I recently read an article that put words to something I’ve been struggling with for some time. If you’re interested in what very well may be a better, more coherent statement of things, you can read that article here. If you’re interested in hearing my incomplete thoughts, keep reading.
When I was little, one of the questions people asked me was what I wanted to be when I grew up. Looking back now, I wish I would have had the maturity and foresight to answer with a simple “me.” After all, if you don’t want to be you when you grow up, things are pretty hopeless already. I’m pretty sure my actual answers ran the gambit from “artist” to “teacher” to “veterinarian.” The only thing I have succeeded at being for any meaningful length of time, however, is myself.
When I was in high school, people started talking about what my calling was. I needed to figure out what my calling was so that I could go to college and get the right degree so I could spend the rest of my life fulfilling my calling. Well, I got to college and hadn’t figured it out yet, so I prayed earnestly that God would “reveal” that to me. When push came to shove and I’d reached the end of my general ed courses and needed to declare a major lest I fail to graduate “on time,” I spent several hours on the patio by the lake on my college’s campus with a Bible and the course book, trying to divine my purpose in life.
What I came up with, if I’m honest, was just what I liked doing. I’d taken a few Bible courses in my freshman year, and they had been my favorite. So I declared Bible as my major and spent the next three years learning Greek, studying different portions of the Old and New Testament, and listening to people wiser and smarter than me talk about theology. It was a good three years.
It followed, then, that since I couldn’t do anything with my undergraduate degree (except maybe post some pompous Facebook statuses or tweets in Koine Greek), I would continue pursuing my “calling” by attending seminary, procuring my masters, and proceeding from there to get my PhD.
If you don’t know how that worked out, go ahead and take a moment to read about lemons.
In the time since I quit grad school, I’ve gone through all different kinds of being lost. I find myself in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city I literally swore I would never live in when I was younger because so many of my friends from grade school ended up going to college here or living here. “Never!” I said, and I meant it. And yet here I am, proving once again that saying “never” about something is a pretty good way to up your chances of doing that thing.
But back to being lost. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if I misunderstood God back on that patio in 2010. I asked him to tell me what to do with my life and I walked away with relative certainty that I should pursue biblical studies. I did so to the utmost of my ability, and I ended up running myself into the ground, situating myself in a place of deep unhappiness, and almost missing out on some of the things that are most important to me now. So did God miscommunicate? Was he not sure what to tell me so he just put the first thing out there that occurred to him? Or did he change his mind? Did I never hear from God in the first place and all this is just a simple act of me changing my mind about what I like to do? Or am I in deep disobedience to God, living where I am now, doing what I’m doing? And, returning to square one, what am I supposed to do with my life?
I’ve talked recently with a few people about how I feel a deep dissonance with the idea of “calling” and “life purpose” now. I was born into a family that was loving and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I was also fortunate enough to be able to, because of my parents, afford an expensive college degree. I was gifted with an intellect that allowed me to excel at my academic endeavors. And because of that, I was asked every step along the way what I wanted to do with my life, what my calling was. But what about the people who don’t get asked that question? What about the little boys and girls whose families don’t believe in them, for whatever reason. What about the young woman who can’t go to college because she can’t afford it. What about the young man who has to work right out of high school to provide for himself or for others? What of the people who don’t get the opportunity to sit on the patio of a private college and pour over a course book, deciding what they want to do with their lives? What of the people who just have to do whatever they can do to survive, to put food on the table, to pay the rent?
Is the lady at the cash register at Target called to be a cashier? Is it the life purpose of that man who made your latte at Starbucks to make lattes? If culture falls apart without factory workers and gas station attendants and dump truck drivers, does that mean that the people filling those positions are given the calling to fulfill them?
In that article I mentioned at the beginning (which you really should go read whether you’ve enjoyed my thoughts or not), the author points out what a privileged idea pursuing one’s life purpose is. Mothers of starving children and parents in war-torn nations don’t get up in the morning and worry about that kind of thing. And yet we make it the central concern in our life for years, stressing out about finding our path and living out our calling.
When it comes down to it, our life’s calling, if we are Christians, is to love God and love others, as the author in that article states. You can do that as a veterinarian or as a dump truck driver. That’s not to say that we cannot pursue our dreams or come up with grand ideas of what we want to do. But I think that it does mean that we should be able to find some level of contentment in wherever we are, whatever we are doing.
That’s not to say that if you hate your job, you should stay in it. That’s not to say that if you have a dream of what you’d like to do with your life, you shouldn’t go after it with all you’ve got. We need people with dreams to follow them with passion and determination. I find myself in a position where I can pursue things that I want to do, and I plan to do that. I also plan to be thankful for that opportunity and not take it for granted. And I certainly won’t see it as something I deserve or something that is of central importance to my life.
What we do may make up a lot of who we think we are. After all, most people spent 8+ hours a day doing whatever it is they do for a living. That’s a lot of time and a lot of life. What we do is important and I’m not here to squash anyone’s dreams. But I think it is healthy to remember that obsessing about our life’s calling is a privileged idea and we are called to something much simpler than divining from a course book and a Bible the mysterious One Thing we are supposed to do for the rest of our lives.
Love God. Love each other. The rest is just the details of how we do that.