Some people seem to know from a very early age what they should do with their lives. They feel driven to write or to paint, to kick a soccer ball or to study primates, to fight injustice or to discover the laws governing the universe.
Think Annie Dillard, Pablo Picasso, Jane Goodall, or Stephen Hawking.
They will sacrifice time and money, reputation and relationships, and sometimes even their health for the sake of this defining passion. If they were prevented from pursuing their desire, their life would seem to them to be hollow. Unbearable.
When people talk about calling or vocation, they often have this sort of thing in mind. A calling defines who we are, and being who we are makes life worth living.
As the writer Emily Esfahani Smith points out, most people will not experience a Jane-Goodall-sized sense of calling. If we are able to feel that life is worth living only if we have that sort of vocation, most human beings will spend their lives sinking into despair.
Instead, Smith says this: “The world is full of retail clerks, coupon sorters, accountants, and students. It is full of highway flaggers, parents, government bureaucrats, and bartenders.” (The Power of Meaning, p. 95)
Many of these people live rich, rewarding lives. Smith explains this by distinguishing between calling and having a purpose. Most people don’t find meaning in their job as such. Rather, the job—whatever it may be—presents for them the opportunity to help other people. That is why their lives feel worth living.
Smith’s distinction between vocation and purpose is a helpful one. Nevertheless, I believe that what she calls “purpose” is precisely how Christians should understand the deeply imbedded, God-given calling that all human beings share. We are called to be our true selves.
Being our true selves is not doing whatever we feel like doing or saying whatever is on our minds or having everything we want. We are our true selves when we live into our essence. We were created in the image of God. So, to be our true selves is to love what God loves how God loves it.
It should come as a shock to no one that this is an infinitely tall order. Being our true self is something we grow into or, conversely, something we fail to actualize. Paradoxically, becoming ourselves involves shedding old ways and old assumptions. It involves taking on patterns of behaving and thinking that initially seem anything but natural to us:
• Forgiving people who aren’t sorry.
• Loving people who hate our guts.
• Giving our stuff away to people who haven’t earned it.
• Seeing every stranger not as a threat but as the friend we’re about to make.
In other words, becoming your true self involves changing who you are. That’s what growth is, after all. When a potential becomes an actuality, an old actuality passes away. Think acorns and oak trees. Or, better yet, think Simon and Peter.
On their very first meeting, Jesus called Simon to follow him by way of changing his name to Peter. Now strictly speaking, Peter wasn’t really “Peter” at that instant. He was going to grow into Peter gradually. Well, sort of erratically, actually. But that’s another story. (John 1:42)
The point is that Jesus didn’t call Peter to a job or a career. He called Peter to be somebody. To be the image of God in whatever circumstances he found himself. Whether he was preaching or eating dinner with Gentiles, whether he was fishing or healing the sick, that activity was the means by which Peter could love.
Flash forward to the end of John’s Gospel. Remember that the crucified Jesus had risen and appeared to his friends. Time had passed, and the disciples were out fishing. Jesus showed up and they all shared a seaside breakfast of bread and fish.
Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And each time Peter said, “Yes,” Jesus told him to feed his sheep. “Love!” in other words. Make everything you do an expression of the love that God is pouring into you. (John 21:1-19)
Jesus showed us how to love in our ordinary lives. Whatever our jobs may be, whatever activities may fill our days, we can make our lives an expression of love. We can pursue our calling. We can strive to love what God loves how God loves it.
If you want to find your calling, follow the example of Jesus. Take every present moment, no matter how mundane or stressful or baffling, as an opportunity to love.