongolia). Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. But these and other things are always the secondary, never the primary calling. They are ‘callings’ rather than the ‘calling.’ They are our personal answer to God’s address, our response to God’s summons. Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.
That alone could go a long way in clearing up a lot of the fuzziness in the way we speak of callings. There’s neither time nor space to go through all of the different polarities he seeks to navigate; for that you just really need to read the book. But I do want to share one more quote, about the relationship between work, leisure and worship. We’re called to all three, but seldom are we sure how to make sense of them all:
Today we tend to talk of ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ as opposites. Work is serious, leisure is play, it is said. Work is drudgery, leisure is fun. Work is for pay, leisure is free. Work is what we do for someone else, leisure is for ourselves — and so on. But a moment’s thought shows this is not so. Far closer to the mark is the observation that the modern world has scrambled things so badly that today we worship our work, we work at our play, and we play at our worship.
It is precisely this scrambling that Guinness seeks to unscramble, to sort out. Every Christian will need to think and pray these things out for themselves, in their own unique contexts, in the company of other believers, and that way to begin the process of discerning ways to act with humility and courage and joy for the common good. This book is clearly not an end-all, then; but I think it does provide a few important tools for getting started.