Career vs. Calling

Man with backpack standing at fork in forest path one dark one light
God created us with the potential and nature to do His will — your calling is accompanied by the innate qualities and characteristics you'll need to live it.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in 1998

During the 1998 World Soccer Championship, Nike ran a commercial with no narrative and only one phrase at the bottom of the screen. The scene begins with a man setting the timer on his watch, opening his front door and starting to run. Suddenly, runners, one after another, representing different countries, begin to appear behind him. Struggling to maintain his astounding position against the world’s best, he pushes past his known limits. The commercial ends with him sprinting down the alley he started on, toward his front door. He runs up the front porch, opens and closes the door, hits his timer button on his watch and slowly walks further back into his house, never looking back. The commercial ends with the phrase, “What are you getting ready for?”

Whether you’re a freshman registering for your first spate of classes or a senior filling out job applications, that question hangs heavy in the mind of most students. What does your future hold and what courses should you take to prepare for it? I’ve heard of students covering seven or eight majors in the course of four years, finally settling for one in a desperate attempt to graduate on time. Why is it so hard to choose a major? Maybe because you feel like you’re being forced to commit to a life long career path. But what if you get three years out from college and decide zoology wasn’t such a glamorous career after all?

As important as this decision seems, there is more at stake than good money and self-fulfillment on the job. God is shaping you for something bigger. In Ephesians, Paul reminds us that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). God has something specific in mind for you — your calling. And the decisions you make about your major, your job, even the way you spend your time flow from knowing what your calling is.

Know Your Own Heart

The call of God is both universal and personal. He desires intimate relationship with all of his creation — a universal longing that none would perish. Yet, when you heed that call, there is a deeper plan to discover — a specific assignment only you can complete; “the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Corinthians 3:5).

You are unique among God’s creation. In addition to His universal commands (do justice, love mercy, etc.) He placed in you a call that is unlike any other. “The call of God … is implicit,” wrote Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest. It’s “like the call of the sea, no one hears it but the one who has the nature of the sea in him. It cannot be stated definitely what the call of God is to, because His call is to be in comradeship with Himself for His own purposes….”

The Fat Eagle’s Fate

In 1984, I was in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Los Angeles. The entertainment capitol of the world. Everyone expected it to be one of the most spectacular opening ceremonies to date. Plans included the flight of an American Bald Eagle from the western rim of the L.A. Coliseum, around the perimeter, to the top of the Olympic Rings at the playing of the National Anthem.

The choreographers hired one of the top Hollywood trainers to work with the eagle. But, he ran into several problems. First, the eagle was a member of the distinguished endangered species list and extremely hard to find. The trainer found only one in captivity. Second, the eagle — misfortunately named Bomber — had not flown during his 12 years of captivity. He looked more like a Butterball Turkey than a eagle. After two months of intense training, Bomber journeyed to the coliseum for several trial runs.

Tragically, the stress of the rehearsal killed him. Actually, he died of vascular collapse and an acute bacterial infection. In the words of the trainer, reported in Time magazine, “The eagle had been fat and coddled for years and when finally called upon to behave like an eagle, he failed.”

In this life, there is something you will be called to do. Through the enabling of the Holy Spirit and your passion and gifting, God is equipping you to do His will. Are you training? Are you ready? When it’s time for your flight, will you be toned and strong, or coddled and fat?

Unlocking the Secret

Janey feels a “calling” to the mission field, Mark is driven to be a doctor, and Alyssa wants to go to the inner city as a teacher. But you’re just happy to be passing biology. So you’re thinking, Are you sure everyone has this overarching purpose in life, this so-called calling? How do you discover something you’ve never thought about, when it sounds as easy as holding the wind in your hands? God promised in the Psalms that He would guide us: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you” (Ps. 32:8). In addition to spending a lot of time talking with God about His plans for your life, you can take your cues from the person He created you to be.

Your life is full of hints about your calling. They’re woven through your dreams and passions and visible in what motivates you and what you’re good at. First, you become aware of needs. You may find yourself thinking, Something needs to be done for the homeless and hungry in our city; for single moms left alone to fend for themselves and their children; for those who haven’t heard a compassionate and clear presentation of the Gospel; for the outlandish policies government is making.

Over time, your interests narrow. You start thinking, reading and talking about one need more than others. You move from thinking about homeless shelters, to actually working in one. It’s becoming intensely personal now. Eventually, if your heart is not “choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures” (Luke 8:14-15), you will find focus on one or two of those areas and be moved almost irrepressibly to action. You may start working full time for a homeless shelter, become actively involved as a board member or run for public office.

What needs weigh heavily on your heart? Is there an issue worth “pounding the table” over? Is there a problem you feel compelled to solve?

Trading Somersaults for Spreadsheets

You don’t just think. You also do. What are you good at doing? God created us with the potential and nature to do His will — your calling is accompanied by the innate qualities and characteristics you’ll need to live it. Your gifting includes spiritual gifts, natural abilities, acquired skills and personality traits — all of which God imparts and develops. Your gifts enable your passions. Without them, you’ll be limited. That’s why so much of life, especially in college, has more to do with what God is doing in us than through us. Our ability to grow and improve will determine our ability to fulfill our calling.

Typically, your gifting determines what you enjoy doing. When you are operating in the abilities God has created in you, for His purposes, you will experience joy. Mistakenly, we can sometimes feel guilty – not guilty about what we do enjoy but rather about what we don’t enjoy. Again, God has put the desire in us to do certain things in certain ways.

Even if you’re not living according to God’s will, you will find joy when you use the talents God has given you – your “natural abilities.” They are an intricate part of your design. This is true for most people. But that joy will be limited and meaningless.

Joy does not preclude hardship. Oswald Chambers said “God gives us a vision and then He takes us down to the valley to batter us into the shape of the vision, and it is in the valley that so many of us faint and give way.” Struggles, frustrations, small steps forward, failures, misunderstanding, brokenness: unless these, too, are welcomed with a certain joy, the claim to being called has a hollow ring.

I was a gymnast for fifteen years with Athletes in Action, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. During my final year, I sensed that God was leading me to fulfill my calling somewhere else. I struggled with this because I enjoyed what I was doing and wasn’t dreaming of doing something else. A friend of mine asked me several, very penetrating questions. He asked if I was passionate about evangelism. That was a tough question for me. After all, I worked for an aggressive evangelistic organization committed to reaching the world with the Gospel by the year 2,000. With a little bit of guilt, I admitted that, although I was committed to the importance of evangelism, I was not passionate about it. Then he asked me if I was passionate about sports. With a little embarrassment, I admitted that the only sport I was passionate about was gymnastics (and that was fading along with my back handspring).

Then he asked me what I really enjoyed about my work. I told him that I loved to help people and organizations find clarity and purpose in their work. That was a point of revelation. Suddenly, I could put my finger on what God had put in my heart to do. Shortly after we talked, Focus on the Family offered me a job that relied on these skills. I knew fairly quickly, by knowing what motivates me and what I’m good at, that God was moving me.

Before I started with Focus, another friend counseled me that God may be placing me in a new setting because my gifting and character needed to be stretched and developed beyond what it was in my current job. Both conversations proved critical to what I was to encounter. During my first year, I felt totally lost. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or what I had to offer. I doubted every ability and interest I thought I had, even the belief that there was a calling on my life. I was so busy trying to fit in, to be somebody, to do something that was appreciated and needed, that I forgot who I was. If it wasn’t for God, I would have lost my heart. God reassured me that He was in this to deepen my character. After twelve months, I realized that I needed to live from my heart, to bring who I was, not who I thought others wanted me to be, to the position and to God. It was at that point that my enthusiasm and sense of calling returned. My contribution to my position increased dramatically because I was working out of my passion and gifting, with a renewed sense of intimacy with God.

There are many tests, inventories and indicators you can take to learn what your spiritual gifts, personality type and abilities are. One of the most helpful things I did to bring more clarity to my calling was to identify several action words that describe what motivates me. These words create for me a sense of excitement and energy. You see, each person has a certain way of operating, a mode of action, that is unique. I discovered my “action verbs” by drawing a line down the center of a marker board. On one side I wrote the things I enjoyed doing — the things that energized me — over the past two years. On the other side I wrote the things I disliked; the things that sapped my strength. When my list was finished, there was a theme of common words that portrayed my heart in action. (You can do this exercise, too.)

Once you know your action verbs, review them frequently and see if they continue to represent your heart. When you have established several words that describe your enthusiasm and gifting, you will be better able to discern the opportunities that God is putting before you in alignment with your calling. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us about a man who, in preparation for his journey, gave each of his servants an opportunity for investment and achievement. He did not give them identical opportunities, or talents. Instead, he gave each servant a portion consistent with their ability. In the same way, God gives us opportunities according to our abilities, which we will only recognize if we know what our gifting is.

The Ultimate Why

Discovering and developing your calling sounds like a lot of work. But it’s worth it. Calling is essential to your spiritual life. When you live out of your passion and gifting, trusting God to lead you, you are truly alive. Bill and Kathy Peek write about it in their book, Discover Your Destiny.

When we are engaged in what God has called us to do, every part of our spiritual life comes alive. There’s a reason to grow. We have a compelling reason to pray, to stay in close contact with our leader and Guide when we walk unfamiliar, threatening paths. There’s a strong drive for fellowship, allies and friends, close at hand, because what God calls us to, we can’t do alone. There’s an undeniable need for worship, a clear vision of who God is and His commitment to meet our every need as we walk with Him into the future.

God has gifted you to do a work for which you are uniquely qualified. The Apostle Paul urges us to offer our bodies — our very selves — as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1). This offering can’t be made in some abstract way with pious words or religious acts. That is why, according to Os Guiness in The Call, “calling is the most comprehensive reorientation and the most profound motivation in human experience; the ultimate why for living in all history.”

Copyright © 1998 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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