Nowadays, at Christian conferences, on Christian blogs, in Christian publishing, “calling” is the Christian’s pursuit and the Christian’s validation. The message to old and young, wealthy and poor, content and struggling is that calling is how our life intersects with God’s will. We’re anxious and impatient to find our calling, afraid that we’ll “miss it,” and if we think we’ve found our calling, we’re passionate about carrying it out. Today, the idea of calling empowers those who feel they have found it, and weighs on those who feel it eludes them.
Calling is a deeply Christian concept, yet the various pressures and passions of our day have distorted it. The anti-poverty crusader, the well digger, the orphan adopter: We know those who have found their calling by their accomplishments. These people “bear fruit,” we say, and we want to be as productive for the kingdom as they are. But this can be a distraction, a type of legalism. This production-focused idea of calling takes a good thing—good works—and makes it the thing.
The truth is that calling is not about what you are producing, but what God is producing in you.
When we get outside of our production mindset, we’re able to look at what it means to “bear fruit” with fresh eyes. This phrase does not refer to our own good deeds, but about the fruits of the spirit that God cultivates within us.
This is clear through the entirety of scripture. Eleven verses into Genesis, we’re told about the concept of bearing fruit that God Himself created, and a verse later He speaks it into being: “The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.”
To “bear fruit” means for a thing to reproduce that which resembles its very essence. Trees were created as God created them, and they bore fruit that was true to its God-given nature. And it was good.
If bearing fruit is about generating what is according to our nature, the obvious question is “what is our intended nature?” In Psalm 92, we are told the “righteous will flourish like a palm tree … they will still bear fruit in old age.” And what will that look like? They will proclaim “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.” If we are righteous people, the fruit we bear will be a heart of worship of God’s nature.
In one of the most emotionally wrenching, heart-grabbing passages of scripture, Jesus tells his disciples to “remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me … apart from me you can do nothing.” And several verses later: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15: 4-8).
In Romans, after describing how we were “dead to sin,” the Apostle Paul describes how Christ provides a pathway for us to reorient our nature, dying “to the law … that you might belong to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit from God” (Romans 7:4).
Finally, in Colossians, Paul reminds followers of Jesus of their calling, and notes the proper relationship between “bearing fruit” and “good works:” “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9-10).
Our good works are not the purpose of our calling. Our calling is not defined by the earthly outcomes of our efforts. No, our calling is to bear fruit from above: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)
It is primarily in this way that we are made useful in the work of justice. The Bible never speaks of our role in the pursuit of justice and restoration outside of our relationship to and with God, because there is no such thing as justice outside of God. This is why it can be so exhausting and infuriating for us, and potentially destructive for those we think we’re helping, to pursue justice separate from God. When we seek the products of justice while ignoring the process of bearing fruit, we’re missing the point. We serve a process-oriented God.
So what does this mean for our lives?
Prioritize the process
Is your striving to make a difference in people’s lives taking so much out of you that you have stopped investing in your own growth? Are you so stressed and burdened by the causes you’re pouring your life into that you lash out at the people in your life?
The question of “where can I make the most impact?” is secondary to “am I putting myself in a position to bear fruit?” Our passion for work or social causes can never come before our spiritual formation. This is not because our work is unrelated to our calling, but because our work and good deeds cease to be a part of God’s call on our life when they hinder our efforts, with God’s help, to “bear fruit.” As Tyler Wigg-Stevenson writes in his book, The World is Not Ours to Save, “There is nothing God needs us to do so badly that it warrants neglecting some aspect of Christlikeness in our lives.”
How can we arrange our lives—what routines will we create, who will we spend our time with, where will we invest—to live more fully in the life of power that Jesus came to offer us? The answers may be unique to each of us, but it is to this process of transformation that God calls us.
Throw out comparisons
If we think calling is about accomplishment, it is easy to feel jealous of those who seem to be more effective than us and of their seemingly stronger connection to God. But our faithfulness to God, not to mention God’s faithfulness to us, is not measured by the impact of our endeavors. Failure is not a sin, and success alone means little.
When we realize calling is not a competition, we can be free to encourage and rejoice in the good works of others for God’s glory, without making the mistake of wondering where we went wrong.
Relax and Rest
Calling is not a code to crack. God is not holding out on you. We won’t find fulfillment in achievement. We’ll find peace when we understand our purpose is not to seek justice, but to become the type of people who seek justice. You don’t need to graduate, start that non-profit, get that job offer or wait for the kids to leave the house to really follow Jesus.
In the end, our calling springs from a victory that has already been won. Jesus lived a blameless life, suffered an undeserved death, and rose again so we might share in His life. On His way to the cross, Jesus told His disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16).
He chose you. You have been appointed. Rest in that. Live out the calling that has been set before you. “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”
Michael Wear is a writer, speaker and consultant who helps organizations navigate the 21st century American religious and political landscape. He is a former advisor to President Barack Obama, serving in his White House and leading faith outreach for his re-election campaign. MichaelÕs website is michaelrwear.com and he is on twitter at @MichaelRWear.