Calling as Summons: Treading carefully in the “cult of calling”

“So, I no longer say that ‘God calls me’ in the same smug way that I once did.” So writes Leslie Verner in a recent article on why she has left the “cult of calling.” Instead, Leslie concludes, she now uses language of calling more carefully, perhaps more reluctantly, thinking of her callings as contingent and subject to change — “if I use those words, I preface it by saying that I am called to this ‘for now.’ And if and when that calling shifts, I am left standing on solid ground, because my calling is to intimacy with Jesus Christ. And he never changes.”

Should we abandon the language of calling, even in difficult cases where our lives take an unexpected turn? Leslie’s insightful words are an invitation to think carefully about the nature of our calls — and specifically, what it means to be summoned by something or someone outside of ourselves. 

Verner begins the piece recounting the idealism of her twenties. She wanted to follow what she considered to be the highest calling—she wanted to be a missionary. And not just any missionary! She wanted to be a missionary in China, “because closed countries are the place to be if you really love Jesus.” She goes on to describe how she was strategic in preparing herself for this high calling — she picked a major that would be useful in China, looked for overseas trips, and took jobs after college that would keep her on the path to China.

And she made it . . . for a while. She gave up her car and her job and moved oversees. She was a missionary. Then she got married and everything changed. In earlier years, she thought Christians who moved to the suburbs to raise their families had sold out; now she was joining them. She moved back to the U.S. and struggled with feeling as though she’d become what she promised she’d never be. Over time, she’s come to realize that “calling” is not what she thought it was — that she is not called to tasks (like missions or motherhood or some other activity), but is called to God. And this is really the central insight of her piece: that we are, all of us, called to a person, not a task. great-wall-china-winding-GWOC0417And therefore, when circumstances change — we get married, move to a new place, or experience other small or global changes that take us away from what we thought was important  — Christians still have the stability of our calling to “intimacy with Jesus.”

For these insights I am grateful. There might be few messages that are more important for American Christians (and any others) who struggle to separate their vocations from their occupations, their identity from their calling, and their jobs from their value. Most of us, if we care to think about it for very long, probably have our own vision-not-realized, our own version of Leslie’s China. We might wonder if our lives are all they were meant to be. And the thrust of the article is a heartening reminder that meaning is most significantly attached to a relational constant, not a situational variable.

Despite the clear value of its main theme, I’m afraid the article could inspire drastic action where measured adjustment would be healthier. My concern is rooted as much in the following passage as anywhere else in the article:

I now understand something about my calling: I am not called to missions, marriage, motherhood, writing or teaching. I am called, first and foremost, to intimacy with Jesus Christ. That is my call.” (italics are mine)

While this excerpt leaves me unclear whether the author considers missions, marriage, and motherhood to be callings — a careful reading could arrive at multiple interpretations — the overall thrust of the article tends away from using “calling” to describe these human-to-human roles.

Marc Chagall, The Burning Bush from Exodus, 1966

Moses’ wasn’t only called to love God — he was called to love God and he was called to go to Egypt. Noah was called to love God and he was called to an ark and shelter a remnant of God’s creation. The same is true throughout scripture where we see individuals called to particular jobs. Calling has a tangible aspect, a responsibility to obey and act—not just an ethereal “relationship” or “intimacy” — think about Jonah, for example.  Those called in the Bible took action. God calling us to Himself doesn’t mean we have to reject the idea that motherhood is a calling, or fatherhood, or marriage, or friendship… or missions, for that matter.

In fact, there could be unanticipated consequences if we forgo the language of calling when describing our human roles. If calling is reduced to “my relationship with God” it gives birth to its own version of individualism and piety where no one gets to speak prophetically to another.

I find myself appreciating the definition of calling Bryan Dik and Ryan Duffy offer in their book Make Your Job a Calling. Make_Job_CallingMy paraphrase of their definition is this: calling is (1) a summons to (2) meaningful work, (3) in service to others. “Summons” might imply a miraculous communication through a dream or a vision, but God can also summon us spiritually or circumstantially — while I might not have received a direct message from God that I should marry my wife, I have no doubt that I am called to serve her — my marriage is a calling.

And the second phrase, “meaningful work,” might be improved for our purposes by swapping in the language “meaningful sacrifice” or “meaningful offering” or “meaningful devotion,” so the whole definition would read a summons to meaningful devotion in service to others. The language almost takes on a liturgical tone.

What I absolutely love about this definition is that by it, calling has its origin and its telos outside of the self. It directly challenges our over-individualism, our tendency toward pride, and our desire to measure the world in reference to ourselves. By this definition, God is an agent first, and then we are, as we respond to His summons. We are neither the divine makers of our destiny, nor mere objects, always being acted upon, never acting. By this definition, our callings are not primarily for our gratification (although this may be a part of our experience), but for the sake of others — we might call it the common good purpose of our callings. This definition, in utilizing both divine and human relational dimensions of calling, maps directly onto Jesus’ summation of the law and the prophets: to love God and love the neighbor.

Socialization of young people plays a strong role in giving rise to what I’ve come to call “vocational hierarchies.” Children grow up in communities that value roles differently — I have little doubt that Leslie’s community put “missionary” at the top of the hierarchy before Leslie did. That’s how Leslie “learned” that being a missionary was the most noble pursuit. And here is where it gets complicated, because communities then use the language of calling to reinforce their vocational hierarchy. Other communities value other things, setting up other vocational hierarchies—I’ve been in contexts where being a mother is the highest calling, others where pursuing whatever brings the most financial security is the highest calling, etc.

CallingandClaritycoverDoug Koskela, in his book, Calling and Clarity, helpfully suggests there are three types of calling. Direct calling, according to Koskela, is a specific assignment of a job or role communicated by God directly to the called. This type of calling is rare (it was, in fact, rare in the Bible as well), so while Christians should always be ready to receive such a calling, they should not worry if they don’t. General calling is the calling we all have to Jesus Christ and to the life of discipleship. This, of course, is the calling that Leslie emphasizes in her article. Finally, missional calling, which is a matter of discretion and stewardship as we come to apply our gifts in the context of our circumstances, turns out to require a lifelong pursuit of wisdom as our roles and stations shift over time.

In the end, I say amen to the reminder that we are called to God, but I hope we don’t thereby lose the value of understanding the rich and varied roles we play toward one another as given by God for the sake of others.

Ben Norquist is Assistant Director of Opus: The Art of Work at Wheaton College. 

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