I’ve worked for years with “generations” of people just younger than me. At college age, I spent time working at summer camps, teaching Sunday school classes, and entertaining children at work with balloon animals. Just out of college, I invested a handful of years into high schoolers in large and small format youth group settings. Around the time that my second daughter was born, my primary focus shifted to college-aged students- starting up a ministry dedicated to their demographic and later helping to plant a church focused on reaching people in and around our local university. And now, in my mid-30’s, my career endeavors find me spending the majority of my time with folks who are nearing the end of their schooling, entering the workforce, or just struggling to adjust to an economy that isn’t as cut-and-dried as their professors made things out to be and wondering what’s next for them on the horizon.
In all of these years, one thing has remained the same. Very few of us know what we want to be when we grow up. Sure, there are some who identify very early in life what their path is and run with abandon toward that goal in a singular focus. But most of us struggle with wondering if our next step is the right one. Our Art History and Psychology and English Literature degrees haven’t amounted to much more than the ability to become a grocery bagger at the local Publix. And we wonder if there’s something more out there for us.
What’s worse, anyone who’s spent time in the church feels this awful pressure to “find their calling” so they can enter the world of ministry in some capacity. We in the religious community often confound the struggle of “what do I want to be when I grow up” with the added weight of “making a difference”. And we make out this abstract idea of “calling” as this great a-ha moment in our lives where the perfect plan of God aligns with the path he’s laid out for us and our future becomes a glorious roadmap from the present in to eternity. As if all of our frustrations will be alleviated the moment we discover our calling, so long as we’re willing to accept it and step into it.
It’s a lot to take in. It’s a lot to consider. And it’s a lot of stress to put on the 14-26 year olds that these messages usually are directed at. When you’re wondering whether the job market can even support your employment, if you can afford car insurance, and how many more student loans you’re going to have to take out to get through the next school year, this “calling” seems like a luxury that’s either directed toward middle agers or perhaps someone other than “me” entirely.
Unfortunately, we’ve also built up this concept of finding and pursuing our calling as a way to guilt ourselves and others into more church activities, service projects, and mission trips. Don’t get me wrong. Those things can be fantastic things. But anything done out of guilt or in an effort to “find ourselves” is defeating the very purpose of pursuing them in the first place.
So, allow me to provide a better way. And it begins simply by offering a better definition of what our English translations of the Bible refers to as “calling”. Because honestly, that’s a big part of our struggle and frustration, right? All the messages and encouragement in the world about what to do after we find our calling is little more than ethereal blabber until we can land on what that specifically means for each of us individually.
The typical church definition for “calling” is essentially a vocation. What job are you going to do for Jesus? Discover that, apply your gifts, and make that your focus for the rest of your days. It’s a world of doing work.
Here’s the problem. Jesus spends far more time speaking about the importance of rest than he does about work. He knows the tendency to do is always going to supersede our tendency to be. Which is why I love that the actual definition of the Greek word that we translate as “calling” is more accurately “an invitation”.
There’s a part of the letter from Paul to the believers at Ephesus where he encourages them in the following way:
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God.-Ephesians 4.1
This quote is typically used to berate ourselves and others in the church to stop sinning and live better lives. “You’re a Christian. Act like it.” And I’ll admit, I’ve fallen into this trap myself from time to time.
So it was the most freeing feeling when I realized that’s not at all what Paul is saying. It can’t be. This isn’t a heavy-handed moment from a scolding father. This is a tearful charge from a man in chains pleading with his friends to live like they’re citizens of heaven and not fall back into their old way of life.
See, calling here is not a job. Calling is being invited into something so sweet and so amazing that we know we don’t deserve but can’t help but be caught up in and involved with. Bible dictionaries further describe this word as “an invitation, as if to a banquet or a party”. Which is exactly what we’ve been called into. The kingdom of heaven. The marriage feast of the lamb. And the thing that Paul is begging the Ephesians to do? Live like that person. Live as someone who is a wedding guest at the grandest celebration in all of eternity. Not some beggar hoping for scraps at the back gate.
There are so many things we have been called in the New Testament as believers. And for most of us, these are things that we read, don’t fully understand, and never at all embrace as our actual reality. But when you look at them in light of this fact, it is mind-numbing and life-changing. Because these things that we are called? This is how God looks at us. Not with frustration or disappointment that we aren’t doing it right. No, he sees us in all the fullness of Christ- complete in him and standing with him in all of his glory at the end of all things. So we should see ourselves in the same light.
- We are called priests. Set apart with special access into the throne of God.
- We are called to be holy. An invitation that it is possible to live like Jesus, not a threat placed upon us.
- We are called children of God. Sons and daughters of the high King of heaven. Adopted into the family with full rights and privileges with an inheritance beyond anything we can imagine.
- We are called the bride of Christ. The very wedding feast we are invited into is also the one that is held for us as we enter into the most blissful union of all creation.
- We are called the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden unless it actively attempts to cover its light. His light shines through us.
- We are called saints. No longer desperate sinners with no hope. We are living, breathing embodiments of the living Christ within us. Temples of the Holy Spirit himself.
- We are called chosen. Individually set apart for a purpose. His hand-selection was not an accident.
- We are called masterpieces. God’s own workmanship and not in any way a mistake. God doesn’t make junk.
This, my dear friends, is what we have been called. This is what we have been invited into. This is our calling.
And so when Paul pleads with his own friends in Ephesus to live as if they really believed those things to be true- to live in a manner worthy of those callings- we begin to understand why it is that his heart is so overwhelmed by the words.
Because the truth of the scripture is truth whether we want to believe it or not. If God says this is who we are, then this is who we are. The invitation, or the calling, is to live like we believe it. And that, my friends, changes everything. It eliminates so much of the fear, doubt, and anxiety that hangs over our heads. Our worry of not getting it right. Our concerns about our future and what happens next. Our desperation to do something of value. Our insecurities about our weaknesses and our contempt for our failures.
All of that is done away with by the glorious reminder that this is not how the Father sees us. And in an argument between who’s right and who’s wrong between us and God, we will always lose. If the righteous Judge of the universe has decreed something, who are we to argue differently?
See yourself the way that the Father sees you. In that new light, pursue him and his kingdom. This is your calling. Embrace the invitation.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.1 John 3.1