The Crushing Calling

“I’ve discovered my calling” is one of those Christian phrases that is simultaneously indispensable and nauseating. Discovering one’s calling in the journey of faith is a truly difficult task, fraught with doubt, anxiety and the ever-present possibility of self-deception. But it is made doubly difficult due to the influence of our culture’s pervasive individualism and the slogans of pop psychology.

I’ll come right out and say it: discovering my calling is generally reduced to some vague notion of self-fulfillment and well-being. This is more easily seen in the process of how we come to decide what is not our calling, namely those things that make us feel unhappy, unwanted, unfulfilled and possibly even marked with garden-variety suffering.

How on earth (or, more appropriately, in hell) has a religion that follows a tortured and executed savior come to so thoroughly identify following said savior with such a trite therapeuticism? We blather on about “the abundant life” promised to disciples of Jesus, but gloss over the whole “the world will hate you like it hates me” thing that Christ made pretty clear to those who would follow him (c.f. John 15:18-21).

This is the place where happy hunters will tell me that I’m being gloomy. Pardon me while I go don some sackcloth and bathe in ashes. I’d like to make it quite clear that shifting the major discernment factor for calling from happiness to misery would be simply to repeat the same mistake we’re currently making in a different direction. I’m not interested in resurrecting self-flagellation or “this world’s not my home”-style escapism either.

No, when we’re discerning our calling, we walk by faith. This means that we don’t have obvious answers or easy measuring sticks. Or, in short, it’s really, really hard, filled with moments of clarity, stretches of discouragement, and occasional snatches of wonder. It’s subject to the full range of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. God help us to not reduce calling to the myth of unfailing fulfillment.

12 responses to “The Crushing Calling”

  1. Hi Matt-

    A very thoughtful post. Have you ever read Parker Palmer’s ‘Let your Life Speak’…

    This comes at the idea of calling from another angle.
    You might find Palmer’s perspective interesting.

    Anyway, I appreciate your contrarian orneriness.

  2. well matt,
    from a far it does sound down right gloomy. i didn’t read carefully or between the lines but “have you found your calling?”
    i’m not a reader like you but i feel like i’m missing your point or not getting enough background into what your saying. perhaps you could expand on this…


  3. @roger flyer Thanks for the comment, and putting up with this ornery guy.

    I have not that Palmer book, but it’s been on the mental “to-read” bookshelf for a long time now. I’ll have to get my hands on a copy.

  4. @maria epp I’ve definitely found bits and pieces that I believe are part of my calling, but I still have a lot of confusion as to what they all mean. I get so many conflicting and contradictory messages about how to discern my calling, which makes this all very difficult.

    The basic thing I’m annoyed at is how our cultural categories of “fulfillment” subtly infect our thinking about discipleship and following Christ. Following Christ will not necessarily cause me to feel good or fulfilled or happy, particularly if I am walking out my calling. There will be times of joy, contentment and other nice things, but these do not tell me that the calling is true (or false).

  5. Oh! I think I’m getting it Matt. Just the other day I was listening to my friend tell me how passionate she was about her job and how it really is what she was made to do. I believe that bit. We shouldn’t be ‘serving God’ in an area we aren’t gifted in. In that way we can have a feeling of fulfillment. But I think you are talking about a bigger picture of being a follower of Christ which will never be an easy ride to say the least! I guess the difference between “gifting” and “calling” is getting muddled in my little head!

    Thanks for sharing.
    Talk later,

  6. I am interested in the relationship between the calling one’s community gives and the calling one discerns for oneself (with the help of the community).
    In my beginning conception of a healthy community, I envision (and have somewhat experienced) a process in which a person is guided strongly by the convictions they have ascented to in their community. the community also enforces this ascent. But there is something else. I hope for the kind of community which calls for a certain kind of rebelliousness in its members. There is a time and a place for a person to go into the desert to discern, to escape negative “group think.” In this way, the person might bring back a contrary and even prophetic perspective to the usual practices of his/her community.
    So i’m dreaming of a “business as normal” conception of calling where the community’s story rules, but built in within the structure of that community is the call for prophetic and prayer-ful rebelliousness.

  7. @joel mason Thanks so much for bringing the much-needed community perspective into this discussion. My post was written largely out of a personal frustration with others, and wasn’t very constructive towards envisioning the type of community in which calling could be communally discerned and encouraged.

    I really appreciate your emphasis on cultivating a certain rebelliousness within community—but only provided there is a community to begin with. What we have right now is a culture within which rebelliousness is the norm and true community is almost unheard of, so to speak of rebelliousness within community requires a series of moves from what we take for granted as “normal.”

    But still, I am dreaming the same dream. Let it come.

  8. yes you are becoming quite the crotchety old man, aren’t you? ;)

    I see what you’re saying: The cultural pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment is at odds with the life of Christ. Agreed.

    Like what my bible camp director told us: “we’re not here to have fun, but we will have fun”.

    I also think I see what Maria is saying.
    If we believe that the things we love and the things we are naturally good at are our spiritual gifts in the broadest sense, then using those gifts should bring joy and fulfillment, right?
    Since I detest math, being an “accountant for Jesus” would be my personal hell on earth.
    And I really don’t think he wants me spend my life doing math.

  9. @Jac Yes. Now if only these kids would get off my lawn.

    What I’m trying to say is that positive emotions (joy, happiness) and negative emotions (fear, pain) are both terrible measurements of calling. We should expect the following of our calling to produce the full range of human emotions and experience, but we so often say, essentially, that “anything that produces pain or suffering cannot be a part of my calling.” What I’m trying to say is that any path you’re on which categorically excludes suffering is an idolatrous path. The same would go for any path that categorically excludes joy, as so much bullshit religion can often devolve into.

  10. I agree with you. . . mostly.

    But maybe you should re-read Ken Gire’s book “windows of the soul” and the chapter on vocation.

    he asks, what brings you life, what makes you feel alive? He says that those things are road markers to discerning your vocation.

    we have been discussing the terminology of
    career vs. vocation vs. calling

    are they interchangeable? should they be?

    there’s a LOT of pressure in our generation to “discover who you are”, then go to school, then find someone to pay for doing what you believe in, and be recognized professionally.
    that is THE ideal of our generation.
    problem is, people don’t want to pay you to save the world.
    they want to pay you to make them more money.

    so maybe we should just forget it. get a job that you don’t hate, one that pays the bills.

    work as few hours as you can, and save the world on your own time, sans corporate interests.

    artists and musicians seem to get this better than academics.
    (maybe it’s cause academics are so pissed off that they have all that student debt and no quick way out of it).

    news flash folks, times are a-changing and everyone and his dog has a BA in something-or-other.
    going to university might make you a better person, but it will cost money, not make it.

    (math/science students excluded. they shall rule the world).

  11. Matt,
    I agree that the notion of “calling” is indispensable and yet nauseating—more so nauseating. In our individualistic worlds we want to nail down OUR ‘story’ and apply filters to make sense of OUR life. Having a “calling” allows us to focus our energy and resources. That being said, our calling can often blinds us to important daily acts of faith—think of the religious characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan, were they not respecting their “callings” (mutatis mutandis)?

    I have more or less rejected the notion of “callings” in favor of something more fragile. My reason is more to do with the fatalism of “callings”. A calling, in some aspects, is asking God, “What should I do?” How many times have I seen people wait around for questions like these to be answered…on the other hand, I have seen people make radical moves based on their “call” only to get mad and blame God when things went wrong.

    So I figure something more existential is in order—something where we are radically responsible for our every action. Yet, as Christians we believe in a Father who gifts us with various talents—and who has a story for this world from beginning to end. So we are not radically free! So I’m trying to figure some sort of Compatibilism (think the movie “stranger than fiction”). This, hopefully, avoids the lost-ness of the existential, and the determinism of the modern “calling”…

    I hope that in joining the story already in play that I avoid the ME-centric view of “callings”, which as you articulate, is often driven by our sense of values (post-Kantian (pragmatic/utilitarian/emotional) sense of good and bad) as opposed to a biblical notion of the Good.
    Just some thoughts…

  12. Ryan, thanks for adding your voice. You echo many of my concerns, particularly the conflation of “calling” with something like “destiny.” I have a post in the works that more fully explores the confusion surrounding the idea of calling that echoes your more existential take on things on a number of points.

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