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When I Grow Up, I Want to Be …

Whether you're "undeclared," on your third major or pursuing that career you've envisioned since you were five, it's never too late to consider your calling.

Jack — a freshman at Pacific Lutheran University, was like many an 18-year-old newcomer to campus. He’d done well in high school, and had always assumed he’d attend college. He didn’t quite know what to major in, but he figured the answer would come to him in time.

So did Kara, although her problem was a bit more complex. A sophomore at Rutgers, Kara was an only child, and her mother, an attorney, was determined that Kara would join her practice one day. Her father was equally determined that Kara become a physician, as he was, and join HIS practice.

By contrast, Jarod, a senior at Louisiana State University, knew exactly what he wanted to do: He planned to get an MBA in business, and become an investment banker. He didn’t much like the business world, but he was eager for the lifestyle the high salary would bring.

It did not occur either to Jack, Kara, or Jared — never mind their parents — that they needed to consult a supernatural Guidance Counselor.

Although all three students came from Christian families, they lacked a Christian understanding of calling — the idea that God gives each of us certain gifts and expects us to use them.

These students are not alone. Theologian Os Guinness says few young people think about calling today, mainly because they’re not taught to.

“Calling and the understanding of giftedness should be taught between the ages of twelve and twenty-five so that, just as people begin to understand their identity, so they also begin to understand the gifts God has given then,” Guinness says. “That sense of gifts and calling should come prior to the choice of a career, whereas many people today choose their career without any sense of gifts and calling.”

Lack of solid teaching is just the beginning. A materialistic culture and ambitious parents can also get in the way of discerning what God wants us to do with our gifts — or even what those gifts are. The result: Students often end up at college with no clear idea of what they want to do — or even whether they should be there at all. Others, equally confused, enroll because college represents freedom, or because freshman biology seems preferable to flipping burgers at minimum wage.

For Christians, the difficulties are multiplied if they’ve been taught that the only way they can truly serve God is through a sacred vocation–by — becoming a minister or missionary. Unfortunately, the idea that the spiritual is superior to the secular is, Guinness notes, “Very, very, common in evangelical circles today — the whole notion of a full-time Christian worker, as if Jesus had any part-time followers. That’s absurd. Everyone’s a full-time follower.”

Martin Luther agreed. “Seemingly secular works,” he wrote, “are a worship of God, and an obedience well pleasing to God.”

Even if you understand this, how do you go about discovering your life’s great purpose? What if you reach your junior year and still haven’t declared a major — or changed it three times?

“I would tell them not to be anxious,” Guinness says. “One of my friends, Dr. Ken Elsing at the University of Virginia, often says that people who know too soon are rather boring. That could be the danger of those who get into pre-law, pre-med, and so on. They know what they want to do so soon they’re not open to the variety and the diversity of the possibilities of their lives.” There should, he says, “be a very natural period of trial and error. Giftedness is not something you don’t know one minute and do know the next. It’s something you discover growingly.”

Ironically, students today have the opposite problem of most of the people who ever lived. Thanks to the Fall, millions of people down through the centuries have been thwarted from putting their gifts into practice because day-to-day survival was simply too difficult. Others were born into societies with rigid ideas about the role each citizen should play: Class and gender, not gifts, determined what people would do. The result was that sons usually went into the family business, be it farming, blacksmithing or shop-keeping. Daughters had little choice but to follow in their mother’s footsteps, finding a husband and bearing children. For people like these, “where there’s a high degree of constraint, obviously, calling was finding God’s purposes even in things where one had no choice.” Even when Christians were caught up in an evil situation, such as slavery, “a slave could serve his master as unto the Lord, and find a freedom in that,” Guinness says.

In the non-Western world, millions still have little choice over how they earn a living — people “who have to work in terrible, humdrum menial jobs just to put bread on the table to survive,” Guinness observes. In these cases, a belief that work has inherent value if we offer it to God — provides “a dignity that the job wouldn’t allow otherwise,” Guinness maintains.

Of course, lack of choice is not a problem for most Americans; we have literally thousands of alternatives to choose from — that is, unless determined and controlling parents narrow the field down to one. At the very least, you may be in for years of misery, toiling away in a field you have no interest in or ability for. At worst, some students in the grasp of such parents may simply give up — as illustrated in the film, Dead Poets Society, in which a despairing student chose to commit suicide rather than submit to his father’s plans for him.

Choosing for a child is inexcusable in a culture that offers so much opportunity, Guinness maintains. “In our society, with all the openness, for anyone to choose for someone else is not only unnecessary, it’s often cruel. I think parents who insist that their children do what they want are not looking out for the best potential of their children, because they’re not looking out for their giftedness.” Moreover, the vast number of grants and loans available to students makes the choice between obeying parents and honoring God moot. You may have to spend a few years waiting tables in between studying for exams, but you will end up far happier than then students who succumb to parental threats to withhold funding unless they can dictate the course load.

Even when you have full and free choice regarding what you study, you may end up miserable if you choose a profession with greater regard for status and salary than for your own sense of calling. Ditto for those who simply drift along, unthinkingly going into the family business without considering whether you belong there.

These are the people who end up with a mid-life crisis, the ones who say, “‘I can’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life,'” Guinness says. Those caught in this situation need to find the courage to shift to an occupation that does fit their giftedness, but “far better to choose wisely the first time,” Guinness advises.

In order to do this, you must actively seek a deeper understanding of calling and giftedness. Read good books on the subjects such as Os Guinness’s The Call (Word) and Truth About You, by Ralph Mattson and Arthur F. Millar. Ask friends you respect if they think you’re on the right track.

And don’t forget to pray. You will discover your true calling only by seeking the will of the One who calls us in the first place: the one who worked both as a carpenter and an itinerant preacher — the One Who calls us, first to Himself, and then to the work He has planned for us.

Copyright © 2001 Anne Morse. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Anne Morse

Anne Morse is a senior writer for the Wilberforce Forum.

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