How to Discover Your Calling

Michael S. Horton
Monday, July 16th 2007
May/Jun 1999

“But we urge you, brethren, to … aspire to live quietly, to mind your own business, and to work well with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thes. 4:11-12).

At once simple and profound, the apostle’s common-sense approach to piety is revolutionary for many of us who were reared with quite different expectations. For instance, the experience in many churches involves being collectively castigated from the pulpit as “lukewarm” or short of “sold out” to Jesus for doing just what is prescribed here: living quietly, minding their own business, and paying close attention to their work. If the average layperson is not doing what the office-bearers are supposed to do, the fault is often placed at the feet of the former rather than the latter. Pietistic fundamentalism and evangelicalism taught us that whatever couldn’t be justified in terms of soul winning and personal piety was somewhat inferior. Then along came Francis Schaeffer, who told us that all vocations are sacred: a liberating announcement for saints weary of despising creation. Neo-Kuyperians added their terminology, sanctifying all callings as “kingdom work.” The Reformation doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” seemed to be restored to its rightful place.

Ironically, however, these recent attempts by well-meaning and often helpful Reformed thinkers tend to undermine the very point they are attempting to make by still tacitly accepting the pietistic premise that all legitimate activity in this world has to be justified in relation to redemption. There is every reason to believe that the newer “Reformed” identification of secular vocation with “the sacred” and “kingdom work” is inferior to the older Reformed distinction between legitimate secular callings (common grace) and the office of the Ministry of Word and Sacrament (saving grace). Let me explain what I mean.

The theology from which Paul derives his admonition is world-affirming and world-embracing. It begins with creation, not the fall, and therefore there is a sense in which creation is more basic than redemption; nature more primal than grace. In Eden, cult (worship of God) and culture (the development of human relationships) belonged to one united kingdom. Picking apples (from the good trees, that is) was kingdom work. Tilling the soil was a sacred vocation. Nevertheless, after the banishment from Paradise of the human race through its federal head, Adam, the era of the divided kingdoms began. Cain built a city of power and wealth, while Seth (God’s replacement for Abel) was the patriarch of the City of God (Gen. 4:17-26). Cain’s descendants were praising themselves for their achievements, while it was under Seth that people “began to call upon the name of the Lord.”

But in the Mosaic covenant, God restored the union of these divided spheres. There was to be no separation of cult and culture. While there remained a distinction between the cultic office-bearers (viz., the priests, from the Levites alone) and the cultural office-bearers (viz., the kings), Israel was to be a united kingdom under the sole monarchy of God who would reign over both Church and state through his servants. In this way, this holy land which God had given his people for an inheritance would be thoroughly theocratic.

But, as in Eden, Israel violated the terms of this works covenant and was banished from God’s land, sent into captivity, never to finally be restored as a united kingdom under God. The theocracy ended and Israel was no different from so many other colonies of the Roman Empire when the true and faithful Israel appeared. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4). Born under the terms of the Mosaic economy as well as the ever-abiding moral Law, Jesus Christ fulfilled the covenant of works which had been violated by the federal headship of Adam and repeatedly trespassed by Israel. The everlasting kingdom of Christ has come, not only enduring the persecution of the Roman Empire (that kingdom identified in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision interpreted through Daniel), but as that vision in Daniel prophesied, has overwhelmed those kingdoms which thought to destroy Christianity. Nevertheless, “we do not yet see all things in subjection to him” (Heb. 2:8-9). Only when the glorified King comes in power to judge the living and the dead will the earth hear that glad announcement of the seventh angel, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Cult and culture, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, will be finally reunited as in Eden, with no possibility of being divided ever again.

But until that time, the two cities are divided and with them the goals to which they are directed and the means through which these goals are attained. The kingdom of God advances through Word and Sacrament in the power of the Holy Spirit, while the kingdoms of this world advance through the arts and sciences, technology, literature, education, agriculture, business, medicine, and so forth. When a Christian is called to cabinet-making, he or she is not engaged in “kingdom work” or a sacred calling. But that is not to demean this trade, as it was in the case of medieval Rome and much of modern Evangelicalism. Rather, it is to liberate us from thinking that something has to be justified by its usefulness to redemption, as if creation is not sufficient as a sphere in and of itself. A calling to make cabinets is the same for Christian and non-Christian alike. Because the unbeliever is still created in God’s image and is the beneficiary of God’s common grace, he or she is given a vocation by God in this world. God did not abandon the world and creation in order to work with his elect people, but rather he patiently endures the world’s rebellion during this interval, restraining wickedness, while he extends his kingdom of grace to the ends of the earth (2 Pet. 3:1-13). This creates space for this shared sphere of human activity which is neither sacred nor sinful, but common and eminently worthwhile.

So let’s stop blurring distinctions on this matter. Oil painting does not a “minister” make. It is not kingdom work (if it is the kingdom of God that is meant), but cultural work. The only reason we would find that distinction offensive to our secular callings is if we already assume that whatever is not somehow a part of the kingdom of Christ is unworthy of a believer’s passionate attention and interest. We need to recover creation as a sphere of common grace activity. Christians need to be freed to embrace the world which God has created without being burdened with trying to justify everything in terms of its “kingdom value.” It is enough to serve one’s neighbor and society without having to figure out how it all contributes to the regime of “redeeming culture.”

Now that we have argued the case for secular vocations in this current stage of redemptive history, let us consider some of the misunderstandings that often arise and confuse us when we are trying to find our vocation or calling in life.

The Promiscuous Soul of Modernity

Although we are used to identifying promiscuity with dissolute sexual behavior, it seems to capture the spirit of our age in more general terms. Like Proteus, the Greek sea god, the average person today (including both the author and reader of this article) is capable of enormous transfigurations and metamorphoses. Never mind “finding” yourself; in much of postmodern thinking these days, there is no self to find. As cultural historian Jackson Lears has observed, the earlier gravitas (weightiness) which both God and man seemed to possess has, in American culture, devolved into “sentimental religiosity” and then, finally, into a loss of self entirely.

However all of this happened, there is no doubt that the loss of a solid sense of self has contributed to the promiscuity that marks our lives, including our callings. But this vocational promiscuity was a problem in the reformers’ day as well. Calvin urged believers to “learn to measure carefully their powers, lest they should wear out, by ambitiously embracing too many occupations. For this propensity to engage in too many things … is a very common malady…. God has so arranged our condition, that individuals are only endued with a certain measure of gifts.” (1) Similarly, in the Institutes he advised:

The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life. And that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living “callings.” Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about through life (3.10.6).

Undoubtedly vocation and self-identity are inextricably linked. Sometimes this is viewed with suspicion: “Why, when asked to introduce yourself, do you say, ‘I’m a dentist’?” Well, for a very good reason. The dentist introduces herself that way because that is not just what she does, but part of who she is. Adam knew who he was, at least in part, because of what he did (and vice versa). God had called him to be prophet, priest, and king over the created world as his covenant steward. This calling was further confirmed by his naming of the animals. And after the fall, he would still work the land, but it would be difficult-accompanied by pain, suffering, frustration.

Calvin seems to be on the mark, then, when he urges us to look to our calling, to curb our restlessness and fickleness, including the promiscuous “ambition … to embrace various things at once.” Each person’s calling is “his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about through life.”

But now the urgency of discovering one’s calling seems even more acute. If one must find a special vocation, a unique calling, to properly honor God and attain some sense of self-identity, shouldn’t we make every effort to search out God’s “perfect will for our lives”?

God’s Will for Your Life

Many readers will recall instances of being counseled to discover God’s will for their lives. Gripped by fear of stepping outside of “God’s perfect will,” many believers thought of this much as a subway on its tracks: so long as the conductor stays on the rails, he will arrive at his destination safely. But first one has to find these tracks. Any number of things could constitute “stepping-outside-of-God’s-perfect-will.” Unconfessed sin, an unteachable spirit, or simply a failure to patiently search out this hidden plan in any number of ways: earnest prayer, fasting, “hanging out a fleece” (in imitation of Gideon), or otherwise testing God, until we are confident of God’s will. Those who did not think or act in these terms were (and are) regarded as having placed self on the throne of one’s life, and so on.

Where did we get this sort of thinking? The only reference to God’s “perfect will” is in Romans 12:2: “… that you may prove what is that good and perfect will of God.” But God’s good and perfect will, as the same writer makes clear, is simply that will which he has revealed in Scripture. The apostle there admonishes us not to be conformed to this world’s pattern of thinking, but to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It is not as if God has a revealed will (Scripture) and a perfect will. Rather, God’s revealed will is that which defines what is good and acceptable and perfect. The same point is made in Micah: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). The whole moral law can be summarized in the command to love God and neighbor. The Law, then, is God’s revealed will for our lives. But the Gospel is God’s revealed will for our salvation. In other words, the Law reveals God’s will for our direction, but the Gospel reveals God’s direction toward us: saving us from the guilt and lostness of having wandered from that course.

There is only one will we can access, then: God’s revealed will. God does indeed have his secrets, mysteries to the moral mind. “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Rom. 11:34). Why does God predestine some and not others? “But who are you, a mere mortal, to answer back to God?” (Rom. 9:20). Who are the elect? How can we discern them? “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his'” (2 Tim. 2:19). It is revealed that God had chosen many to be included in Christ, but it is not revealed in either nature or Scripture the number or the identity of these people. “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10). And this revelation of God’s evangelical will toward us in Christ is what is necessary, not the answer to such questions as: Why did God choose some and not everyone?

When asked what God was doing before he created the world, Augustine replied, “Creating hell for curious people.” Calvin likewise calls such speculation a presump-tuous entrance into a maze from which there is no safe exit. We must stay with what is revealed instead of attempting to penetrate God’s secrets. As Scripture reminds us, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

Luther also spoke of the “hidden” and “revealed” God, the former unknowable in his mysterious transcendence; the latter known by his own initiative and not by human striving. We all want to climb into God’s secret chamber and snoop around where angels fear to tread. But this can only lead to disaster. Instead, we should look to God through the revealed Son.

So how can we know God’s will in relation to whom we should marry, where we should live, and what calling we should pursue? If it is not revealed in either nature or Scripture, then its discovery is neither our responsibility nor even a possibility. How then do we discover our calling if it is not revealed by God directly in nature or in Scripture? Actually, both nature and Scripture are sites of such discovery, even if it is by indirect ways. And this brings us to our next point.

Guidelines for Discerning Your Calling

Search the concordance of your Bible or the realm of nature and you will not find any statement like, “Bob, your calling is to be a lawyer.” Nevertheless, both Scripture and nature can help. First, let’s take Scripture. God’s Word does give us guidelines for directing our lives in a broad sense. Beneficiaries of wisdom in a variety of genres, we who have been reared on Scripture often take for granted just how much we are indirectly informed in our decision-making by Scripture. But it is just that: indirect. For instance, Scripture invites us to seek God’s wisdom: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (Jam. 1:5). But nowhere does it invite us to seek God’s hidden or secret plan. Further, it tells us that living alone tends to feed self-indulgence (Prov. 18:1); that it is better to be poor with a clear conscience than to be rich with a guilty one (Prov. 19:1); that “It is better to live in a desert land than with a contentious and fretful wife,” while a prudent spouse is better than riches (Prov. 21:19); a weakness for luxury means poverty in the long run (Prov. 21:17). And on we could go, through Proverbs alone. Godly wisdom from Scripture and from other believers who are guided by Scripture is indispensable for making decisions about vocation, whether the calling at issue happens to be education, work, or marriage.

But the Scriptures are not a handbook for decision making and it may well be that after saturating oneself with biblical wisdom there will still be many questions left before a wise decision can be made. Here is where nature comes into the picture. First, what are your gifts and skills? What do you enjoy doing? The Psalmist sings to the Lord, “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16). He gives us the desires of our hearts. So much for the “God’s-yes-was-louder-than-my-no” school of guidance counseling. Many of us have heard the stories-usually associated with the ministry-in which the individual “ran from God’s call all my life” as far as he could until God just wore him out. In some cases, at least, this displays a degree of arrogance. It is as if God doesn’t have many first-round draft picks and, like the NFL scout dealing with a free agent, has to try to sway the player to his team. If God can create children of Abraham from rocks, he can certainly find ministers from the swamps.

God does give us the desires of our hearts. He is not out to get us, or to make us wander the vocational wilderness forever. Sometimes we are “dumped” into short-term vocations which to us seem utterly meaningless and yet in some way providentially equip us with a skill which will be vital in our as yet unknown calling in life. We just cannot figure out God’s secret plan, but we can trust it and learn from natural as well as biblical sources how we might better discern our calling.

The questions, What are your skills?, What do you really enjoy?, What would get you up on Monday morning?, are in the realm of nature. Super-spirituality may look down on such mundane questions and try to steal into God’s secret chamber, but biblical piety is content to leaf through the book of nature. God has created us a certain way, given us certain habits, skills, longings, and drives. In no single calling would we be able to employ all of our interests, skills, and drives. That is why there are avocations. An avocation is a side-vocation: a hobby, sport, or pastime. Let’s say there is this person named Ralph who enjoys painting. He finds it relaxing and fulfilling. It is something he enjoys. But does that mean that it is his calling? Not necessarily. It may be an avocation rather than a vocation; something he does to wind down on Saturday, not something he does to bring home the bacon on Monday. He might have a better idea whether it is an avocation rather than a vocation if, over time, the general response to his work is favorable from close relatives but nobody else in town will take his work on consignment or exhibit it in any gallery. It doesn’t require a period of prayer and fasting to figure this out.

So we cannot place expectations on this calling or vocation which are so unrealistic that we end up becoming despondent, paralyzed with fear because we cannot find the one calling in which all of our skills and interests may be satisfied. We need to realize that our calling in terms of work is only one of our vocations. We are also called to be saints, parents, children, siblings, citizens, and a host of other things. These are truly vocations or callings. We may find satisfaction from our involvement as a den parent for a scouts group that we simply could not obtain at work. We cannot put all of our vocational eggs in that important but limited basket, even though we should locate a single calling for our work. Otherwise, if our family life is suffering, we may transfer our frustrated parental urges to our employees; or if our passion for our work so dominates us that we expect our spouse to understand it and care about it as much as we do, we are being unfair. God has wisely ordered our lives so that we have a number of relationships and commitments-or, vocations. Putting too much stress on work, spouse/family, church, social groups, can make an idol which, when it cannot bear the strain, is sure to be smashed just as quickly as it was raised. We need to learn to use all of the vocations or callings God has given us in life and to distribute that stress, much as multiple stilts support a house on a steep hill.

We have addressed the question of avocations; now we should briefly mention prevocations, although I am fully conscious that this is not a real word. But the idea certainly is. Sue flips burgers this year so that next year she can begin a master’s degree in English literature. She believes that she is called to teach literature to college students. Her ten-year high school reunion is coming up and she is unsure how to explain what she is up to these days. She can comfort herself (and perhaps others) with the thought that this is “kingdom work” and she is redeeming the culture of fast-food consumerism-making common ground holy by her vigilant evangelism, counseling, and, of course, her solid Protestant work ethic. Or she can find another way of justifying her temporary vocation; that is, by relating it to the broader process of enjoying her ultimate calling. Right now, make no mistake about it, flipping burgers is Sue’s calling. It is not that she is called to teach literature, and this work at Burger King is beneath her; she is fulfilling her calling. For now, Burger King is her calling. But she knows that it is not her long-term calling, as it may be for others. Sue can get up every morning and go into work knowing that what she does now is providing the means for realizing her long-term calling. She aspires “to live quietly, to mind [her] own business, and to work well with [her] hands … so that [she] may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” Nothing is said here about kingdom work or redeeming Burger King.

Many people (especially white and more affluent folks) find it next to impossible to take up a temporary vocation which they find dishonoring to their skills and long-term aims. Cheating themselves out of industry, patience, character, and financial means which will allow them to support themselves in future education or employment, they prefer idleness, luxury, having fun, and living off of the sweat of other peoples’ brows. Just as having various other vocations takes the stress off of anyone, working with different expectations in relation to temporary and long-term vocations can also free us up to vigorously pursue callings for the moment which may well seem beneath us in terms of challenge.

In these promiscuous times, when people find it difficult to stay on one thought for more than ten seconds, the same channel for more than ten minutes, in one community or church for more than ten months, and with one spouse for more than ten years, it is no surprise that we jump around from calling to calling, often reducing a vocation to a job and thereby finding little satisfaction. Identity and labor are intimately linked: Marx at least got that one right. At some point, paralysis must end and a decision has to be made. Choosing a long-term calling is not like choosing a spouse: it can change. Sometimes life experiences alter one’s course. But mid-flight corrections are different from the promiscuous habits of mind and heart to which we are so prone in these times. It is difficult for many today to say, “I believe…,” to take a stand, and it is much easier to be a connoisseur of life’s delicacies-a consumer rather than a producer. We would rather stand aloof and play with an endless variety of beliefs, lifestyles, choices, products, callings, and institutions than be committed to a future course over which we do not have sovereign knowledge or sovereign control. But for those of us who have entrusted our souls and bodies to Jesus Christ and our futures to a fatherly providence, ignorance of the details committed to the secret will of God should work against this tendency. God has located us, has addressed us, seen and examined us in all of our naked depravity, and yet instead of condemning us he clothed us with Christ’s righteousness. Who would not entrust his or her future to that kind of God?

1 [ Back ] John Calvin, Four Last Books of Moses, I:303.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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