3 Myths About Calling: Why RELEVANT’s Take Falls Short

3 Myths About Calling: Why RELEVANT’s Take Falls Short April 17, 2015


Let me start by confessing a pet peeve: I believe that the combined Jewish and Christian traditions express the most profound wisdom ever contemplated by human beings. This stuff is deep, and you really shouldn’t handle it with marketing in mind. So when someone—usually a pastor-slash-writer-slash-musician with an appealing headshot and a self-composed bio—attempts to produce (and we’ve all had to do it), a list of “Three Great This,” or “Ten Ways to Do That,” I get a little twitchy, bracing myself for the brazen attempt to pass off contemporary cultural claptrap as ancient wisdom that will inevitably ensue.

Is anything so thoroughly cloying as Christian attempts to mimic culture?

I’ll allow that occasionally a “Three Kinds of This,” or “Seven Ways to That,” article will pleasantly surprise me. This was my hope when I clicked on the recent post from RELEVANT called “3 Big Myths About Calling: Ideas to avoid when figuring out what to do with your life” by Dan Cumberland. Some of this is great, but I want to lean on the major assumptions a bit, because I think there’s an important way in which they don’t hold up.

First, let me say I’m glad Dan Cumberland raises the question of calling. Many people lack any clear sense of calling in life, and this can be painful. Cumberland is right, the mere mention of the word “calling” can have some people breathing into a paper bag. It’s an important topic, so kudos for raising the issue.

Myth 01 Your Calling is a Job
This myth is spot on. Cumberland writes, “Your calling can be expressed in countless ways: In your job and outside of your job, but it is not the job itself. One needs to cover the rent, mortgage, food, clothing, and healthcare. Sometimes that means you have to work a J-O-B, and it may not be directly connected to what you view as your calling. We shouldn’t conflate job with calling. They are not always the same thing.

Myth 02 Your Calling is Somewhere Out There, You Just Have to Find it.
Do we need the lightening bolt? I’m with Cumberland. The sudden epiphany is rare, and too often involves emotional coercion (see also: church camp). Discerning one’s calling is a process of discovery. The question is, what kind of process?

I often tell parents, the worst thing they can do to their children is tell them they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. I don’t think God is looking for people who know what they want to do with their lives. God is looking for people who will listen for what God wants to do with their lives. That’s calling. It’s a process of discovery typically involving the kinds of vocational false starts that leave you scouring fine print for ways to defer payment on your student loans for yet another month.

The myth, Cumberland says, is that your calling is “out there somewhere.” He writes, “The self is close to home… it’s who you already are and who you are becoming… The real work is not in searching it out, but in learning to be your true self.”

The true self… this is where we part ways.

I’m all for the Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr ego beat-down in which we learn to subvert the “small self.” But, this idea that the true self lives somewhere deep inside you is the kind of pseudo-Platonic dualism which so pervades American folk theology that everyone just assumes it’s true. I mean, if Oprah said it then it must be true, right?

The problem is, it’s not true, and it’s not Christian thought. More than that it’s dangerous. I’ve seen many a family destroyed by a spouse’s search for the “true self.”

In Christian theology the self names not a thing, but a relationship. I can’t name a single careful philosopher or theologian who doesn’t work from this view. (I could name a lot of bloggers who do).

To make my case I point to: The classic philosophical statement from G.H. Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society (1934). Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Doctoral Dissertation, Sanctorum Communio (1930). Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Vol. 3 (1958). John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion (1997). Stanley Grenz’s The Social God and the Relational Self (2001). And Stanley Hauerwas’s A Community of Character (1981). That’s a Protestant Liberal, a German Lutheran, a Swiss Neo-orthodox, an Eastern Orthodox Metropolitan, a North American Evangelical, and a Texan… all saying that the relational self is our best explanation of what it means to be a person. My favorite iteration comes from Stanley Hauerwas:

“The self is fundamentally social. We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. Our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. I know who I am only in relation to others, and, indeed, who I am is a relation with others. The ‘self ’ names not a thing, but a relation.” (Hauerwas Reader, 372)

Just as God exists as three persons in relationship, so we who are created in God’s image exist as relational beings. Your true self doesn’t exist somewhere deep inside you. The myth imbedded in Cumberland’s post is that it does. The self cannot be isolated from our environment or community without completely disintegrating the person. (Think of a human life in complete isolation… it’s dehumanizing).

What does this mean for the issue of calling? If the self is relational, then calling is first and foremost a matter of community. If you want to discern your calling, go to church.

It is only within the context of relationships with other Christ followers that we discern calling. In a world of individualism it is an act of menacing resistance to say: I don’t decide what to do with my life. I submit my hopes and dreams to my community and they help me to discern my calling, all of it under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Personhood, and therefore calling is a gift from God that’s mediated thru community. We discover our calling not deep inside our own soul, but in relationship with others.

Myth 03 Your Calling is a Place of Obligation.
Cumberland disagrees. He says, “Your calling and life’s work are places of freedom. If it’s not freeing, then it’s not yours… If it’s in line with who you are and who you are made to be, it will always be life-giving.”

Somebody better tell the prophet Jeremiah this. “Lord, you tricked me into being a prophet,” he said, “and I let you do it!” Can you imagine telling the apostle Paul that calling isn’t a place of obligation… or Jesus in the garden sweating blood and begging for a calling that doesn’t involve a Roman cross?

Calling is all about obligation.

If Jesus is Lord, then my life is not just my life anymore. I have been bought with a price. Calling isn’t about self-fulfillment. It’s about the kingdom of God, and we join God’s kingdom the same way Jesus did: thru cross & resurrection. Or to put it poetically:

You have to lose,
You have to learn how to die,
If you want to want to be alive, okay? (Wilco – War on War, J. Tweedy)

Jesus’s call to every human being is to die to ourselves, and to our own need to feel fulfilled in our life, or to be successful. We have to learn to die because without a death, you can’t have a resurrection.

I don’t think this aspect of calling means life must be drudgery—there is a peace that passes understanding, and a kind of freedom in becoming a slave to Christ—but we have not been promised we’ll make it out of this life alive. The death rate still hovers right around 100%.

What we are promised is that God has our back. God won’t let us be destroyed. If we lose our life for his sake, we’ll find life that can never be taken away. Obligation remains an inescapable aspect of calling.

If this all leaves you feeling depressed, then watch Wilco throw down and you’ll feel better.

"MZ13...I disagree! Stanley is still the "husband of one wife". He did not divorce her. ..."

Andy Stanley and Charles Stanley – ..."
"Do these so-called "pastors" have an undergraduate degree in humanities or other liberal arts degree, ..."

Fleecing the Flock: A Snapshot of ..."
"'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel' (Samuel Johnson).'One of the great attractions of ..."

Immigration Confrontation: When Jesus Doesn’t Have ..."
"In spite of what you say, the OT is very clear on human slavery, and ..."

Immigration Confrontation: When Jesus Doesn’t Have ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Paul Sheneman

    I love this conversation. I think it’s important in the community of teens and emerging adults I pastor. Also, I read your post then read Dan Cumberland’s post. So I read Dan’s post looking for what you were critiquing.

    I think your critique of “true self” as Dan uses it is a little strong. Dan wrote, “It’s dangerously close to our hearts and what makes us who we are.” I think he’s not far from saying that we are desiring beings and our calling and identity is attached to our ultimate love. I could easily agree if he were to say, “Discovering your “true self” is about recognizing your ultimate drive.” I think that Augustine and different monastic traditions showed that part of that journey is introspective. And I get that folks following those traditions kicked that truth into overdrive (Paul Markham gives an insightful narrative of that development in Rewired). And yet, I think that there is more to the story than just the inward journey.

    I agree that the “self is fundamentally social”. And that expands the story of human beings and the gift of calling beyond and inner journey. However, I still think there is more to the story.

    I’m searching for a more integrated and diverse framework to talk about humanity and vocation. I think that the Christian tradition and scriptures testify to the reality that humans are fundamentally social, desiring, storied and responsible beings (and I don’t think that is an exhaustive list of “fundamentals” but just what I’ve run into at this point). To make my case here are quotes from smart people: http://discipleshipremix.com/?p=1738

    The implication for calling is that it is a journey of out there and in here. Because we need to answer some very fundamental questions like:
    Who do I belong to?
    Who is responsible for me and who am I responsible for?
    What story am I living into?
    Who or what is my ultimate love?
    I think all of these questions are a part of a journey outward and inward to discover our calling.

    • Paul Sheneman

      I dug around and read more of Dan’s stuff. I realize I read too much into his post. I agree with your critique of his use of “true self”. Wowzers! I should have looked before I wrote:)

  • I haven’t read Dan’s post, but based on your presentation alone, would like too share the following:

    People who follow their vocation found communities and sustain communities, while people who merely defer to the community tend to reinforce the tyranny of ‘Das Man’. Abraham leaves the house of his father… Moses leaves Egypt and later returns following his Divine calling… The Buddha… John the Baptizer… Jesus of Nazareth… Paul of Tarsus… Mohammad… St. Francis… All of these are following the beat of a different drum–all of them are going against the grain of the dominant community. And yet their lives become the example for the generations that are to follow (that are called to follow, perhaps).

    So rather than framing this as between the community and the individual, we would do better– IMO –to frame it in terms of our “center of gravity” — are we oriented toward the “vertical” or the “horizontal”? (towards our Divine calling, NOW, or toward the satisfaction of our desire for money, pleasure, and honor– or some other imaginative ideal of “happiness” –at some point in the future!?)

    Kierkegaard acknowledges that relationship looms large in our lives:

    “[The] human self [is a derived, constituted] relation which relates itself to its own self, and in relating itself to its own self relates itself to another. Hence it is that there can be two forms of despair properly so called. If the human self had constituted itself, there could be a question only of one form, that of not willing to be one’s own self, of willing to get rid of oneself, but there would be no question of despairingly willing to be oneself. This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation. […]

    “This then is the formula which describes the condition of the self when despair is completely eradicated: by relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself the self is grounded transparently in the Power which posited it” (Sickness Unto Death PDF 9-10).


    But Kierkegaard also acknowledge that we have an absolute duty to God which transcends the ethical (and *may* at times conflict with it — see “Fear and Trembling”).

    My point is that “community can constitute as much of a temptation for us as a misguided individualism (in pursuit of personal “happiness” or “fulfillment”). Our calling is higher than both of these, IMO.

    “When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens seem to open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the soul has seen the highest, which no mortal eye can see and which can never be forgotten; then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity. He does not become someone other than he was before, but he becomes himself. The consciousness integrates, and he is himself. Just as an heir, even if he were heir to the treasures of the whole world, does not possess them before he has come of age, so the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself, for the greatness is not to be this or that but to be oneself . . .” (Kierkegaard, Either /Or, II, 177).

    See also Heidegger’s “Call of Conscience” which seems to be derived (in part, at least) from Kierkegaard: