True, many come not having given much thought to the issue. But most, during their college years, do begin the transition into adulthood and face the adult question, “What am I going to do with my life?” “What has God planned for me?” “What is God’s calling for my life?”
Those questions begin to loom large as graduation nears. Some find answers readily. That many don’t, however, suggests that church and college have not prepared them well to answer those questions.
Does God Have a Plan for Your Life?
Part of the problem lies in how we frame the question. To ask, “What is God’s plan for my life?” assumes that God had a definite plan unique to me—what specific person I marry, what specific work I do, what place in which I do that work. But has God planned such precise answers to those questions? Jennifer Taylor, in an insightful article, “God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life,” (Christian Standard, June 27, 2011) says “No,” rowing against the stream of much Evangelical thought. She points out that many take key verses of Scripture often used to support God’s blueprint for our lives out of context. One of those passages, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare [Shalom] and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV), many understand referring to God’s design for individual lives. Jennifer correctly opines that it does not. She properly observes that such application to individual lives ignores the context of Jeremiah.
In this passage Jeremiah gives a sharp rebuttal to another prophet, Hananiah, who had prophesied, standing in the ransacked temple, that all would be restored in two years—the temple refurbished, the exiles returned, the “yoke of the king of Babylon” broken. But Jeremiah corrected this false prophecy, stating that the Exile would last for several years. In the meantime, they were to “build houses...plant gardens...take wives and have sons and daughters...seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 ESV). God’s “plan” for exiled Israel was a future restoration; God’s plans for individuals in Israel was to go about normal living in exile “seeking the welfare of the city” where they were.
Calling in the New Testament
God’s people in the New Testament saw themselves continuing in exile. Though returned from captivity, the restoration was clearly not complete. They were still under the yoke of Rome; God’s rule was not realized as they had hoped. Among the many places in the New Testament that evidence this understanding, Acts 1:6-8 reveals it clearly. After years traveling with Jesus and hearing his teachings about the kingdom of God (i.e. God’s plan for their lives), even after the crucifixion and resurrection, they still don’t get it. They ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ mild rebuke was reminiscent of Jeremiah’s. “It is not for you to know the times or seasons...but you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The final restoration from Exile does not concern them. Jesus calls them to be witnesses as a “plan” for their lives.
The church has throughout its history struggled with what it means to hear God’s call. William Placher (Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005) identifies four historical periods of differing views on how Christians have viewed God’s call, or “vocation,” a Latin-based word for “calling.” The question, “What is God’s calling for my life?” could be put, “What vocation does God have for me?” Placher succinctly states the view held by many today: “Central to the many Christian interpretations of vocation is the idea that there is something—my vocation or calling—God has called me to do with my life, and my life has meaning and purpose at least in part because I am fulfilling my calling.”
Vocation in the Early Church
To ponder what vocation to choose in the early centuries of the church would have seemed quite incongruous. Choice of vocation was simply not an option for most. Sons followed in their fathers’ work; daughters married within their own social strata. To ask the question, “What is God’s calling for my life?” and mean, “What job does he want me to do?” would have been ludicrous in the early years of the church.
During the first few hundred years of the history of the church, the call of God was a call to faith. Used 11 times in the New Testament, “call” most of the time refers to the call to be followers of Jesus. Paul described the Roman Christians as ones “called to belong to Jesus Christ” (1:6) and “called to be saints” (1:7).
Accepting that call often came at a great cost socially and financially. The decision to follow the “call” was a decision to endure hardship. In fact, when being a follower of Jesus became “easy” after the fourth century when Christianity became legal and hardship was no longer synonymous with profession of faith, some retreated to the desert lives of self-denial, equating such hard lives as necessary for true faith.
Vocation in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, the concept of vocation took on quite a different meaning. In the early part of this period, to answer God’s call meant to leave the normal world and enter monastic life; it was a call to come out of the world. Such a development happened in part as a reaction to Christianity becoming too easy. The Western world was a Christian world. The church dominated every aspect of normal life. To be a citizen of the city meant membership in the church without much commitment, much sacrifice, or even much understanding of what discipleship meant. Monastic life called for dedication and discipline. Dealing with things religious became the purview of a select class—those who had received the “call” to vocation.
As the Middle Ages evolved, the meaning of “vocation” was broadened from the contemplative life of the monastery to include the work of a priest in the church. In both cases of monk and priest, God’s calling to such religious vocations was quite different than the call in the early church to come to faith. “Vocation” was completely the purview of a special class of persons. Since these vocations were connected to the monastery, the major place of learning, those who worked there came to be called “clerics.” Their work involved writing as “clerks,” thus evolving into “clergy” as a distinct class—those who answered the call to vocation and were distinctly set apart from the laity.
Vocation in the Reformation
By the sixteenth century conditions began to change. Martin Luther brought about a radical alteration in the division between clergy and laity, between those who lived in “vocation” and those who lived “in the world.” Luther first came to a different understanding of how one is made right in God’s sight—not by good works, but solely through God’s unmerited favor. That led him to affirm that no one need enter a monastic life to find salvation through good works. Instead, he urged each person to accept the “call” of God to be where and what one already was (“Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him.... Each one should remain in the condition to which he was called.” 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20). Vocation, then, came to mean to the Reformers, seeing whatever occupation one had as sacred, as valuable as any other.
This concept that every person is a priest, every occupation is “called” by God, had a phenomenal effect in Germany. At the beginning of the Reformation between six and ten percent of the population were priests or monastics. A generation later the number had dropped by two-thirds. Every Christian had a calling, a vocation, from God, thus no need to seek that calling as a clergyman.
Vocations in a Post-Christian Age
In the modern world, the question, “What does God want me to do with my life?” becomes an even harder question. Most persons have three or more occupations in their lifetime; most college students change their major three times before graduation.
Another problem tying God’s call to occupation presents other difficulties. Many jobs today do not provide satisfying work. Many workers see themselves as cogs in a wheel, doing assembly-line work and never seeing nor taking pride in the finished product. Furthermore, so many jobs prove to be destructive of other values, separating workers from family and friends due to long hours and long distances. Besides, many persons do not have jobs; the current high unemployment rate seems to stagnate around 8.0%, with 12.3 million total unemployed and 4.7% long-term unemployed. Retired persons form another category without jobs. Many people now live one-third of their lives in retirement. If God calls individuals to specific jobs unique to them, where does that leave retired folks? Has God’s call been withdrawn?
Several contemporary theologians (e.g., Jacques Ellul, Stanley Hauerwas, and James Y. Holloway) offer theological critiques of the view that calling or vocation equates to job. For example, Jacques Ellul insisted, “Nothing in the Bible allows us to identify work with calling. When the terms that can be translated by the word ‘vocation’ or ‘call from God’ are encountered, they are always concerned with a summons to the specific service of God.... [Work] is an imperative of survival, and the Bible remains realistic enough not to superimpose upon this necessity a superfluous spiritual decoration” (Jacques Ellul, “Work and Calling,” Katallagete 4.2-3 (1972): 8.
So, where does this leave us? Not with easy answers. Perhaps, we can start by helping others understand that God’s call does not necessarily involve a specific occupation. Rather, God calls us to faith and to service to that faith. The call may involve hardship and sacrifice. But it looks forward to a final restoration of all things, God’s ultimate plan for his creation. The work of a Christian university, then, focuses on creating within students an irrepressible commitment to faith and service regardless of occupation. Ralph Enlow, President of the Association of Biblical Higher Education, captures this purpose so succinctly, “The work of biblical higher education is not so much exclusively to prepare people for church occupations as it is to infuse and equip them with a Gospel pre-occupation.”
Seeing God’s call in such a way should remove some of the anxiety about “What is God’s calling for my life?” Any number of occupations can be spot on in the middle of God’s will. The opportunity for such choices becomes a blessing—and a bane—of modernity. A choice of one or another must still be made. But how does a person choose only one?
The crux of the answer can be found in Frederick Buechner’s famous observation, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 95.
President's Reflection from the Spring 2013 Issue of Johnson Magazine.