In part 1 of this three-part post, Dr. Doriani looked at the experience and concepts of calling, and began to ask some questions about calling, which were explored further in part 2. Part 3 looks at how we find a calling and live wisely within it.This material is adapted from chapter 5 of Dr. Doriani’s recent book Work: It’s Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation (P&R Publishing, 2019) and is used with the permission of the publisher. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.
Finding a Calling
Ideally, a calling begins with an innate or developed ability or skill, coupled with an interest, even a passion, that wells up from the core of one’s being. We have a talent when we pick up complex skills quickly. We may have a call if we delight in that talent. So a student understands math at once and notices that she can explain it to her classmates more effectively than the teacher does. Perhaps she will be a teacher. Or a young man takes machines apart, grasps their mechanisms immediately, and then reassembles them with ease. Thinking biblically, we call that a gift. When we add mentors and opportunities, a calling may develop.
Mentors are essential. What shall these youths do with their abilities in math and mechanics? Mentors watch, appraise, give opportunities, and review the results. They start their mentees with easy duties and assess their performance. Soon an errand includes a wrinkle; the mentor may elect not to explain it, to see what happens. The next commission contains a real challenge and a full review afterward. The thoughtful mentor has scant relation to an employer. If a desperate person asks us to do a job, it reveals nothing about our gifts. But suppose a superb singer invites an aspiring pianist to practice with his band and she agrees to come. After the practice session, the leader’s comment is crucial. Does he say, “Thanks for your coming,” and never call again? Or does he invite her back? In biblical terms, she is seeing the fruit of her labor and should look for more. Perhaps the invitation followed years of preparation. The first sign was the girl’s ability to learn songs quickly and sing them sweetly. Her grandmother invited her to play the piano. When they graduated to duets the girl marveled at the sensation. Practice sessions lengthened and skills grew.
We might picture this process as a spiral along a time line, signifying the way gifts express themselves through ever more training and experience. Positive experiences foster enthusiasm to learn and grow more. The gifted receive more demanding tasks. One skill leads to neighboring skills and competencies multiply. Eventually, one can become an expert, then a leader as one opportunity leads to another.
Let’s imagine the ensuing years for our pianist. After the piano, she picked up the guitar, then the clarinet. Soon she joined a band that needed multi-instrumentalists. After piano, guitar, and clarinet, she learned mandolin, saxophones, and the harmonica. Each instrument seemed easier than the last. She improvised, harmonized, and eventually began to transcribe the best results. Later, organizational abilities emerge and she forms her own band and negotiates a recording contract.
Where does it all start? Young adults ask themselves questions: “Do I have a desire and ability that lets me meet a need? Remedy a deficit? In a setting that leads to employment?” If there is a glut of pianists, the strategic musician will learn additional instruments. The next questions touch location: “What people will I serve? Where will I serve?” Will a young musician hope to teach in elementary school? In high school? In the city, town, or country? Even if a jazz band plays across the globe, it has a fan base and a geographical home. That home base includes people who depend on the band in some way.
Because gifts and passions originate within, they have a self-focus, but they should not be self-ish. The question, “What can I do well? What do I want to do?” properly leads to “What problems can I solve?” Eventually one should ask, “What burden will I bear?” Every lasting call brings glory and suffering, fulfillment and pain. If we meet needs, whether physical, financial, legal, emotional, or educational, it brings both satisfaction and sorrow.
In the beginning, it is natural to dream of glory, but most callings demand virtues like collaboration, not just skill. On a well-formed team, every member counts.
Jason Lezak won eight Olympic swimming medals, including four gold, but only one, a bronze, as an individual. He was a relay specialist who swam best with others. Lezak anchored the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay team that helped Michael Phelps win an unprecedented eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. The French team, which was favored to win, gave a 0.6 second lead to Alain Bernard, the world’s best freestyle swimmer at the time, for the final leg. If Lezak failed to catch Bernard, Phelps would also fail in his quest for eight gold. When Lezak entered the pool, no one gave him a chance to catch Bernard. Indeed, Bernard’s half-body lead grew over the first fifty meters. But Lezak kept working. “You’re at the Olympics,” he told himself. “You can’t give up.” (Apparently, athletes think about quitting during their greatest races.) Lezak started gaining with thirty meters to go. Bernard began pressing and lost momentum. With ten meters to go, Lezak was almost even. People screamed, “He’s catching up!” as Lezak raced for his teammates.
Lezak and Bernard seemed to touched the wall simultaneously—then the scoreboard flashed Lezak’s triumph. The man who never won a big race as an individual secured his team’s gold with the fastest 100-meter swim of all time. His team crushed the world record by four seconds, winning on the strength of a relay specialist. Michael Phelps became a household name, but he needed Lezak, the relay specialist. I tell this story because the world has more relay specialists than independent stars. Support roles are essential callings too.
Fredrick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” If Buechner is right, then our call and work are provisional, for the world’s hungers shift. We have core abilities and interests that remain through life, but as we grow, our interests and capacities change. As we adjust, our call may change too, especially as we consider the best way to use our skills to restore this broken world.
We Strive to Live Wisely within God’s Callings
Gene Veith also expands the way we think of work and other roles. Veith identifies several calls. Beyond work, believers have a call to discipleship, to family, to society, and to the church. A retired woman may not work for pay, but she still has callings as mother, grandmother, citizen, disciple, sister, and friend. A college student has several callings too. He is a student, a roommate, a guard on an intramural basketball team, and a cashier and barista at a coffee shop. Given that everyone has several callings, changes are inevitable. But, Veith continues, we shouldn’t focus on that, as if the right calling is around the corner. Society ascribes various weights to these activities, but all have moral value, because God issues them.
So let’s question the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Children may reply “Fighter pilot” or “Ballerina,” but not many have the requisite skills for either. “What do you want to do?” is a sensible question, but there are others: Who are you? What are your talents? Of the things you can do, which match your personality, your soul?
Yet we must limit this line of thought, too, since Western culture unduly exalts choosing. But God appoints places for his people. The norm is to stay there, unlessGod grants us freedom to change, whether by moving to another job or by reshaping our workplace. In one sense, our callings are beyond our control, for they come from external sources. From outside, God gives gifts and opportunities. Disasters and windfalls, injuries and pregnancies may alter or derail our plans and yet fulfill his purposes. We may lament such circumstances and we need not simply endure them. We should try to alter them if possible. If not, we may find opportunities in them. Still, from God’s perspective, every development is part of his plan. So then, we don’t simply choose our vocation. We look for appealing work and hope it is a calling, but we also discover our calling by working where we are. Whether we move or not, whether we can reform our workplace or not, we should think, “This is my work, the place the Lord assigned” (1 Cor. 7:17, NIV).
This is teaching our restless age needs. When in distress, we should not think first of a new job, city, marriage, or social circle. The great factors for happiness in any place are the Lord’s direction and our character, and God is everywhere and we take ourselves wherever we go. Let us therefore persevere, remaining faithful where we are and trust the Lord who sovereignly bestowed our gifts and lets us use them in the way he judges best.
 Dan Allender, To Be Told (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2005), 113–7.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 95.
 Gene Veith, God at Work (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 47–49.
 Veith, Work, 49–50.
 Veith, Work, 55.
 Veith, Work, 57–59.