When my mom and I were living in a car, I never had the sense that we were doomed. In part, that’s because my mom simply emanated hope. That woman never gave up. Ever.
What I learned from her is that hope is what keeps us going even when the odds are not in our favor. Even when we’re exhausted or struggling, uncertain or afraid, flat on our face or down on our luck, hope gets us out of bed, off the couch, and onto the pavement.
One source of hope is the sense that we have a calling. This life is worth living because we’re in this world to do something. Something infinitely and eternally significant. That’s not to say that we’re supposed to pursue a specific career, take up a particular cause, or create enduring artworks.
Actually, each of us is receiving a deep, relentless call from our Maker. No matter what job or profession or role in life we may play, we can exercise our holy vocation.
You might be wondering what your calling is or how to go about discerning it. There’s an episode in John’s Gospel that offers crucial perspective.
After Jesus has risen from the dead, he appears to his friends at the Sea of Tiberias. They’ve been fishing all night with no luck. When Jesus shows up, he leads them to a miraculous catch of fish. They all share a seaside breakfast, and then Jesus pulls Peter aside for private chat. (John 21:1-19)
Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Not once or twice, but three times. Each time Peter said, “Yes!” And each time Jesus said some version of “Feed my sheep.”
You may recall that, on the night before the crucifixion, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus three separate times (John 18:15-27). Peter had abandoned, forgotten, or rejected his deep bond with Jesus in his terror, doubt, and confusion.
Now, on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus was renewing Peter’s call, a call grounded in Jesus’s love for him.
That’s how our deep calling works. God keeps drawing us toward who we truly are, knowing full well that we’ll forget, run from, or betray who we really are more than once. The very essence of God’s call to Peter—and to the rest of the apostles, and to each and every one of us—is love.
The essential human calling is to love God by loving what God loves, how God loves it. We frequently refer to this as the Great Commandment or the summary of the Law. Jesus himself summarized the whole Torah by saying that we should love God with every ounce of our being and love our neighbor as if our own life depends upon their well-being (Matthew 22:34-40).
Strictly speaking, this is our calling. When you hear the word commandment, you may think of an order issued or a directive given by an authority figure. If you refuse or fail to obey, negative consequences follow. You might begin to think that if we don’t love, God won’t love us anymore.
But again, this is our calling. God’s love attracts us, draws us toward love. God loves us because God’s very nature is love.
Love invites us into itself, to become one. Love invites us to be love and become our truest selves. So, our calling is to be the image of God in whatever occupation, situation, or set of circumstances in which we find ourselves. This is who we were created to be.
Most of us will live quite ordinary lives in jobs we take to make ends meet. These jobs are not likely to offer us a great platform from which to change the world.
However, in most every line of work, we encounter people. We brush up against Jesus’s sheep, and we can feed them with our respect, attention, and kindness.
For instance, my mother’s last job was behind a deli counter in a grocery store. She greeted people by name and remembered their usual orders. Her focus was on making her customers’ day better. She fed Jesus’s sheep, and her attention to serving others was the source of her own hopefulness.
Researchers would probably say that my mother had stumbled onto one of the keys to a fulfilling life. Devoting ourselves to helping others in our daily work makes that work, whatever it may be, seem worthwhile. We feel that we’re making a difference.
Emily Esfahani Smith writes, “No matter what occupies our days, when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant.” (Power of Meaning, p. 96)
Or as Jesus put it, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Devoting our lives to the well-being of others—losing our lives—is a way of being ready for what we are all called to do: give ourselves back to God.
This essay has been adapted from my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book about Hope. To learn more about hope—how to find it, practice it, and grow in it— just click here.