Three Answers on Vocational Mysticism: Part II

These questions and answers have been used in discussing vocation with college students as part of the Opus: The Art of Work program at Wheaton, and are presented here as a resource for others involved in similar work in colleges or churches.  See the first post in the series here.

Is My Vocation Mysterious to Me? Must I Wait & Search Out God’s Mind to Find It?

Is God’s call to particular vocations mysterious? That is, are we incapable of knowing our vocations until God reveals them to us directly?

What would the evidence be for this belief? Some might say, it comes from Scriptural accounts of direct calling.

But out of the thousands of people we meet in Scripture, by one count, fewer than 100 experienced a direct call from God to a specific work.

While this doesn’t prove that no one today can expect to receive such a direct call, it should call into question a theology that insists that everyone must.

We would argue that this kind of direct calling is still rare today—there are fewer than 100 instances in the Bible, out of the thousands of people we meet in its pages. But if you have one, God will make it clear. Unless or until you receive this kind of direct calling, you are free to discern and follow paths and particular callings at your discretion–always remembering that your discretion is guided by your general callings.

What will that free process of discernment and following paths look like? Most Christians seem to arrive at a sense of their particular callings in quite ordinary, everyday ways. And these are easy to suggest to the student who is stuck with this sort of mystical vocation theology:

  • First, we seem much more likely to discover the particular kinds of work we have to do in the world–our multifold particular vocations–by hearing what others tell us about the gifts they see in us, and what we get to know through our own experience of those gifts.
  • Second, we seem much more often to discover those particular vocations as we become aware of the needs of the world around us. Those needs may sometimes be very hard and personal – unlike anything we’d choose – like the vocation to care for an elderly parent with dementia.
  • Third, our process of discovering our particular vocational directions seems quite often to involve an evolving awareness of deep desires God has put in our hearts from birth – desires to do certain kinds of good work that contribute to the world. There is no guarantee that we will find jobs that align with those desires, and the ways that most career arcs unfold – with more and more interesting work, more ability to set one’s own direction coming in the later years of one’s career – it may be particularly unlikely that one finds a match between these desires and one’s first few jobs. But this doesn’t mean we should give up. God has put those desires there for a reason, and even though their fulfilment in work may be deferred or frustrated, it is appropriate to keep them before us.

In other words, you want your student to see that God is not playing some divine joke on us by hiding our particular vocations from us until he speaks them to us directly. Rather, he seems to have ordained more “ordinary” sources of vocational discernment and awareness—sources that any person can discover for themselves (though not, it is important to note, by themselves!)

Is that Vocation Predetermined by God and Inflexible, So that if I Miss It, I Will Be “Out of His Will”?

Third and finally, we’ve seen that some of our students see that single, mysterious vocation as quite inflexible. They believe that if they miss their one, divinely ordained vocation, perhaps by choosing the wrong major, or the wrong job after graduation, they’ve blown it and will never get a second chance.

How can we challenge this unfortunate belief?

First, from the empirical evidence: Well, notice that this “inflexibility belief” seems to identify the Christian notion of vocation entirely with a secular ideal of a single, life-long career. But if even career (not to mention vocation in the Christian understanding) is complex, shifting, and growing in ways we have seen, then this sense of irreversibility must be both unhelpful and in fact false to the kind of thing our lifelong work will be!

Second, from the biblical/theological evidence: This belief that if you miss the vocation God has for you, he will make your life miserable, entails a very negative understanding of God’s character—doesn’t it? Think about it: First God demands that I make a momentous decision when I am still quite young, then he withholds crucial information from me, and then he punishes me if I don’t discover it by the time I graduate. Is that consistent with what we know about the character of God?

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