At the beginning of the school year, when students consider the choice of a major and a career they may pursue after graduation, Hope College history professor Marc Baer offers guidance on how to follow God through our career choices.
To answer the question, “What is Calling?” recognizes two different types of calling for the Christian. All believers share a primary calling to love God and follow Him. I experienced that when I was 25, a few weeks after I had passed the comprehensive exams for my PhD program.
I had grown up in a non-believing family, completely outside the church. I wasn’t seeking salvation: I had no sense I needed it. But I was challenged by an undergraduate student to read the Bible, and over many months I encountered such profound truths that I was simply overwhelmed.
Don’t forget your neighbor
In addition to our primary calling to love God, we have a secondary calling to love and serve our neighbor, according to the Greatest Commandments that Jesus introduced in Mark 12:28-31. Our secondary calling is usually related to our job or career. Each secondary calling is different.
How does God call us to a vocation? Here are some examples from the Bible:
- God calls us directly: Abraham and Paul.
- God places a desire in my heart: Isaiah (“Here I am; send me”).
- God takes some people along a path they would not have chosen: Daniel.
- God offers an attractive option: Stephen was called as one of the seven in Acts 6.
Pay attention to others
In the case of the latter two calling examples, notice the role of others. Very often God uses other people to call us. If you read the 22 personal narratives of living out the Christian faith in the academy included in Paul Anderson’s Professors Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of Christian Faculty, you’ll find many who heard their call through a professor who knew them well.
We may be God’s agents in calling someone. Consider the British abolitionist William Wilberforce. God used three different men to call Wilberforce: the prime minister, William Pitt, who was a non-believer; John Newton, Wilberforce’s spiritual mentor; and John Wesley. In the early 1790s Wesley wrote Wilberforce to encourage the younger man to hang in there in leading the campaign against the slave trade:
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God is with you, who can be against you? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it.”
This was the last letter Wesley ever wrote; he was 88 years old and died six days later.
Another case, closer to home for me was Herbert Butterfield, an eminent early 20th century Cambridge University historian and Methodist lay preacher who had neatly divided his world between the two until he was asked by his university’s divinity faculty to give a series of lectures on Christianity and history. He told his eventual biographer he trembled “at the thought of proclaiming before a university audience what he considered to be the ‘intimacies’ of religion,’ things he had only uttered previously in the seclusion of Methodist chapels.”
Even at age 49 Butterfield was intimidated by the anti-Christian bias of his colleagues. But he accepted, thereby uniting his spiritual and professional worlds, and out of the lectures came a path-breaking book, Christianity and History.
Os Guinness thought after his conversion that he should be a pastor. A 10-minute conversation with a service station attendant caused him to understand his work was outside, not inside the church, and he became a public intellectual.
Let someone, besides a parent, know you well. In fact, let several people know you well. Consult them. Turn your face to God; pray really hard; read the Bible deeply. Read Christian writers as well.
And read yourself. Look for these six signs:
- Passion: What motivates you?
- Talent: Understand your gifts, and then seek work that matches them well.
- Life experience: Think of John Bunyan or Alexander Solzhenitsyn in prison.
- Opportunity: Is there an open door?
- Community: Listen to the voice of others.
- Joy—not happiness; joy.
As Dallas Williard puts it in Divine Conspiracy, “The deepest longings of our heart confirm me in my original calling.”
Calling—because it is so vital—presents us with moral challenges:
First, our work should not drive us: Vocation is not about doing, but being.
Second, our work should not trump family. A healthy sense of calling ought to lead to wise choices via good boundaries.
Vocations, careers, jobs, and work flow from the primary calling. Although our secular-minded friends, family, and neighbors wish it were not so, there is no calling without a Caller. Because there is a Caller, you have a calling.
Marc Baer is InterVarsity’s faculty adviser at Hope College and teaches courses in modern British history. He also teaches a senior seminar called Exploring Faith and Calling. This article on calling is condensed and adapted from a presentation at “Flourishing in the Academy,” the national gathering of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network at the 2008 Following Christ conference in Chicago. A transcript of the complete talk is posted online.
If you’re exploring God’s calling for your life, you may want to check out InterVarsity’s Urbana 09 Student Missions Conference in St. Louis, December 27-31,2009. In years past God has spoken to many Urbana attendees about their life’s calling. For more information, go here.