As I’ve been getting to know this year’s freshmen, I’ve noticed a theme: Many still have no idea “what they want to be when they grow up.” A few are wavering between two good options, but others openly confess that they have no idea what passion or interest of theirs could be turned into a job. All of them are seriously committed to figuring out exactly what job God is calling them to, or what ministry position.
Listening to them, I wonder if we have not sent the wrong message about what adulthood should be.
When I hear students talking about finding a passion, determining their calling, I see them looking inside themselves for life direction.
This tendency to look inward for guidance smacks of a certain Gnosticism, which has always held that the spirit is more true than the physical world. My students are not Gnostics, of course, but their belief that if they can only pin down who they are deep down within, they can figure out what to do in life, suggests that it is the spirit above all which holds the keys to a successful life.
That’s not entirely true.
This is tricky, because of course some believers do receive a divine vocation, which is largely spiritual and certainly cannot be proved with the kind of incontrovertible evidence that our society loves.
But neither is it true that pinning down “who we really are” at our core or “what God is calling us to” is going to answer all our questions about what we should do in life or who we should become.
Certainly it didn’t answer mine. Like my students, I spent some anxious years as a teen trying to figure out what I was called to do with my life, or what talents I had. I thought I would be a writer, or maybe a high-school English teacher. I thought I’d be a lawyer or a music leader or a missionary, maybe even to the aliens. (Yes, really.) I never really thought I’d be a college English teacher, but circumstances led me this way, and here I am, writing this post at my desk while I wait for a student appointment.
When my mom started college, she was wavering between medicine and political science; she wound up as a second-grade teacher. My father received his PhD in geology, without a lick of educational training, then went on to spent the bulk of his career as a (really good) high school and college educator. There was no “call”; my parents simply adapted to circumstances. And here we all are, doing our jobs the best we can.
So where does that leave us?
To the question of choosing a perfect career, I would say that a career cannot be selected by looking within. Sometimes we are called to a particular vocation; more often not; in any case, the circumstances and communities we find ourselves in, in this present world, exert just as much influence on our lives as our inner sense of who we are.
And that’s okay.
For one, it is notoriously difficult to get a good handle on “who we are”. Who among us really understands, perfectly, our own strengths and weaknesses, our talents and personality? If we did understand ourselves, do you think that personality tests would be so popular?
For another, the point of a faithful life is not to take and succeed in a particular job. It is to be faithful to Christ, regardless of what job we have. One of the most godly men I’ve known did not finish college, and he worked much of his life as a school janitor. Janitorial work was a circumstance he found himself in, not a calling, and the fact of being a janitor did not mean that he’d somehow missed the point of his life.
The point of life is not to be found in accomplishing something great, like throwing a ring of power into a volcano or toppling President Snow’s government. Nor is it to be found in figuring out “who we are” and what we are called to. I’ve been thinking about Micah 6 lately:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The question for me is not whether I’ve found the one perfect job or not. It’s whether
I am doing justice: Do I treat my students fairly? Am I respectful of my neighbors? Do I love mercy, reaching out to those who need it, even sacrificially? Am I walking humbly with God, admitting wrongdoings and seeking to be changed?
Should we put thought into what jobs we choose by considering what we enjoy the most and are good at? Sure, a little wisdom when we’re making decisions is always a good thing. But we (and this includes me too) need to be careful to be guided less
by our inner spirit than by the Lord, who calls us to justice and mercy and humility.