Our calendars can fill up quickly. But it’s easy to feel empty in the midst of a full life if there’s no sense of purpose in the busyness. Is the whole of life more meaningful that the sum of its parts?
What we choose to do in life is important, but why we choose to do it matters too. We can be slaves to circumstance, to feelings, or to what others might think. We can look at the daily schedule as simply passing the time until we get to something better in life. Or we can approach life as an ongoing occasion to be good stewards of what we’ve been given. We can be intentional in our responsibilities and relationships and be on the lookout for the opportunities where we can best put our gifts to work. That’s what it means to discern and pursue our callings. With that outlook, our everyday duties and activities contribute like a paycheck into a lifetime account of contentment.
To Be Called Means Life Is Not Just About Us and Our Self-Actualization
When life planning begins with personal fulfillment as its principal objective, it is unlikely to achieve that goal. Yet that’s exactly what much contemporary counsel for women suggests that we d fulfill ourselves through work, fulfill ourselves through mothering, or fulfill ourselves through a combination of both. The advice often boils down to a tail-chasing pursuit of self-actualization.
To look at life as a set of callings from God is a radically different perspective than that of self-fulfillment. Life isn’t about finding ourselves; it’s about glorifying God. When we’re focused on living purposefully by following God through our personal callings, we’re less likely to be distracted by the yo-yo effect of current fads about how to find fulfillment.
Our callings in life are from God and for others. Our talents are to be used in obedience to God rather than in self-aggrandizement. Ultimately, nothing brings greater personal satisfaction than pursuing our callings for His eternal purposes.
A Sense of Callings Connects Our Pleasure with God’s Pleasure
“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” says Christian teacher John Piper. Linking God’s glory to our satisfaction sounds like some epicurean “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy. Carpe diem. Could that be Christian?
Living by callings means that we are living in the paths that God created for us. We are seizing today to make the most of the opportunities God has given us in this moment. By answering His call in these ways we show esteem for God. Honoring God, in turn, brings us pleasure—just as we take joy in honoring those we love here on earth.
To live by callings means to take pleasure in seeking God, knowing Him, and worshipping Him. This leads to greater appreciation of His character, His company, and His work.
We go through this same taste-training with other things in life, from fine wine to classic opera to sports. Not many of us are born loving the finest and most complex things—Pinot Noir doesn’t trigger the same taste response as Pepsi, and Verdi isn’t as accessible as eighties rock. Even as adults, we fail to give due credit to things we don’t understand or haven’t taken the time to learn about. During the last Winter Olympics, I realized my lack of appreciation for the complexity of some of the sports, one of which was curling. Now, I know nothing about curling and would not bother to watch it on my own, but I was with someone who understood the sport and could explain why the curlers were barking at each other and what the furious sweeping of the ice with brooms was all about. On another occasion I was watching figure skating with someone who actually had skated and could tell the difference between a triple and quadruple axel. While I can appreciate figure skating even as an uninformed spectator, I cannot spot a quadruple axel.
Turning our appreciation to these less accessible things—spending time learning about their characteristics and the qualities that distinguish them—is a gratifying experience that introduces us to new types of enjoyment. Some are more worthwhile than others, and curling still isn’t at the top of my list. But there is nothing more profoundly satisfying than getting to know what God is like and appreciating more deeply the way He interacts with us.
Understanding Life As a Set of Callings Provides Balance
Callings don’t fit on a time sheet. This isn’t about forty hours a week; it’s about all-the-time overtime. In some seasons of life, paid work may be among our callings, but it won’t be our only calling. The whole fabric of our lives is made up of callings from God—family, relationships, friendships, community connections, and civic responsibilities. That perspective is an important one to have on either side of “I do,” so the sooner we learn it, the better.
If we recognize that callings include an entire network of relationships, responsibilities, and opportunities in life, we will be more likely to keep work in proper balance with the rest. “One can take a job seriously precisely because one does not take it too seriously,” observes ethicist William F. May.
Understanding this also helps to avoid the trap of workaholism. Work-hours can easily bleed into the evening when there isn’t a family at home to make us observe the dinner hour. Working hard is one thing, but when a job begins to edge out other priorities and relationships, that’s a problem. Of course, we rarely intend to let a job consume the rest of our lives, but this can easily begin with the lofty but mistaken view that a particular employment or cause is one’s sole calling from God and that all else in life should take a backseat to it. A single job is never the whole of one’s callings.
Callings are from God, and that is what gives them dignity—not the pay grade or the credibility that comes attached to them.
Having a Sense of Callings Stops the Nonsense of Competitive Life Comparisons
If I were to average the per-family kid count of friends’ Christmas card updates last year, I’d say it’s at about 2.5. It’s easy to look at those family photos and feel way behind as a single woman.
Comparisons become moot and jealousy grows pointless, however, when we understand that there is no one else on this particular track. God’s callings create a personal course for each of us, and what’s important is how we run our race. That also makes it possible to cheer on others as they run their different races (and happily post snapshots of their grinning cherubs on the refrigerator door).
If Each of Use Has Multiple Callings, Then We Haven’t Missed the Mark if We’re Not Married
One of the toughest parts of looking forward to marriage is wondering when it will come around. This year? Next year? Five years from now? Ever?
That’s not a problem with callings. Discovering your callings isn’t like being on hold, waiting for a second interview, or wondering if he will call. We don’t have to wait around for callings to appear or wonder if we’ve missed them. They are made up of what God has put before us to do right now, such as pay back college loans, clean the house, finish that project at work, help a friend who’s sick. And they are the opportunities we see emerging for the future that fit our skills and interests (that new position at the office, a master’s degree in journalism, a chance to move closer to family).
That also means we don’t have to worry that we’ve missed a calling—and that includes marriage. As long as we live attentive to the first call to Christ and the personal callings He has put in our lives, we can be confident that we aren’t in a holding pattern just because twenty-five (or thirty, or forty) is around the corner and marriage is nowhere in sight.
A person’s callings may include, but will not be limited to, marriage. Even for those who do not marry, the marriage relationship is not the sum total of their callings. To reduce the idea of callings to a single relationship—even one as central and life-changing as marriage—is to miss the point. Getting married, in other words, shouldn’t be the measure of any woman’s success in life.
Marriage, motherhood, and the women in those stations of life deserve high esteem. But what makes wives and mothers admirable?
The woman who puts her faith in Christ finds her identity and value in Him, not in her marital or maternal status. A woman who is a wife and mother and who faithfully loves and serves God and her family deserves honor and praise for being faithful in the roles God has given her for that season of her life—not for the accomplishments of attracting a man, bearing children, or keeping house like Martha Stewart.
In the same way, the Christian woman who is single has value in her identity in Christ, not from her professional standing, heroic volunteer work, or footloose freedom. The practical way she shows her love for Christ is by obeying Him in the callings He has given her for this stage of life, including work, family, friendships, and service opportunities. If she is living faithfully in the callings God has given her and is open to what His hand might bring later, there is no reason for her or anyone else to think that she is incomplete or that she hasn’t fulfilled her purpose because she is not married.
Our status in life—marital, economic, vocational—is part of God’s purpose and should therefore be a source of contentment rather than anxiety. Contentment doesn’t mean we have to be passive and let life roll past us, though. We should each be making “directional progress,” as Jackie in Chicago said, to become the women God has called us to be. Our personal callings play a part in showing us that direction.
Excerpted from Now and Not Yet © 2007 by Jennifer A. Marshall. Used by permission of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent.
Jennifer A. Marshall speaks and writes frequently on cultural issues as director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. She is a graduate of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.