Permission to Pursue What You Love
I've just finished reading two books which have cemented in my mind an often neglected biblical doctrine. We often call it the doctrine of "vocation" but I think this doesn't speak to the totality of it. The first book I finished was Work Matters by Pastor Tom Nelson (Christ Community Church, Leewood, Kansas). The second was The Cure for the Common Life by best-selling author and pastor, Max Lucado.
While both books are different -- Nelson fully fleshes out a theology of work while Lucado beautifully illustrates the uniqueness of every human being created in God's image -- they both arrive at an important conclusion: God has uniquely gifted, wired, called, and shaped every human being for a specific purpose on this earth, to glorify Him.
This may seem like something we always hear in church or a tired Christian cliche, but I don't think we fully articulate two powerful ideas that come out of our uniqueness: work was ordained by God and is a form of worship and that God implants in us certain unique skills, passions, and gifts that make our lives unique.
I want to expand on this concept today because I think its powerfully important. Embracing God's unique design involves pushing back against a cultural lie about ourselves and a church lie about ourselves.
The Cultural Lie
On the one hand, you have the cultural expression that "you can be whatever you want to be, whatever you set your heart to do." This has been echoed in Disney movies and other pop culture seemingly from the beginning of time. But we all know that this isn't really true. Supposed I really wanted to play in the NBA as a center. Well, I could work extremely hard, harder than everyone else. Like Larry Bird, I could shoot thousands of shots a day and still, after all that, I likely wouldn't get invited to a scout camp. Heck, I'd be lucky to make the team on the worst Division III college team. So I can't actually be whatever I want to be, can I?
The Church Lie
But the opposite of this cultural lie is a church lie. It's a pushback against the Disney fantasy dreams that tell us to follow our hearts. It's the equal and opposite idea that because our hearts are so wicked, we can't trust them and therefore what we like to do, what we're good at doing, what we have a passion to do -- this can't possibly be what God wants us to be. This lie might go something like this: You can't be anything you want to be. In some ways, this may be more dangerous than the first lie in the sense that lots of Christian kids grow up forced into a mold set by parents or pastors or others. Every young boy must aspire to be a pastor or in "full-time" Christian service, otherwise he's not serving God. Every girl must aspire to be a pastor's wife or in some kind of acceptable full-time ministry or she is not serving the Lord. The guilt goes like this: How can you pursue a career in law or business or entertainment when across the world people are dying and going to hell?
And so you have a lot of people who feel they are supposed to ignore their gifts, their skills, their passions and they plunge into full-time ministry when they really have no aptitude for it. And as a result, not only do they suffer, but God's people suffer. You've taken a skilled man out of the environment where he might have had the most impact (law, business, medical field, etc) and you've placed him, like a square peg in a round hole, in ministry where the people are suffering under the leadership of someone who wasn't supposed to be there in the first place.
The Biblical Third Way
So is there an alternative to the world's false "You can be what you want to be" fantasies and the church's "Don't dream, don't trust your passions and skills" consignment to certain acceptable callings? I believe there is and it's to dive more fully into a biblical theology of work. Here's a few important points we need to consider when it comes to calling:
Every kind of work is honorable to God. I've heard the phrase, "There is no divide between secular and sacred" for all of my life and yet we in the church still create that divide, mostly unintentionally. This is where Tom Nelson's book, Work Matters really shines. It shines because it pushes back against pastors and missionaries and so-called full-time ministry staff elevating their callings above that of lay people. The truth is that if we believe work itself is good and worthy and honorable to God as a form of worship, then we should consider the skilled plumber or the top salesman or the doctor as worthy a ministry of the gospel as a pastor or missionary. The work lay people do from Monday to Friday is important, not simply so they can be a witness in the workplace or they can make more money so they can tithe, but because the work itself is important to God.
God has uniquely wired every single person with specific skills and gifts. Max Lucado beautifully brings out the important message of Psalm 139, where David describes the intricate design behind every human soul. You are who you are because God made you this way. The things you are gifted at, passionate about, the things others see in you as strengths -- these are given to purposely by God. Why? For a purpose. To occupy a space in His plan for His glory. This is comparisons are so damaging and, dare I say, evil. You wanting to be live someone else's life is actually against God. Someone forcing you into their mold is against God. The life God wants you to live is the life of Christ lived through you in a unique expression.
A Redeemed Person Can Trust Their Hearts. Now before you send me angry emails with Jeremiah 17:9 in it, let's look at the totality of the Scriptures teaching on our hearts. Ephesians 2:10 says that God created us as a "masterpiece" designed to do certain good works. But something happened, right? We chose sin and sin has corrupted our hearts, thus Jeremiah 17:9 which describes our flesh as place of desperate wickedness whose depravity we don't even fully realize. But, the promise of regeneration, rebirth, transformation offered in Christ gives us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26).
So, if we are followers of Christ being transformed by His grace, we can listen to our hearts. Psalm 37:5 urges us to commit our ways to him and in doing so, he'll give us the desires of our hearts. What happens in salvation is this: God restores us (His masterpieces) from the corruption of sin. He implant in us a new heart. And as we die to ourselves, He reveals to us His original purpose for us. As you walk with the Lord, your calling will become clearer and clearer. But it's not because you are ignoring your gifts, your passions, your skills, but rather you are seeing them more clearly because the Holy Spirit is removing the residue of sin.
So, this means you can't be anything you "want to be" but you are free to be who you are supposed to be. What you die to in following Christ is not your skills and passions and gifts, but to the sin-soaked desires that were a distraction from God's original design of your life. You begin to enter, as Max Lucado calls it, your "sweet spot" where your gifts, your opportunities, and your impact all meet.
I think is is especially important for Christian young people as they survey their lives. High-school seniors and college freshman. I do this routinely as I counsel them. I ask them simply: What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? Where do you think you can have the most impact in the world? What do others say you are good at?
What I try to help them realize is that "every good and perfect gift comes from above" (James 1:17). It's no accident that I enjoy writing, studying, and engaging with people. God equipped me with those gifts, not for me to show off my skills but to reflect His glory. It's no accident my father is perhaps the most skilled craftsman I know. He's a terrific tradesman who does great work. It's no accident that one of my best friends has the mind of an entrepreneur. God knew what He was doing when He designed us this way.
Gifted plumbers shouldn't preach. Gifted preachers shouldn't plumb.
No, you can't be what you want to be. But you are freed by Jesus to be what He designed you to be. And it's a whole easier to figure out what that is when we reject both cultural and church myths.