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An Incarnational Call: Timeless Vs. Time-Full Understandings of Calling

Today’s post from Ryan J. Pemberton is part of Hinneh: a blog series on vocation and calling. If you’d rather read all the posts from the series in a short ebook, the writers have generously made it available for free. You can download a PDF copy here, or downloads in Epub (most tablets/e-readers) and Mobi (Kindle) formats are available as well. To receive the rest of the series in your inbox, sign up here

“I don’t think this is where you’ll always be,” my wife said to me in a moment of honesty, “but maybe this is the right job for right now.”

woman-sitting-alone-on-a-benchWe had been reflecting on an unsolicited job offer that had come my way, which had surprised me as much by the lack of effort on my part as by its responsibilities. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and I wondered how it fit with what I believed God was calling me to.

A few years earlier, I had given up a perfectly good job at a marketing and public relations firm to return to school to study theology. At the time, I had felt that God’s call on my life would involve using my communications background paired with a theological education to write and speak in a way that helps others see Christ more clearly.

The job in question was a marketing job back in our old hometown. After traveling around the world, and with two theology degrees now under my belt, I wondered what that meant.

If you’re anything like me, you probably think about calling as something static or timeless. “Writing is my calling,” you might say. Or opening up a bakery. Or playing the cello, perhaps. And I’m beginning to think maybe that’s not quite right. Or helpful.

And yet we find this static, timeless approach to calling offered in the books we read as much as the way we talk about it in conversation.

Many books on calling, for example, tend to offer a system or plan, focusing on an assessment of your skills, ambitions, and just maybe even the needs around you, to help find “your calling.” And I think there’s something immediately disturbing about this approach to the subject, especially for Christians.

If calling is found by way of a Venn diagram, three-step plan, or another system, then what happens is that God—the living God—becomes arbitrary quite quickly. If all I need is the right plan to find “my” calling, then once I have identified “my calling,” these sorts of approaches lead me to think I can go ahead and follow that, without regard for God’s daily will for my life.

But if the word “calling” assumes a caller, and if, for the Christian at least, the One who calls is the living God, then this sort of “lifeplan” understanding of calling simply makes no sense for Christians. Calling ought to begin and end with the One who calls.

Another thing to consider in terms of how calling tends to be talked about is that if I think of calling in terms of something I possess or control—as “my calling”—then I’m going to find myself frustrated when things don’t work out as I had envisioned (which, by the way, they rarely do). If, instead, calling is understood as a dynamic gift given to us by God, as something we live into day by day, rather than something we possess, control, or must force, then we are invited to live with considerably less anxiety. Calling is no longer about me “figuring it out” so much as me living into that which God is already preparing me for, already leading me to, already inviting me to live into, right here, right now.

It’s more than just semantics when I encourage Christians to talk less of “my calling” and more of God’s call on our life.

“Never, however, can yesterday decisively influence my moral actions today,” the German pastor, theologian, and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once told a Berlin congregation. “I must rather always establish anew my immediate relationship with God’s will. I will do something again today not because it seemed the right thing to do yesterday, but because today, too, God’s will has pointed me in that direction.”

If the word “calling” assumes a caller, and if, for Christians, that Caller is the living God, then it doesn’t make sense to consider calling in a timeless sense, as a one-off directive placed on our life that forever guides our decisions, like some rigid principle. Instead of thinking of calling in a timeless sense, we ought to think about calling in a time-full sense. As something we must always return to God to receive anew, for the moment-by-moment needs of this day.

“Follow me,” Jesus says to His first disciples. So, too, for any who He calls His own today. Which means that as soon as we write off a particular job, direction, or choice outright, on principle, we are no longer following the living Lord, but a way of our own making. The idea of a timeless call will steer us away from our time-full responsibilities, given to us by the One who calls out still, “Follow me.”

If I think of calling as a particular line of work—writing, for example—then I’m going to likely spend a lot of time waiting and wondering when my life is going to begin. I will spend a lot of time feeling as though if I’m not writing—or opening up my own bakery or being invited to play my cello or doing whatever I may think of as “my calling”—then I’m not doing what God wants me to be doing. And that’s enough to drive anyone mad.

But if calling is less a particular job, school, or even place, but more an active posture of surrender and receptivity to the living Lord’s leading in the moment, then I can use my particular giftings in a way that honors Him, wherever I might be at the moment.

“Maybe this is the right job for right now,” my wife said, referring to this job that I would not have otherwise imagined fitting in with “my calling,” yet which may be just what God is calling me to in this moment.

Calling can never be considered in the abstract, but must always be prayerfully considered in the concrete needs of the moment. Calling must always be time-full, never timeless. Like the One who calls, our understanding of calling must become incarnational.

Ryan J. Pemberton is a Pacific Northwest writer and the author of Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again. You can find him online at @ryanjpemberton and at RyanPemberton.com.

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