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February 13, 2012

Reclaiming the Idea of Vocation

I’m learning what my primary calling is—and isn’t.

“How does God speak to you most frequently?”

I stared at the question in my devotional journal, a grin creeping across my face. Some days I have trouble answering the stretching questions posed in this devotional, but this one drew an immediate answer: patterns and repetition. I’m not sure if I need to hear the same message over and over in different ways and places because I’m stubborn or because I need to think about things for a while, but this is the way God speaks to me. Over and over again he’s made his will clear to me through patterns and repetition.

There was the time I was being called to career ministry. I had many people from all walks of life suddenly suggest this career to me, even though I hold an education degree. Then a spiritual gifts inventory pointed me that way. Then a pastor. And then a position in my hometown opened. I took it without hesitating. The experience taught me so much.

Or there was also the time God was teaching me about truly putting my trust in him—to claim that he is good regardless of my circumstances. First came many pertinent Bible readings, then a suspiciously similarly themed book for class, then a lost relationship, and finally a lost job. Then nearly a year of waiting for a new job. I was broken down by the repetition, but the message came through loud and clear, and I am better for it.

Currently, God is speaking to me about vocation and reclaiming this important biblical concept. I’d heard of vocation before, even thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant. But as I’ve started working in a new career and attending a new church, it’s been helpful to reconsider. And let’s face it; I haven’t had much of a choice.

God’s been using repetition again to speak to me. I’m reading The Call by Os Guinness for a class, working through a church-wide campaign on finding personal mission, and doing a writing project for emerging adult Christians (18-30)—a group that is searching for identity and purpose. In another, unrelated class I’m working on a counseling case study about a man who doesn’t know who he is and what his life should be about. And I recently heard a talk from a yoga instructor on the importance of finding that one thing you must do in life—that thing that brings you amazing joy because it’s what you’re meant to do.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion about the word vocation, even though it’s been around for centuries. In The Call Os Guinness breaks down the misconceptions into two types: the Catholic distortion and the Protestant distortion. He defines the Catholic distortion as believing vocation is only for those called to career ministry—pastors, priests, nuns. This makes vocation only about spiritual things, and neglects the fact that everyone who follows Jesus has been called.

The Protestant distortion, on the other hand, is believing that any job we do—mothering, writing, teaching, building, fixing—is something we are called to. This makes vocation sound purely secular and can make us believe that vocation and career are synonymous, when in fact our vocations may have nothing to do with our careers.

So what’s the appropriate understanding of vocation? This is how Os Guinness explains it:

Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Magnolia). Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. But these and other things are always secondary, never the primary calling. They are “callings” rather than the “calling.” They are our personal answer to God’s address, our response to God’s summons. Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.
So our primary calling is to God himself. And our secondary calling is our response to God’s love. Our secondary calling allows us to use what God has uniquely given us to glorify him.

God has certainly had my attention. But why? I’ve realized that God is redefining my secondary calling—to help others live out their callings. As I prepare resources for SmallGroups.com, I’m providing small-group leaders with the materials to live out their callings well—whether they’re training resources, articles on personal spiritual formation, or blogs where leaders can comment and interact. I find joy each day as I work.

Although I’m blessed to be able to live out my vocation at work, I realize there are many ways to live out that calling. As my small group meets, I can encourage other group members to live out their callings more fully. When I speak to young Christians unsure of their futures, I can give them a hug and reassure them that God will reveal their unique callings to them. When I spend time with my four-year-old niece, I can reflect back to her those things she is good at, the gifts and talents God has given her, so she can discover her calling.

As I look around the church, I hear a repetitive call to reclaim the concept of vocation. From students struggling with identity, to emerging adults searching for meaning in life, to single men and women wondering if singleness can be a blessing, to empty-nester parents nervous about what the second half of life holds, to 80-year-old brothers and sisters in Christ doubting that God can still use them. We all need to know that the Caller is calling us—both to himself and to respond to his love by using our unique gifts, talents, and personalities, no matter what stage of life we’re in.

Perhaps God is speaking to all of us through repetition.

God has been painting a new picture of the church for me. Can you imagine what reclaiming the idea of vocation could do for the church? Imagine if we were all living out our unique callings, using our gifts, talents, and days to do that thing that brings us joy and brings God glory. Imagine the adventure, the fun, the chaos, the beauty. Imagine the new reputation the church might have. Perhaps it would be known as the place you go to live life fully, even dangerously. To have a real impact. To bless and be blessed.

What is your vocation? What unique thing(s) has God called you to do for his glory? And how are you living out that vocation

Related Tags: calling, job, ministry, mission, vocation


I am struggling with this desperately. I am 35 years old, have been in public education for 13 years (now part-time), quitting once before, and hating every minute of it. Two degrees later in that field, and in the middle of my life (maybe) I still don't know what I'm "supposed" to be doing. I do want to pursue God with all I have, but it's the everyday that I am struggling with. Over the past few years I have felt God's call to write, and I have discovered a, possibly suppressed, gift for writing. But it is so slow going, and I get discouraged easily. Knowing my call and vocation has always been a struggle. On top of all of that I got married in my early thirties and really thought I would be (and wanted to be) a wife and mother. But even though I'm now married, we still don't have children.

Thank you for your post. It is good do know that there's always time for God to change my direction.

There is no such thing as "vocation". There is only what we really, truly, genuinely, and authentically want to do. Most of us start out life, beginning in high school or college, with some idea, vague or definite, of what we think we want to do. If and as we mature, this initial conception of what we want to do gets refined, nuanced ... and often thrown away altogether. Gradually, if and as we mature, we gain greater and greater conviction about our strenght, our weaknesses, our real interests, our real aptitudes, our real weaknesses and strengths ... and, through all this, our real aspirations and desires. The result is that by the time we are in our 30s or 40s, perhaps earlier, we have come to know what we really want as distinct from what we thought we want. Seldom is the former the same as the latter.

But this entire process is fraught with uncertainty and with risk. There are, moveover, certain decisions that we believe we cannot afford to be wrong about, certain decisions that, if made wrongly, can damage and derange our entire life. Do I marry? If so, whom do I marry? What profession should I pursue? What religious tradition should I adhere to? On and on ... Because we (believe we) cannot afford to be wrong, we crave, even lust after, certitude. Yet we know, deep down, that we are fallible creatures, that we can make mistakes ... that we can be wrong, perhaps catastrophically wrong.

So, in the interest of avoiding making bad decisions and in the interest of being certain, where can we turn? Where can we gain that kind of certitude about the "big" decisions of life that we so crave? Answer: God. So we invent a "call" from God. "I can be wrong," we think, "but God cannot. I can make mistakes, but God cannot. I can make bad decisions, but God cannot". So in the interest of finding assurance that we are making good decisions, we "piggy-back" onto God's certitude. We say "God called me to marry Bill", "God called me to become an attorney", "God called me to be a Presbyterian", etc., etc., etc. In reality, it is not God calling us, but us calling ourselves by clarifying our desires and then believing God called us. This has the effect, not only of clarifying our desires and goals, but also, at least as importantly, of endowing them with a degree of certitude they would otherwise lack.

The problem, of course, comes when -- in spite of all the foregoing -- we nevertheless make the wrong decision. We believed we were called to be an attorney, but we either flunked out of law school or discovered that being an attorney was simply not our cup of tea. So we drop out of law school -- and in the process experience the downside of thinking vocationally. If I was headed to a career as a lawyer as a result of God's call, and if I notwithstanding change my mind and alter my professional trajectory, the logical inference is that I have rejected God's call. So by deciding to not become an attorney, I am disobeying God. The consequences of this can be catastrophic. There are 2 alternatives, both alike unthinkable: either God is incompetent in terms of making God's will known to me, or God is simply playing with me like a cat with a wounded mouse, or I am disobeying God.

That's the tragedy of vocational thinking: by thinking vocationally, you raise the stakes so high that you cannot afford to be wrong. This places more weight on one's shoulders than the human organism can bear. A much healthier approach, IMHO, is to simply abandon vocational thinking altogether, and refuse to fob off onto God the responsibility for making important life-decisions. There is nothing at all wrong, and much quite healthy, about saying, e.g., "I became an attorney because I wanted to", and virtually everything wrong with saying "I became an attorney because God called me".

God has enough respect for human beings that God expects us to "call" ourselves, not wait for God to blow Divine reveille on some celestial Trumpet.


I sympathize with James R. Cowles comment as someone who thought I was called to full-time ministry in high school, and then discovered that I most definitely was not. However, that does not mean that we do not have callings attached to our spiritual gifts. It does mean that Guiness is right to tell us not to conflate our callings with our careers.

Thank you, Anne ... I think that, contrary to what is perhaps the "orthodox" advice given to Christians who are trying to discern a "call", the first and most important question one should ask in that discernment process is not "What does God want?" but rather "What do I really and truly and authentically want?" That latter question can take a long, long time to answer. Snap judgments about such things are almost always wrong, if my experience and the stories of others' experiences are any indication. Without getting sidetracked about issues concerning how literally one should take "calls" in the Bible, I think it is safe to say that, even if they literally took place the way the biblical text says, they almost certainly do not take place that way today. I'm 62 years old, have dealt with issues of "call" and "vocation" myself, and have (in a non-professional capacity) helped others deal with such questions, and I have yet to meet anyone who had Samuel's experience of "call".

The desire is quite intense in the Christian subculture for that kind of experience, because being called by God gives us great certitude, fobs off our decision-making capacity onto God, and thereby allows us to get the monkey of personal responsibility off our backs. ("Hey! It wasn't my idea to be a missionary to the natives of Ookabollakonga! I was called by God!") But that is not the approach of a healthy, adult spirituality. It is the approach of passivity and co-dependency.


The real issue beneath all these conundra connected with "call" and "vocation" is that the biblical, specifically, the Gospel, ideal of what a Christian should be is such that Christians end up buying into a culture of passivity and waiting, to the detriment of mature acceptance of personal responsibility.

Why do I say that?

Because ... consder: what are the 2 predominant metaphors in the Bible for Christians? Answer: sheep and children. Christians are sheep who are waiting on the Shepherd's voice to call them ... the operative word being "waiting". I know a few sheep farmers, and they tell me sheep are really pretty dumb, certainly no one's idea of the Stephen Hawkings of the mammalian world. Consequently, sheep need a shepherd. Grant sheep any independence of action, and they are virtually guaranteed to end up lost, at best, and dead, at worst. Sheep need a shepherd to tell them wnat to do, and, once assigned a shepherd, the prime virtue of a sheep is to wait on the voice of a shepherd. Of course, waiting is not necessarily passive, but one has to conjoin the sheep metaphor with the principle of "Lean not on your own understanding", and "There is a wayw which seems right, but is the way of death". Etc., etc., etc. ... all of which collectively conduces to a posture, not only of waiting, but of passive waiting -- and least of all to the acceptance of personal responsibility for what one does with one's life.

Similar remarks apply to the other regnant New Testament metaphor for the People of God: children. In fact, if anything, here the point is even sharper, for "Except you become like a little child, you shall never enter the Kingdom of God". Children need a parent. Why? With children, it is not so much a matter of raw intelligence -- a young child is smarter than a sheep -- but rather of innocence, which may be defined as a condition of un-injured-ness. A child has never touched a hot stove and been burned ... and so does not know to avoid hot stoves. Maturity is the result of a long dialectic of "innocence and experience", to borrow the title of Wm. Blake's book of poetry, and encouraging the former discourages the latter, and thereby short-circuits the achievement of maturity. But, in terms of the New Testament criteria, that is the ideal: an innocent Christian.

What all this means is that we are encouraged to be passive like sheep and children, to wait on the s(S)hepherd's voice in the former case and on the p(P)arent's voice in the latter. The result vis a vis issues of "call" and "vocation" is that we wait for s(S)omeone outside of us to call us, instead of acknowledging our own goals and desires and, as it were, "calling ourselves", i.e., the approach of a mature person who makes, and accepts the consequences of, her / his own autonomy and her / his own decisions.

We are called to "vocation" -- the Latin root being "vocare", meaning "call" -- because the dominant biblical tropes militate against the development of a mature sense of autonomy and responsibility. Sheep and children need to be directed by s(S)omeone else, because sheep and children cannot be self-directing.


I appreciate this discussion -- I think vocation is really such an important idea for Christians to consider. Often our thoughts about it can involve so much pressure -- like we need to have some sense of revelation or strong sense of call. Sometimes we DO have a strong sense of call, but I think other times it's daily obedience and we can work out God's leading as we reflect and look back. You know, those times when we say, "Oh, yes, God WAS leading me" or "I'm so glad I've ended up in this role/job/position."
I also think we discern vocation when we feel the opposite -- a sense of being out of place, stressed, unhealthy, not at peace. Those "bad" feelings don't necessarily mean we're in the wrong career (sometimes God calls us into discomfort for reasons we may not understand) but I do think they often help us learn more about ourselves, our giftings, and so on. I, for example, realized I was not fit for work as a newspaper-writer only after I began working at a newspaper.
The other thought I want to add to the discussion is the wisdom of Dorothy Sayers. Sayers' essay "Why Work?" (Google it to read it online) is really thought-provoking and helps one think about work done with excellence as a good in and of itself. Of course this isn't always easy to see in some jobs, but it sort of neutralizes the "pressure" we may put on trying to discern vocation while instead calling us to see work as a good gift from God and a gift we can offer back to God and to our fellow man.
Oh, and one more: I love Parker Palmer's thoughts on vocation and would highly recommend reading Let Your Life Speak.
Thanks again for this great post!


I appreciate your comments. I agree that when we understand vocation in the way you describe we are forced to passively wait for God to tell us exactly what to do—and when it doesn't work out, we must rebuild our belief about being called to that thing in the first place. I do not believe, however, that is how we are to understand vocation.

Vocation is not being called to a career or to a person or to a place or to a group of people. Vocation is that passion, that drive, that God places in us, that thing we must do that corresponds with the way God has uniquely made us. Someone's vocation may be to help others understand their full potential, to meet people in their deep needs, to create things that glorify God, to help others enjoy life more fully, to educate others about tragedy in the world . . .

All of these vocations can be lived out in many ways: our careers, our ministries, our friendships, our family relationships. We can choose how best to live out those vocations. Let's take, for instance, the vocation of meeting people in their deep needs. This could be lived out through someone loving on his or her children, leading a recovery ministry, being a clinical psychologist, talking with friends, and on and on.

In your story about the person trying to become an attorney, I think there are several flaws. First of all, to discover that you're not suited for law school in itself is a clear indicator that being an attorney is not the way to live out your vocation, whatever that may be. Secondly, Os Guinness says we're not called to careers. Instead, this person's call may be to help those that are in need, and he or she thought the most effective way to do that was through the law. Obviously, though, being an attorney is not a good fit. This is not the place to live out the calling of helping others in need. Instead, this person could be a teacher, or a construction worker who serves at a soup kitchen on the weekends, or a parent who looks for people in need to help. Vocation is not tied to our careers.

Great suggestion with Let Your Life Speak! I think that's a wonderful read.

Thanks for sharing. It is so difficult to think we know what we want (to be a mother, to have a certain career . . .) and then to find out that it's not working out as we planned. Hang in there and know that God can use even these difficulties and unmet hopes as we live out our vocations. They may even point you to what God is calling you to.

Thank you for this interesting and thought provoking discussion. I can't think of one Christian that I know (and I know many) for whom this isn't a struggle. I think we all ask ourselves if we're using our lives well. We all miss the mark sometimes and face our regrets. For me it comes down to the tension between God's sovereignty and our free will. As James points out, we cannot passively expect God to work it all out for us, nor should we avoid responsibility for our decisions in the name of God's call. However, as is demonstrated throughout Scripture, God accomplishes his purpose in and through people regardless of their failures. As usual, there is no formula with God. I am thankful that even when I miss a "call" or lose some time answering a wrong number, God can and does redeem it for his ultimately good purpose.

Thank you for this article, Amy. What an interesting discussion it created! My husband is currently a children's pastor and before he felt called into full time ministry, he was an elementary and middle school band teacher. While working as a teacher, he and I would serve in many ways at church. It was through serving that we both discovered that God was preparing us for his call into full time ministry. Through all our moves and careers, God always had us where He wanted us. That doesn't mean that things always went smooth - financial difficulty, personality conflict on the job, etc. However, God used each and every one of those circumstances to help us both grow. Something I learned through all the changes and moves is that no matter where I am and what I am doing for a job, God always has a ministry for me there. I think God just wants us to be willing to go and do whatever He places on our hearts - even if there is a cost. There is always a cost, by the way. Pride, finances, moving away from family or friends and so on, maybe even leaving a job you love. Following Christ is our vocation.

Sharon, that is beautiful. Thanks for sharing your story of following God where he leads.

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