Road Reflections: The Journey of Vocational Identity

By Darrell Cosden


There once was a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, but he did not hurry with his preparations. Niggle was a painter…

-J.R.R Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle”

Am I Niggle?

For years, I used Tolkien’s short story about a seemingly insignificant and simple fellow on life’s journey as a primary text and basis for assignments. In my courses on the theology of work and vocation, I used it to explore the eschatological value of work. In the general education curriculum, I used it to explore the nature of the good life. I’ve read it dozens of times.

But when I read it again recently, after leaving the academy, the opening two sentences hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Dear Jesus, I’m Niggle!”

First, I am a rather ordinary fellow on life’s journey. Second, I’m on a journey that is proving much longer than expected – one I didn’t want to make, and one I spent a year trying to avoid pursuing endless job applications and interviews for appropriate academic positions, all coming up empty. Third, like Niggle, I found the whole idea of this journey rather distasteful.

“I’m a successful college and seminary professor, making a real difference in students’ lives. God, I’m too busy with important work to bother with this inconvenient journey.” Or so I had hoped.

Since moving to Death Valley, I have met several Niggles. Joe is an archeologist from Idaho; he is now retired, yet he’s still Joe the architect from Idaho. Tom is a park ranger. He often struggles to sleep at night, nagged by the mysteries of this 3.4 million-acre park that he has yet to explore and share with visitors. Like Niggle, they don’t yet see the end of their journeys.

Our journey began last August, when I was told my program and position were being eliminated (a way colleges get around tenure when they need to downsize). And so began the questioning. “Who am I now? Am I still a professor, or was that just a job? And if professor is now part of my identity, what if I have to leave that behind for good? Who am I then?”

Niggle was a painter, says the next line – not the kind you hire to redo your living room or paint your house, but an artist of sorts. He loved to paint trees and leaves. Isn’t that nice?

But what I do is really important. I’m a professor, a teacher of theology.

Not anymore. Now I live in a camper and volunteer as a ranger in Death Valley National Park – living four months in a desert, the hottest place on earth, before we have to move to another (as yet unsecured) volunteer position. I direct visitors, most of whom will be interested in the park only a few hours before they move on to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun, stimulating and an adventure. I meet interesting people while being immersed in nature’s beauty. (Yes, Death Valley is beautiful!) This is many people’s retirement dream, living on the open road in an RV, although maybe Death Valley is not everyone’s cup of tea.

But I’m not retired or living that dream. I didn’t want this. It was forced upon us. I have no regular income, retirement or otherwise. My wife’s volunteering covers our camping and utilities costs. I need to get paid doing something. We need to eat.

I played a music gig last night and made $20 dollars in tips. That didn’t even cover the gas to get there and back.

We are simply trying to make lemonade out of bitter lemons. And just like Niggle, I’m rather grumpy at times. Niggle was grumpy both before and during the early parts of his journey. Me too. Ask my wife.

I won’t spoil the ending of Niggle’s story. It’s a work of art worth reading.

I’ll simply say that after a rough period, things worked out rather splendidly for Niggle, and there is much to be learned in the story. I have used it to help students grasp the ultimate and eternal significance of even the most mundane and seemingly insignificant work.

I’m not concerned about the whether there is any eternal significance to my work as a professor, or a park volunteer. I believe my own theology here. What I’m still struggling with is the journey, the vocational upheaval, in the fullest sense of the word “vocation.” I mean both the disruption in my work life and job, in my identity, and in my relationship with God.

Some well-meaning friends have tried to comfort me that my identity is not in my title, job or in my work, but rather in Jesus. Is that true, or as stated, nonsense?

Vocation and Christian Identity

Niggle was a painter. He didn’t just like or even love to paint. He was a painter, according to the narrator.

Identity is a trickier concept than most of us realize. There is so much we could say. Niggle was a painter, but was this Niggle’s job? His hobby? His passion? We are left to ponder as we read on.

Believers often struggle with identity. I was reminiscing recently with a friend from seminary days in 1980s. Christian popular literature back then was flush with exhortations to “find your identity in Christ only” – not in your play, work, relationships or anything else.

Is this actually good Christian advice? Is it even possible? What does it mean to find your identity in Christ if you can’t connect that identity to the things that make up your daily life?

If what I do with my life through my work, who I married, who my kids are, what I love and would love to do if I could, are all off limits and not integral to my identity, then who am I really? I am a Christian, and that shapes all that I am. But that’s not the same as saying it is all that I am. That is not my whole story, although it transforms my whole story.

This is well-intended advice, and there is a sense in which it is true. But I don’t think such advice is sufficiently rooted in a robust theology of vocation. It distorts our uniqueness before God and contributes further to the faith/work divide and the dis-integrated life many people, including Christians, experience today. It separates who we are in Christ from who we are in the rest of our lives.

Augustine says you are what you love. “Who am I, while in Christ?” is the better question.

Is Identity Negotiable?

Each of us negotiates our identity every time we choose how we introduce ourselves. And more profoundly, we actively renegotiate our identity every time we face a major change in our life’s journey – like the birth of a child, the loss of a spouse, or the loss of a job or career like I am experiencing. Who am I now? What is integral to who I am and what is incidental?

What is Vocation amid Change?

Niggle was a painter, but on his journey he had to leave that behind – for a time, anyway.  He experienced his journey as a disruption and loss.

In fact, like Niggle and me, we are all on a complicated journey. God summons us to the journey of following him. Our vocation is this singular but ongoing and ever evolving reality. Every particular of the journey, which is our life, becomes enfolded within this summons or vocation.

The journey itself, however, is an open road full of both wonderful and horrifying possibilities. It is never certain what lies around the next corner, even if are lulled into believing we know.

Last weekend, on a hike, I was exploring an old ghost town and long-abandoned gold mine. As I turned a corner on the trail, I noticed the ground in front of me moving.

It turned out not to be a rock but a four-foot rattlesnake. I almost stepped on it.

The danger scared me witless. Afterwards, however, folk here told me know rare it is and how lucky I was to encounter (safely) a rattlesnake in the wild.

When I turned a corner and found myself unemployed, I was scared then, too. Niggle was scared when he began his journey. We simply don’t know what lies around the corner.

Will I one day find myself grateful for this whole experience? I am trusting God that I will, but maybe it will bite me. I don’t yet know.

The other Niggles I know in Death Valley are on complex journeys, too. Like me, they are what they love. Joe is an archeologist from Idaho. Tom is a ranger who often struggles to sleep at night. I’ve seldom seen the kind of infectious love and passion Tom brings to his vocational journey. It is simply who he is, and his partner Sarah lovingly laughs at him for it.

Vocation and identity are more than career choices. They are the journeys we are all on, and they are intricately intertwined. Disruptions that take us off the beaten path are necessarily losses. The detour that is so frustrating today may well be what redeems the whole journey in the end. Like Niggle, we won’t see the end until we get there, and only then will we understand the journey.

Darrell Cosden is the author of A Theology of Work and The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work. This post is reprinted from the Oikonomia Network, where it was one in a series culminating in a presentation by Cosden at the Karam Forum.

  One thought on “Road Reflections: The Journey of Vocational Identity

  1. Denise Daniels
    January 14, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you for your honesty and insight Darrell. This is an excellent piece. All of us are Niggle.


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