Anthony Abell, vocation, calling, Christian life, faith and work

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What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Calling

Some clarity for the confused.

An observer might tell you you missed your calling when they see you do something good that you don’t normally do. Or a friend may offer a comment such as, “You just need to find your calling,” when you’re having an existential moment and lack direction. The idea is that something you do well must be your calling, whether you’ve discovered it or not.

In the same vein, we often associate calling with a specific set of skills or career path. But in an age characterized by buzzwords and marketing talk, the term “calling” also suffers from overuse. And in using the term in this way, we may be undervaluing the reality of Christian calling itself. 

When we say “calling” in reference to a certain type of work, we might be referring to skills, giftedness, and desire. The skills to do our work come through formal training, a mentored experience, or perhaps just trial and error. This is the apprehension of knowledge we can apply to a job. 

Occasionally we discover that we are gifted to do something. These eureka moments of discovery allow us to skip an initial learning curve and work on refining these gifts. 

Apart from skill or gifting, you might desire a particular career. For many of us, financial incentive is not enough. We must desire to do what we are doing professionally. Of course, your desire for a certain job does not always indicate the quality of your work. Christians are taught to maintain a high quality of work. Paul instructs the Corinthians to do all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Paul also urges the Colossian Christians to do the tasks of life set before them with the whole of who they are to the Lord (Col 3:23). Therefore, in our desire for a particular vocation, we should be motivated to use our skill and gifts in a Christian manner. When we understand vocation in terms of skills and giftedness, it frees us to pivot from one vocation to another without the commitment that accompanies a calling.

But there is something more important when we think about the question of calling. Despite a flurry of colloquialisms that suggest the opposite, the idea of calling in Scripture is not referenced in light of vocation. Instead, it mostly points to our faith in God and our relationship with God. 

As Christians, we are called through the gospel (2 Thess 2:14). God saved us and called us to a holy calling (2 Tim 1:8-9). We are called to live a life of holiness that is empowered by being made alive in Christ (Eph 2:5). The gospel enlivened us for doing good (Eph 2:10). Our calling is much more than a job or career: Our Christian calling is to reflect the enlivening work of the gospel by doing good in all that we do — including our vocations. Our calling is the lens through which we view all of life. 

By treating our jobs as synonymous with our calling, we actually run the risk of diminishing our true calling in Jesus Christ. And we may confuse which one represents our true identity. Our calling as Christians is the moral lens through which we understand and act in our vocations. If this is truly our lens, then we are always Christians who, through a combination of skills, giftings, and desires, happen to do or be something. 

When faced with a job or vocational crisis, we don’t have to question our calling. We instead can understand who we are in contrast to what we do. This is because our lens reminds us what takes priority. 

Our Christian calling provides a bigger and brighter future than any single vocation can provide. St. Augustine recognized the importance of ordo amortis, or order of affections, in The City of God. He insisted that no temporal good is fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good. When we rightly order our priorities, we can look not only to the temporal riches of vocation but also to the unsearchable riches of Christ.

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