Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
At one point or another in life, everyone asks, What am I here for? Not the larger question of universal purpose (What is human or world history for?), but rather the specific question of individual human callings. In other words, what makes us as humans made in the image of God not interchangeable with one another? Why is one a writer and the other a banker? Why is one a farmer and the other a soldier? Are such decisions made as a result of happenstance or merely environmental conditions, or do they speak to something deeper occurring in the heart of the person?
calling: a biblical notion
The Scriptures speak of many kinds of callings. God summoned people to hear what He was saying to them, sometimes in a special way, as in the case of the young prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 3), and sometimes in a general way, as in the case of the prophets’ calling to the people, “Hear the word of the Lord!” There was also the very particular calling that was reserved for prophets in the Bible, an event that typically involved the Lord’s addressing the prophet from the divine assembly and commissioning him for the prophetic task. For example, the calling of Isaiah in the temple included all of the major elements of a prophetic calling: a vision of the heavenlies, interaction between the heavenly beings and the Lord, the prophet’s reluctance, the granting of a sign, and the clear prophetic message that is meant for the people (Isa. 6). Other prophets received their callings to the prophetic office in a similar fashion: Ezekiel was called while in exile, and the Apostle Paul was called on the road to Damascus—a calling he referred to throughout his ministry as proof of his legitimacy as an Apostle.
However, a true calling need not be extraordinary, even in the examples from Scripture. For instance, David was chosen by God to be Israel’s king even though the prophet Samuel did not perceive in the boy the obvious physical attributes that he would have expected in a monarch. The Lord, however, “looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7), and David’s inner faithfulness credentialed him for the throne in a way that Saul’s unbelief did not. Even so, years passed between David’s calling and his ascent to the throne, and this created an opportunity for David to be prepared for the calling that God had put on his life. As a shepherd, young David learned the basic skills needed to lead and protect a flock (shepherding is a common analogy for kingship in the Old Testament). He also learned to trust in the Lord to be faithful to His promises to him, and this trust in the Lord provided the fortitude David needed in his battle with Goliath, an event in which David behaved in a manner fitting of a faithful king-champion, in stark contrast to Saul’s decidedly unkingly behavior. As a court musician, David became intimately familiar with Saul’s erratic behavior and the operation of Israelite statecraft, and he likely honed his art as Israel’s poet and key author of many psalms. All these stages provided moments in David’s life in which he pursued his calling as Israel’s second king. We should be careful not to make stark distinctions between his job at any given time and his calling as a whole. His calling was organically worked out over the course of his life, so we can say with some confidence that the young David among the shepherds was faithfully pursuing the call God had placed on his life.
The story of Esther draws our attention to another aspect of divine calling that is particularly relevant to us today. In this story, Esther responded to an opportunity to ascend to the highest levels of the Persian Empire. She was naturally gifted with physical beauty and intellect, and this gifting provided her with an opportunity to join the king’s inner circle. The particularity of Esther’s call, however, didn’t become obvious until the rise of Haman and his plot to exterminate the Judean refugees. Her cousin Mordecai gave a definition of human calling when he encouraged Esther that she had been made “for such a time as this” (Est. 4:14). She was the one whom God had called to deliver His people.
The book of Esther is notable among the books of the Bible because it is the only biblical book that does not explicitly mention the Lord. This absence of reference to the divine has the powerful effect of giving the reader a sense of the difficult world of God’s people under Persian rule at a time when the typical trappings of biblical faith were not as evident as they were in preexilic Judah. But the lack of explicit naming of God also illustrates what perceiving a call looks like in our contemporary world. More often than not, Christian calling is a matter of making decisions out of our own personal gifting, our personal interests and goals, wise counsel of those around us, and the opportunities that arise over the course of our lives.
Ordinary human callings do not occur in the same dramatic fashion as that of the prophets and heroes of the Bible, yet there is an important similarity between their callings and that of every other human being. We are all called by God to live our lives as those made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). That calling includes honoring our Creator and doing so through the first mandate, also known as the cultural mandate, from God to “fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28; see also 9:1). This explains why the impulse to fill and form the earth is rooted so deeply in all humans, though it has been deeply perverted and marred by the effects of the fall.
We might say that this general call to all humanity forms the basis of every person’s individual calling, because it speaks to our unique place in creation as the part of creation that is made in the image of God. Each person is called by God to participate in this cultural mandate in a particular way, and that calling includes all of the ways that a person relates to the world, including work, family relationships, church participation, political involvement, and so on. In each of these areas, the image bearer is called to engage in the larger program of advancing life around the world, a task that reflects God’s divine work of bringing a thriving creation out of what was “formless and void” (Gen. 1:2). This is the grander scope in which the individual life is cast. Like our first parents in Genesis 1–2, we are all in an important sense participating in the work of filling and ruling creation as vice-regents under the authority of the sovereign Creator-King.
No job is so small as to not give voice to this grand, universal calling. Some people are called to tasks that happen on a large or even global scale while others pursue their calling at a small and local one. Some ostensibly small callings have unexpectedly enormous effects (Monica, the praying mother of Augustine of Hippo, comes to mind). All callings have transcendent meaning because human callings spring from our status as God’s image bearers. This includes teachers’ forming the thought patterns of their students in the areas of their expertise, police officers’ bringing civil order to their jurisdictions, and plumbers’ bringing order to the flow and use of water in a society. This even includes those who work on the assembly line manufacturing instruments and machinery that serve a function in human society.
christian calling today
For Christians, there is a unique and expansive notion of calling. As a result of the fall of humanity, all our work fell under the effects of the curse and alienation from God. Humans are still made in the image of God, but that image is marred as a result of the sinful rebellion of our first parents in the garden and of every fallen human being ever since. That anyone who is not in Christ can pursue a calling in his life is a merciful act of God’s common grace. Those, however, who find salvation and reconciliation with God through their union with Jesus Christ approach the question of calling from the perspective of redeemed images of God. Because of their redemption, they can truly glorify God in their vocation.
The Reformers made much of this universal calling in the Christian life. For them, Christian calling meant that each endeavor must be done as if it is in service to the Lord and for His glory (Col. 3:22–24; 1 Cor. 10:31). This means that Christian calling is not to be understood in hierarchical terms, in which church ministry is considered a sacred calling over against the common callings of other kinds of jobs and pursuits. Rather, all vocations are of equal value in the kingdom of God. This broader understanding of calling corroborates the biblical notion that every aspect of human life, whether one is a rector or a riveter, provides opportunity for worshiping God. After all, we are called to love God with our whole person, the whole heart, self, and personal effort in the world (Deut. 6:4–5).
As Christians today seek to understand their own callings, they should not expect something like the extraordinary experience of the biblical prophets, but they do find in the prophetic accounts a helpful analogy for our own calling. Like the biblical prophets, Christians should recognize that their call comes from God. He is the One who calls, though the divine voice can be hard to discern among the many voices that seem to hail us at every moment. As a result, Christians should be sure to prayerfully steep themselves in God’s Word to become attuned to His will.
We should also recognize that our callings can change. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel received different calls at different stages of their lives, and we also ought to expect that our calling might change over the course of our lives as new opportunities become available to us and as the times and the needs of other people around us change.
When discerning God’s call on their lives, Christians can learn valuable lessons from the examples found in the Scriptures.
First, God’s calling in our lives gives us the opportunity to love the Lord our God with our whole person (Deut. 6:4–5); therefore, His calling cannot require us to sin. Christian calling must be pursued as an expression of our faith in God, and we can rule out any possible calling that can only be accomplished in a sinful, destructive, or otherwise faithless manner.
Second, God loves to give His people the good gifts of calling (Ps. 37:4; Matt. 6:28–33; 7:11), so Christians should find their hearts aligned with our Christian calling in a way that makes the calling a natural extension of their righteous desires. Furthermore, as a Christian pursues the call that God has given him, he should find his desires formed by the task that God has set before him. This does not mean that fatigue and even frustration will not set in at times, but the attentive and repentant believer is strengthened for the call even in the midst of opposition. As he pursues the things that he naturally loves to do, he will get a clearer sense of which elements give him joy and satisfaction. Christians should also expect their affections to mature and to be formed by the work they are doing until they begin to find joy even in work that previously was unsatisfying.
Third, God forms His people for their callings (Jer. 1:5). Most pursuits in this life involve some kind of skill set to be performed properly. Some callings require only rudimentary skills, while others require years, even decades, of training. Personal gifting differs from skill set in the sense that gifts typically cannot be acquired through training later in life. Natural and spiritual gifting can also guide the discernment process. Some Christians are natural teachers, while others are gifted in encouragement or in caring for others. All Christians should strive to exhibit all the gifts as the situation arises, but the Scriptures do suggest that some Christians are by grace more disposed to one gift than another (Rom. 12:6–8). As with all of God’s gifts, we are called to be good stewards, investing our gifts in callings where they can best be utilized.
One word of warning from the prophets: the Lord loves to show His strength in our weakness. Moses suffered from some sort of speech impediment, but he was chosen to be the spokesman for God (Ex. 4:10). Isaiah’s unclean lips were given a message of holiness and judgment against the people (Isa. 6:5). Jeremiah may have thought he was too young to be a prophet (Jer. 1:6). Paul considered himself the chief of sinners because of his persecution of the church (1 Tim. 1:15). Sometimes a Christian is called to a task that seems so improbable that God must be in it if it is going to succeed.
Fourth, Christian calling is a service to God and to others. If a person pursues a call that has selfish or oppressive ends, the call is not glorifying to God. William Perkins writes, “The true end of our lives is to do service to God in serving of man.” Our love of neighbor should naturally flow from our love of God (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:38–39), and our union with Christ ought to inform our own personal ethics so that we are inclined to help them at our own disadvantage (Phil. 2:1–11).
Finally, Christian calling is not a secret or mystical thing waiting to be revealed. When God calls His people, He calls them to respond to the world around them by applying the teaching of God’s Word with reasoning minds in order to discern what they might be called to at any given time or situation. As mentioned above, the human call can develop and mature over the course of the human life. A person may graduate from college with a particular sense of calling that will change multiple times over the course of his life. That change does not mean that he has been disobedient or somehow ignorant of God’s call in his life.
A calling cannot save a person from his sin or make him right with God, but calling is the natural concern of those who have been saved. In many ways, the question of Christian vocation addresses what a particular person is saved for. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck writes, “True fulfillment of our earthly vocation is exactly what prepares us for eternal salvation, and putting our minds on those things that are above equips us for genuine satisfaction of our earthly desires.” By pursuing God’s call in this life, we prepare for eternity. By keeping eternity ever before us, we find meaningful satisfaction today.