I’m sometimes asked by teenagers and young adults how I decided to become a doctor. More broadly, they wonder: how does a person determine what to do with his or her professional life? Here are some reflections on the idea of calling from my spiritual tradition of Christianity.
The scholar William Placher writes, a calling is “the idea that there is something . . . God has called me to do and my life has meaning and purpose at least in part because I am fulfilling my calling. (T)he God who made us has figured out something we are supposed to do—something that fits how we are made, so that doing it will enable us to glorify God, serve others, and be most richly ourselves.” A choice, in contrast, is not a response to God’s call. It flows instead from our own agenda.
This raises the question of how God communicates a calling to human beings. Put another way, how do we discern God’s will for our lives? Theologian James Gustafson sees God’s call on us manifesting itself as a moral imperative. He writes, “The presence of poverty, social disorganization, disease, personal anguish, injustice in the distribution of human services, ignorance, and similar factors move persons to seek the education and training to relieve these impediments to human fullness.” He does not seem to envision God necessarily communicating one particular calling to an individual. Rather, the person will have “a sense that one’s life experiences, one’s capacities for sympathy and empathy, and one’s moral beliefs and moral sensitivities make it reasonable to choose a certain profession.”
William Placher writes that “most people figure out, usually as part of a community, how God is calling them through prayer and meditation, inward reflection on their own abilities and desires, and looking at the world around them and its needs.” He quotes Frederick Buechner’s wise statement that God calls you to “the kind of work (a) that you need most to do, and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Placher also helpfully chronicles how the meaning of a calling has changed over time. The early Christians viewed becoming a Christ-follower as their primary call. Making Jesus their Lord “made them outsiders to most facets of society.” In the Middle Ages, when “the vast majority of Christians grew up in the church, surrounded by other Christians,” whether to become a Christian was no longer a real question. The issue of calling was whether God wanted an individual to stay part of his or her family or join the clergy. At the time of the Reformation, “the increasing complexity of society offered many people more (professional) choices” and Martin Luther proclaimed the “priesthood of all believers.” According to Luther, “your job was your vocation (calling), and thus everyone, not just priests, nuns, and monks, was called by God to their particular work.” Now, in what he views as our post-Christian world, Placher argues that “simply living as Christians could be our calling” since “trying to live as a Christian pushes upstream against the dominant values around us.” Realizing that Christians have struggled over two millennia to discern God’s call on their lives helps us realize we are not alone in our quest for vocational clarity. It also helps us appreciate that finding our calling does not need to be understood primarily as identifying the perfect fit for our aptitudes and interests.
As theologian Alister McGrath writes of Calvin’s thoughts on this matter, “It is the person working, as much as the resulting work, that is significant to God.” For instance, Brother Lawrence saw his humble chores of cooking and cleaning as being deeply meaningful when he performed them out of love for God. He wrote that “is it (not) needful that we should have great things to do. . . We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.” Here he echoes Paul’s admonition in Colossians 3:23 that “whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.”