“Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck. Your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling,” as Vincent Van Gogh once said.
How do we find what we are meant to do? This is the infamous and expansive search—the quest for our unique calling. This is the question that keeps us up at night, that makes fortysomethings leave their lives in search for something better, that keeps twentysomethings from staying at a job for more than a year at a time, that causes many dates to never turn to wedding bells.
What on earth am I here for? What am I supposed to do with my life?
We bounce, slamming ourselves into walls. We sit and ponder. We write “How-to’s”—20 Ways to Find Your Calling (Forbes), What You Are Meant To Be Doing—Find Your Calling (Oprah) and How To Find Your Calling (Institute for Faith, Works, and Economics).
I think of my grandfather and his German immigrant family working on a farm in North Dakota. It’s 10 degrees outside, and he’s 9 years-old and bundled, scouring the field in search of boulders that might shred the family tractor. Twenty years later, he’s a grown man operating a grocery store, hand writing receipts and keeping track of the tabs of customers.
Who told us we have a right to a meaningful job? Who defines whether our job has meaning? And who says our job is our calling?
I’m leading a Bible study with several women, and we’re sitting around talking about faith and the names of God, (all of us from very different backgrounds), and the study asks a zinger of a question—a question I’ve heard many times over—a question I pretty much reject altogether.
The author asks: ‘What has God uniquely called you to do? Are you fulfilling God’s calling on your life?”
We have approximately one centimeter high and four inches across to scribble our answer.
For a minute, I consider throwing my book across the room. Or quitting the study for the day. But eventually, in somewhat of a fluster, I write: “God has called me to everyday obedience. I am to walk step by step with Him, and if I do so, then I am fulfilling His unique calling on my life.”
I feel rebellious.
The problem I see with that overused, overemphasized, overpreached word “calling” is that many of us have limited the definition of “calling” to a profession, a career or a role. In this view, calling is about what we do, not about who we are. Calling becomes about assignment—my calling to be a mother, or a psychologist, or a missionary, or a teacher; my “calling” to “go into ministry” or “go on the mission field.” And then when our children walk out the door, when we lose our jobs, when our spouses suddenly die, when the funding doesn’t come in, when we become desensitized with our workplace, or when we simply grow old and hunched over, what then? Where is our calling?
In some ways, the problem is related to our not knowing our giftings. But it’s also more than that. It’s about our expectation.
We have an expectation that our calling is discoverable. It’s the gold nugget buried within the river bank. Search for it, be patient, don’t give up, we’ll find it (or stumble upon it) one day, eventually, and our lives will never be the same.
We wait around for the phone to ring. Literally, to “feel called.” Or bump into it at random—the clouds align and a cross shines on the pavement before us—like the four-leaf clover underfoot, we sift, searching for that one thing we are “meant to do” that nobody else can make happen (unless, of course, God equips or enables or chooses someone else for the job).
For some of us, no matter how long we wait or how hard we search, the elusive “calling” doesn’t come. We look upon people living out their calling with envy—what’s wrong with us that we don’t know what we’re supposed to do with our lives? Why does He have something unique for them, but not unique for me?
We have an expectation our calling is going to feel deliciously good—like the buzzer beater at the end of the game to win it all. It’s a perceived sweet spot based on happiness—the place where we feel sure we are doing exactly what we are created to do—and anything short of worthwhileness must mean it is not, actually, what we are meant to do or be.
Derek was a 17-year-old teenager wondering what to do with his life when his folks, concerned he had no direction, brought in an outside person to help him identify his interests and his talents. Upon conclusion of his evaluation, the instructor told my husband he should pursue professional golf and/or professional baseball as his calling. Those were his predominant loves at the time. Of course he was thrilled he could one day be Mike Trout (if only he works hard and believes, right?), but the idea that calling might actually require of us, might be detestably hard, is almost unheard of.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
We have an expectation that our calling will be profound. We want to become instant successes, start a business, invent something unique, write a book that impacts thousands, raise the next Margaret Thatcher, write music that reaches the Billboard Top 100, become the next Rick Warren, or make movies that matter. We’re a culture consumed with numerical impact, with skyrocketing ROI, awards and the recognition of man, so when our “calling” is to be in the shadows, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
I think about some of the people new to our church, who are breaking through strongholds, walking in recovery and making tiny strides toward a better life. Most of them are living in the now, in the everyday questions: Will I have enough money at the end of the month? Will I stay clean? Will I get to see my child one day? They take each day one step at a time, one step closer toward their best selves, the people God wants them to be.
This is how I’ve started looking at calling.
It takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and maturity to live in today, walking step by step, doing whatever I’m supposed to do today. It takes discipline to say “I don’t know.” It takes faith to trust in one-day-at-a-time. It requires me to lay down my desperate, freakish desire for control and trust He is at work.
He knows the reason I was made. If I walk in step with Him every day, I will walk into the reason. Maybe I’m here for something big and meaningful, or maybe I’m supposed to pick up rocks so the tractors don’t break.
My “calling” is every day.
This article was originally published at karenyates.com. It has been updated from an earlier version published in May 2013.
Karen E Yates (@KarenYates11) is a writer, blogger, dabbler in book marketing, and sushi addict. A mother of three children, two by birth and one via adoption, she writes on spiritual formation, adoption, books and church culture. She blogs at KarenEYates.com.