What is Calling?

My last post kicked up some excellent discussion, but I’d say that much of it arose due to confusion over two things: the hasty manner in which I wrote, and the nature of calling itself. I hope to rectify the former and clarify the latter.

I must say at the outset that there is a lot of conceptual fuzziness between the terms calling, vocation, gifting and career that must be addressed in any discussion of calling. What someone means when they talk about calling is often an unstated mix of some combination of all of the above, leading to much confusion and misunderstanding. So, I will offer my thoughts on the points of similarity and divergence in the hopes that, once everyone thinks the way I do, the world will be a safe place for us all.

Firstly, calling and vocation should largely be seen as one and the same. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare (to call), from which we also have the word vocal. They convey that something from beyond ourselves (or possibly within ourselves) is speaking to us about the kind of person we are.

Note that I did not say the kind of person we are meant to be, as that is the language of advertising, romanticism and self-deception. Indeed, one of the problems in discerning our calling is that we believe that the problem is in figuring out who we should be, rather than recognizing that a large obstacle in discerning our calling is the many voices of “should be” drowning out who we actually are.

Before I’m misunderstood, I’m not advocating some type of fatalism here, where we can never change. I fully affirm the need to grow, develop and change over the course of our lifetime. What I’m saying is that the masks we wear on a daily basis generally aren’t who we are, but rather some collection of personas we’ve been told we should be. This means that we’re constantly avoiding who we really are in the name of who we are meant to be, while calling/vocation speaks to who we actually are beyond the lies, hype and overly romantic notions of self that are bought and sold every day.

So, vocation (or calling) is simply the voice that is calling us to be who we have actually been created to be, but what about the links between calling and gifting? Simplifying in the extreme, I’d say that they should be seen as closely related, but ultimately different things.

At the most basic level, the difference between calling and gifting can be seen as the difference between being and doing: calling has to do with being the people we actually are, while gifting has to do with the particular talents, aptitudes and skills that we use in living our lives and serving others.

I want to stress that viewing calling and gifting as separate is only truly possible at an abstract level. In concrete lived life, who we are and what we do are tightly bound up with one another and could never be truly isolated. But I find the distinction useful insofar as it helps us to think of who we are as being somehow deeper and more fundamental than merely what we do. In a world where we’re too easily defined by what we do—what’s the first question you’re asked when meeting someone new?—it’s liberating to see that there’s some entity called “myself” that is more than merely what I do.

To illustrate, let’s imagine a pianist whose playing profoundly moves whoever hears him play. Now let’s imagine that a terrible accident befalls this pianist where he loses the use of one of his hands. This would, of course, be a tragedy, both for the pianist himself, and for the world that is now deprived of the beauty of his music. And, as an embodied creature, this unavoidably changes the makeup of who he is.

Can we imagine him finding ways to live his life that are consistent with the person he was before losing the use of his hand? Is he not still the same person, however changed his life is by his loss? Perhaps in time he will see that there are aspects of who he has always been that he now lives via means other than music. Maybe playing music was his way of giving hope to people in pain, and he now enacts that part of who he is by sitting with terminally ill people in a hospice, reflecting the love of Christ as best he can to them.

Perhaps this example might also help rid us of the misguided notion that calling has something to do with what is popularly known as destiny. This fatalistic (not to mention nauseatingly romantic) idea needs to die a few thousand deaths and be forever detached from the notion of calling. Calling is about becoming the person you actually are rather than some unavoidable set of preordained steps that you have no say in. Indeed, calling presupposes that we are somehow free to respond in creative love to the voice that is calling us to be who we really are.

I have left career until the end, and for good reason. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for in our post-Industrial world—and there aren’t many—it’s that the idea of “having a career” has basically become meaningless in a world where we’re all expected to change our line of work continually. This is not to say that I favour job instability (which favours corporations much more than workers), but rather that career has often served as a distraction (or replacement) for discerning our calling.

The confusion around calling culminates in its worst possible form when we believe that it is our calling to find a career in which we can make money from utilizing our gifting. I cannot imagine a better recipe for misery. Most will never find work that they feel fully engages their gifting, so they will forever resent the work they do and romantically long to work within their gifting. And then you have the poor souls who actually do make a career of their gifting, and have to navigate the murky path between the integrity of their gifting and the need to make a living. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Finally, while I’ve tried to speak of calling in a distinctly personal manner, I fear that it is likely much too individualistic. Indeed, I believe that we can only ever truly be the people that we truly are if we are doing so amidst a community of souls who help each other to truly be themselves. A community that allows its members to truly be themselves—despite the suffering this diversity will inevitably produce—is a community that has heard the call to love with love of Christ; to live in the way of self-giving love that considers all that we are and have as a gift to be lavishly spent in the service of others. If this is the broad call that our personal callings interact with and support, I believe that we truly have heard the voice of the living God.

One response to “What is Calling?”

  1. Thanks for writing and elaborating in what I might add a much less emotion packed way…thanks!

    Also, I just wanted to share a thought I had the other night. I realized once again that we are alone when we die. We are not taking anything with us. We are not showing our creator all the accomplishments, money or businesses we’ve made at the end of this life. Really all that stuff is just peripheral to the heart of the matter … WHO WE ARE.
    When the day ends, who we have become is what is going to stand the test. Really, it’s how we’ve handled the punches thrown at us that will give us life here after. I might not be saying this eloquently but I often feel like I’m in water too deep to handle but then I remember that my heart and my willingness to trust Jesus when I’m at the end of my rope is what matters the most.

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