Have You Missed Your Calling?

To God, There Are No Dead End Jobs

David Clay / 10.14.21

After turning in an unexpectedly good amateur performance in, say, karaoke or golf, it’s not uncommon to hear one’s friends exclaim, “You’ve missed your calling!” This phrase usually takes on the register of a half-mocking compliment, since it’s presumably bad form to sincerely tell someone that they have demonstrably misspent their life up until now. But the joke is rooted in a serious theological concept that has survived, in some form or another, in even the most secularized corners of contemporary American culture. 

The modern concept of “calling” finds its origins in the Protestant Reformation. Before the Reformation, the church certainly understood that each individual has their part to play in a well-functioning society. To be sure, for the vast majority of people, that part looked like some variation of “peasant.” A fortunate few learned how to read and write and got some kind of clerical work. But, in the medieval scheme of things, it was the clery and monastics who could lay claim to a transcendent significance that a shoemaker, for instance, or even a magistrate could not. Those in overtly religious occupations earned spiritual capital unavailable to their secular counterparts. 

Martin Luther, himself a monk and a professional biblical scholar, upended this paradigm with his proclamation that all Christians are priests. Whether or not individual believers are employed in the professional clergy, they are quite literally doing God’s work by carrying out the responsibilities peculiar to their own stations in life. Shoemaking is every bit as glorifying to God as preaching. Callings might differ in specific content, but not in their degree of inherent holiness.

Originally, Luther used the term “calling” to refer to the believer’s station in life in all of its particulars: marital status, nationality, economic circumstances, and so on. Over time, however, the notion of “calling” has become more or less synonymous with “occupation,” and many of those using the term became reticent about the identity of any specific Caller. Still, the idea that each individual is (somehow) uniquely suited for a particular occupation continues to hold a great deal of purchase. Friedrich Nietzsche, strident atheist though he was, was comfortable using the term in his early volume, We Philologists (1874). Nietzsche begins with some thoughts about callings, and about how most people miss theirs: 

A man chooses his calling before he is fitted to exercise his faculty of choice. He does not know the number of different callings and professions that exist; he does not know himself; and then he wastes his years of activity in this calling.

It’s more than a little ironic that Nietzsche speaks of people choosing their callings, but this is probably a natural consequence of living in an economic and social environment very different from that of Luther’s Germany. By the 19th century, there was an established and growing middle class in most Western countries, which meant that more people than ever before had at least some say in their eventual occupation. But, Nietzsche observed, most people wasted this opportunity, as they ended up choosing work for which they were ill-fitted. Specifically, the majority of classics teachers were morally and intellectually incapable of really entering into the spirit of the Greeks and Romans whom they presumed to study, such that they could not live above the putrid artistic and spiritual mediocrity of christianized Europe. 

Worse still (from Nietzsche’s perspective), instead of taking steps to find his true calling, a Christian is apt to “compose a song of thanksgiving to ‘providence,’” that is, God’s supposed guidance of the universe and all of its details. The Christian, according to Nietzsche, interprets his “unfortunate choice of calling” as a divine “test,” ultimately tending towards his salvation. Nietzsche is nauseated by this theologizing. For him, such appeals to “providence” represent an exercise in bad faith, seeking to explain away or even sanctify obvious mediocrity. The idea of “providence” leads believers to lock in “unfortunate choices” in terms of their life’s work. 

But perhaps Nietzsche overestimated Christians’ trust in Providence; nowadays, we worry with the best of them that we have somehow, through inattention or laziness, missed our true callings. In the 16th century, there was very little question for most people about what they would end up doing for a living. The situation is different now, if not for everyone, then for a much larger segment of the population. The very existence of vocational options produces anxiety that we will pick the wrong one. God may have called us to this or that work, but it’s on us to suss out God’s will and then make it happen. That Christians can and do experience persistent frustration and dissatisfaction in their occupations seems to confirm that they can and have missed their callings. 

What might help here is the very thing that Nietzsche so despised: an embrace of the doctrine of Providence. God does pretty much his best work in and through our unfortunate choices, anyway. Believing this does not lead inexorably to complacency or self-justification, as Nietzsche imagined. There is no contradiction between dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances (along with determined effort to change them if at all possible!) and faith that “God makes no mistakes.” There’s no cosmic accident if you find yourself in the vocational equivalent of repeatedly pulling in an empty net (see Lk 5:5). The fishing boat (or the toll booth, or the carpenter’s workshop, etc.) is the place to be until you’re called elsewhere. 

Which might not happen. It’s not difficult to imagine an older believer looking back at his vocational life and wondering what it all meant. Perhaps circumstances kept him in a position that was less than satisfying, that did not suit him all that well. Or maybe he just missed his opportunities (God makes no mistakes, but we certainly do). It is precisely here that the doctrine of providence speaks a word of grace. A word, incidentally, that offends those who, like Nietzsche, feel themselves capable of achieving, or morally obligated to achieve, self-obtained greatness.

God finds value in our work right now, not in some distant and hard-to-attain future. As Luther knew, occupation is only one aspect of our divine calling, and that calling is fundamentally to be the objects of God’s love and mercy. We couldn’t miss that calling if we tried. 

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