Knowing Your Calling

October 19, 2010

One of the most frequent questions I get in a city like San Francisco is this:  How do I understand my calling? San Francisco is filled with 20 and 30-something’s wrestling with call.  I like this question, because it gets beyond the typical question:  What kind of work should I do? Calling is about something larger.  But how do unique people discern their call?

There are three main components to discerning a call:  1) Understanding what God wants regarding the shape of our lives, 2) Understanding where you are, and 3) Understanding who you are.

Most people skip to the third component, ignoring the first two.  And it is an important one.  So, let’s begin with it.  Understanding who you are happens in a number of ways.  An important one is relational:  you need to ask the people who know you best.  Ask them about your gifts, your strengths and weaknesses, your relational style, your particular ways of contributing in contexts where they’ve seen you.  It’s also important to take it a step further and to understand your story.  Pick up Dan Allender’s To Be Told or Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. See a therapist.  Attempt to discern the ‘narrative shape’ of your life.  Finally, do some personality testing – an MBTI, a Campbell Skills Inventory, or another assessment that might help in the process of discernment.  Knowing yourself is an invaluable part of the process.

While understanding yourself is critical, two other components are equally as important.  You need to understand where you are.  Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  More often than not, we seek our own gladness without considering the world’s deep hunger.  This component has everything to do with context.  Where has God placed you?  Look around.  What compels you?  What stirs your passion?  What burdens your heart?

However, in the end, the text of your life coupled with your context must meet God and his text.  In other words, God’s narrative must be allowed to shape your own.  And this shape will always be cruciform. There is much written about ‘discovering your deepest desires.’  But desire discovered in a non-cruciform shape is disordered desire.

Consumer culture feeds on disordered desire, and (sadly) vocation takes a hit.  Consider the job fair.  It is a modern day job buffet.  We’re compelled by pay, by prestige, by position.  An anxiety grows:  “What can I do to attain the most?!”  But vocation opens up something deeper within us.  It satisfies, precisely because God joins your gladness with the world’s hunger.

I’d love to end with a story that paints a rosy picture of this.  But it’s complex.  We’re all so utterly unique.  And, we live in a broken world.  But consider a few scenarios.  I heard the story recently of a woman who stayed in a difficult job in an utterly corrupt industry, in part, because of an influence she had which gave her great satisfaction and looked a whole lot like following Jesus (cruciformity) in a difficult place. It was an improbable call, but nevertheless extraordinary.

I know a man who read a book on desire and the ‘wild’, and decided God must live in the mountains.  He moved he and his family to Colorado only to discover that God wasn’t there.  Upon returning, he told me that this ‘desire’ was more about him than about allowing God to shape him. He learned the lesson of vocation the hard way.

I know a pastor who left ministry to pursue his real calling – becoming a physician.  Later, I saw a man who was far happier – deep gladness, meeting the world’s hunger in a concrete way, and living a cross-shaped life.

All of this, I hope, points both to the complexity and beauty of calling.  In many respects, this process is harder than many of us would like it to be.  We’d love a quick vocational test, or neat-and-tidy program.  But I’d invite you to enter a process of discernment, where you ask hard questions about your life, your story, your context, and your place in God’s larger Story, all in the context of your community.  Let me know how it ‘takes shape.’