What's My Calling?

Recently I received an email from someone asking about their job situation and how it connects to their faith. I decided to post my response here.

Thanks for reaching out to me, especially concerning such a personal matter. Over the years, I’ve had dozens of conversations concerning the nature of biblical calling. Your email challenged me to finally write out what I’ve discussed in those moments. Read below and see 1) what this resolves in your situation and 2) what questions it brings to the surface.

I’ll caution you in advance: the way that I perceive calling tends to be atypical when compared to some ministers. It might not resolve your dilemma. But perhaps this counsel, balanced with some other biblical advice, will help as the Spirit guides you in the journey. 

A Biblical Determination
In times of doubt we look to the Bible, and rightly so. The issue with doing so, however, is when we isolate certain texts and use those examples to extrapolate a position. This is exactly what often occurs when we examine the topic of calling. We can read multiple examples where the Lord called certain individuals to specific tasks: Noah to build an ark, Moses to liberate his people, Paul to preach to the Gentiles. But these examples don’t necessarily provide a pattern to follow. There were millions of others who lived in the biblical era who didn’t receive a divine commandment to action. Therefore, we today need to grapple with what calling looks like when we don’t hear the audible voice of God. 

As I read the Scriptures, I’m struck by the breadth of God’s permissibility in our lives. He offers humanity freedom in pursuing our future. This is best observed in the Garden of Eden, where the Lord allowed Adam and Eve to tend to the garden and create as they had been created. Rather than take advantage of the many possibilities this could encompass, they chose the one option that was untenable for God. 

They chose to sin. 

And I would suggest that here, in the very beginning, lies the simplistic explanation of biblical calling: we are called by God not to sin. This is the ultimate measure by which we should discern the choices before us. If what I’m doing is sinful, then it is not God’s calling, and I should repent. 

I should add that there seems to be one more measure here: Our calling must not lead others to sin. The basis for this determination can be found in Paul’s discussion with the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 8. We must determine if our calling is a net-negative to the kingdom of God. Living by this measure is much more complex than not to sin; it’s less black and white and more gray. Still, it isn’t necessarily that difficult if we’re willing to be honest. We must consider if our calling brings harm to others.

So the Scriptures teach that if our calling 1) isn’t sinful and 2) doesn’t lead others to sin, it is permissible in God’s eyes. The issue is that adopting this as the biblical guide still leaves us with infinite possibilities.

The Tension of Pursuing Calling
Moving on to your question, you’re trying to determine if what you’re seeking professionally is actually making an impact. In any job (even ministry) there are moments when the byproduct of our work can leave us feeling down. But this can happen regardless of whether our work is lucrative or if it pays nothing. 

I’ve talked to many a successful business person who has lamented that they can generate wealth. They feel guilty about their income even though, quite often, they are achieving it in a moral way. Similarly, I’ve talked to ministers or non-profit employees frustrated that their work isn’t as fruitful as they would like it to be. Even though their actions are deemed to be more noble, they can still feel polarized by the outcome. This is why I suggest that the issue isn’t money. In our society, placing a price tag on an object or a task has a psychological impact; we accept the value ascribed to it as carrying more weight than it actually does.

We mustn’t get distracted here. Going back to the garden, humans are told to create and tend. The remuneration of these actions—whether money or satisfaction—are not an expression of God’s justice or favor. In fact, the apostle Paul challenges us that part of our obligation as Christians is to contextualize our work. In Colossians 3, we’re reminded that, “whatever you do, whether in word of deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

To resolve our tension, we need to remember why we’re working. Christians believe that there’s more to life than this. If we pursue our calling in light of eternity, we’ll get a satisfaction in our labor that those outside of Christ will struggle to find.

Choosing Between the Paths
Returning to your present situation, it sounds like you have a trilemma. You should take comfort in the fact that it’s a similar decision that many face as they grapple with their calling. As we’ve noted above, as long as the sin issue is resolved (and it seems to be in your situation), you have three paths you could pursue.

1. Redeem where you are
In light of the biblical study above, your current job doesn’t need to be an impediment to your calling. Even though you’re grappling with the fact that it’s been financially lucrative, it provides you opportunities to steward wealth. In my decades working in the church, I continue to appreciate those that understand the blessings of their work. It might be that, instead of changing jobs, it’s just time to expand your extracurricular ministries. There are many missions and ministries that could benefit from your investment and counsel. This could be an option, but perhaps it’s time to . . .

2. Pursue a new opportunity
Maybe you just cannot feel at ease in your current job. That’s understandable. The Spirit works through our conscience, so there’s no need for us to live under a guilt that burdens our walk with Christ. In this case, you still need to considerable how this job unleashes your calling in Christ. My only warning here is that changing employment, even if it’s a great opportunity, won’t resolve the tension of your calling. You’’ll still need to wrestle with you can maximize this opportunity for the kingdom. One more option . . .

3. Move toward ministry
Because of my background, I’ve had numerous people in the business world inquire about a transition into full-time vocational ministry. I may be wrong, but I think your email implied that were considering if this is where you need to be. Since I’m an ordained minister, but have worked outside the local church, I think I have a balanced perspective to say the following: full-time ministry is not a higher calling than any other kingdom task. This isn’t to say that I don’t respect the sacrifices of those in ministry. Yet if we are to truly embrace the priesthood of all believers, we cannot create a hierarchy of calling. If this is where you need to do, you’ll know. But don’t think that this path is more noble than the other two. 

I know it appears that I’m punting by not suggesting a preferable path, but I sincerely have no idea where you feel pulled. Ultimately these conversations are healthy. We should always perform some self-inventory as part of our spiritual growth. But I encourage you to do some from a positive perspective. As a follower of Christ, you are called. I’ll be praying for you as you seek his calling.