What we’ve forgotten about vocation
There is a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo Baggins meets Lady Galadriel, an elf queen. She leads him to look in small bowl of water, called the mirror of Galadriel, that tells the future. After seeing the demise of the Shire in the mirror, the Lady says about his great task of destroying the Ring, “For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the enemy…For the fate of Lothlórien you are not answerable, but only for doing your own task.” The movie version of this scene adds her saying, “Frodo, if you do not do this, it will not happen.”
Frodo was called. He had an appointed task that was heavy with importance, and if he, the Ring Bearer, did not do it, it would never happen.
The idea that people are called by God to do a task is deeply biblical. Some examples:
- Moses was called by God to bring the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery (Ex. 3:7-10)
- David was pulled from tending sheep and anointed king of Israel by God’s special choosing (1 Samuel 16:8-30)
- Jeremiah, even though only a boy, was called to be a prophet to the nations (Jer. 1:4-10)
- Isaiah, despite being a “man of unclean lips,” was sent to be a stern rebuke to Israel’s corrupt kings (Is. 6)
- Jesus called his first disciples to leave their fishing nets and instead “fish for people” (Lk. 5:10)
- Paul was called to “proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15)
Even though the concept of a divine calling is so pervasive in Scripture, today we have largely lost some of its key tenets. I think we’ve lost at least three things.
(1) We’ve lost the sense of having a singular life task that is given to us, and us alone. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sitting in a Nazi prison in WWII, he worked tirelessly on what he believed to be his great life’s work: his book Ethics. This task kept him exercising, eating, and working when many other prisoners lost all hope. He felt his death was coming soon, but continued to study and write, feeling deeply that he had to complete this work before his days were done. While in prison, he wrote to his friend Eberhard that this idea of being called to a life’s work had been all but lost in his day. He would not be among those who lost such an expansive perspective on their life’s work.
(2) We’ve lost the role of weaknesses in fulfilling our calling. A pastor, who I greatly admire, recently advised his congregants on how to find their calling. He gave a three-fold test for discerning a calling: affinity, ability and opportunity. That is, (1) Do you want to do it?, (2) Are you good at it, and (3) Do you have the opportunity? This is generally good advice – if you’re missing any of these, you’re not likely to be happy in your career.
Yet I believe he’s missing the role of weakness. Frodo was the least likely person to carry the Ring to Mordor, but he was ultimately selected. Bonhoeffer was in a freezing, bare Nazi prison, yet his writings endure to this day – including his unfinished Ethics. David was the youngest son, not the oldest, Moses stuttered (and was an ex-con), and Paul was a Christian-killer before conversion. Yet each was chosen by God. This is how God works. He chooses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Calling is just as often aligned with weaknesses submitted to God than finding your strengths.
(3) We’ve forgotten that most careers aren’t vocations. On the one hand, we often confuse our calling with being successful in our careers. Leah Labresco has written a great article in First Things that blasts the destruction of intimacy and relationship in a culture that prizes success at any cost. She writes:
“Most careers aren’t vocations, so we need space outside them to grow and love. It’s possible to make a short-term decision to put life and relationships on hold, in order to make a high-intensity commitment to a cause (this is the model for the oft-touted national service draft), but it’s unhealthy to let these crisis-mode jobs give shape to your life.”
Our vocation may be to stay at home for a season, or to take a demotion for more meaningful work. To say you’re “called” to do something is not the same as saying “I will succeed at any cost. A calling is always from God, who may send us into a desert for 40 years before sending us to Pharaoh (or, like the desert fathers, he may just keep us there).
Yet, on the other hand, some completely lose touch of their vocation because of the pressures and challenges of a career. It’s one thing to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coming out of college, ready to conquer the world. It’s another to have experienced years of having your career not turn out as you thought, and being weighed down with a mortgage – and still to continually live out a calling. This often takes courage – and a deep faith that this is indeed where God has called you (despite the world telling you otherwise).
We need to see our “work” as larger than our careers ( and our success in them) and yet still a central way in which we live out a commitment to Christ.
Paul writes, “For you are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which were prepared in advance for you to do,” (Eph. 2:10). God has prepared tasks for all Christians to do. We are saved for a purpose. Like Frodo, we all have a Ring to bear – and a mission to fulfill.
Discussion question: What is your calling?
(Photo: “Sortie,” Keoki Seo)