As I've shared before, the last year has been a season of transition for me, and that has prompted me to reflect quite a bit on the notion of calling and how that works in our lives. The idea of calling is one that many of us feel invested in; how do we know what it is that God is calling us to, and how do we live towards it? Questions like this are a lifelong pursuit of walking into what God has for us in our present now. I would imagine with the natural life transitions forced by this unique COVID season, many of us are revisiting these questions and working to answer them in a new context and with unforeseen challenges.
As I've reflected and prayed about this whole issue over the last months, I feel a new picture of what calling is and how it works beginning to emerge. As it does, I sense it framing up for me what God is doing and how to partner with him in this moment. My guess is this perspective may be valuable for beyond just myself, and this is me doing my best to pass it along to others, who it will hopefully benefit. The one-sentence summary of the idea is this:
In the cosmic drama that is our life, we get the privilege of choosing the lines, but we do not often write the plot.
There are three elements here: let's look at them each in turn.
The Cosmic Drama that is our Life
As I have reflected more and more on the idea of calling, I've come to the conclusion that a helpful way to think of it is that our lives are meant to tell a story. I've written quite a bit about the idea of imaging God, and how humanity is uniquely made to reveal who God is. While that imaging can happen in specific acts in a given moment, I believe that imaging happens over the course of our lives as well. As our lives trace their arc, the choices we make and the story those choices write displays who God is.
We tend to think of our lives as imaging God to this world, which they do, but I would also suggest our lives image God to the spiritual realm as well. In fact, there are a number of Scriptural references that highlight this idea: the spiritual realm is tuned in, watching our lives and seeing God imaged:
so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Ephesians 3:10
How is God's wisdom being made known to the spiritual realm? Through the church; his people. Our lives themselves act as a great cosmic storybook that unveil to the spiritual realm who God is. We don't have an option otherwise: our lives are made to display something of who God is. It is this sense of our lives writing an eternal story (which I believe we will all look back on from heaven someday) which can be the motivation for our journey of faith. It gives our life meaning; promotes our journey to one of eternal significance. At the end of our time in these mortal bodies, we will inherit the legacy of a life lived that demonstrated something of who God is. Our good days, our bad days, and everything in between will be bound up into one narrative that unveils something of who God is.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1–2
For me, this perspective powerfully clarifies the goal of the topic of calling. It shifts the focus away from function - the question is not, "what am I supposed to do", and pivots it into a much more relational question: "what story is God writing through my life?" To me, this is such a critical shift, because it means the point of our calling isn't tied to how big our accomplishments are. The fact is, that from the point of view of this world, some callings look "bigger" than others. Some people fill stadiums or are involved with the governance of nations, but most of us will never do those things. Does that mean our calling is less significant? Not at all, because our calling isn't in the accomplishments we do. (This perspective is likely to slip us back into performance thinking and self-effort as well). Our calling is in the cosmic story our life is writing, and that cosmic story can reveal God just as powerfully whether we ever look like we are on some proverbial "front lines" or not. Success is not in the accomplishment, it is in the story accurately imaging God.
Within the context of that perspective, here are two clarifications:
We Choose the Lines
It is an amazing thing that God gives us as much freedom and choice as he does. God is all about this; he is all about releasing and empowering us, and he loves to include us in shaping the story that is our lives. We aren't put on a short leash, told what to do and what to say; God enjoys raising up powerful sons and daughters that exercise our choice and bring ourselves to the drama we are living. We get to decide what kind of character we will be. Are we the trusted friend who is always there to help when things go sideways? The mysterious type who steps in when all hope is gone with some secret insight? Perhaps the comic relief who helps everyone take a second to breathe when things get intense? We have great power over how we choose to posture our lives and God loves that.
The fact that we choose the lines affirms our human choice in the context of calling. Our calling isn't something that is strictly delegated to us by God; it is something we choose into and our fingerprints are on as well. What an incredible thought - that we are co-writing a story that reveals God which will live on for all eternity! It is indeed through, not in spite of, our humanity that God is made known.
...But We don't Often Write the Plot
Our choice in this thing called our calling isn't unlimited though. There is a whole lot in our lives that is outside our control: none of us have a say in where we are born, when we are born, what our family of origin is. We don't have control over the choices of others (for the most part at least). Given there is much outside our control, there are significant parts of our storyline that aren't up to us. We may flesh out the character, but to a large extent, we don't choose the storyline we play. Instead, all of these circumstances feed into our lives and shape the backdrop that we get to image God upon.
I find it a fascinating thought that our life is the only chance for God to be imaged in our particular circumstances. Whether we are rejoicing in victories, or mourning losses, we have a unique opportunity to walk through them in such a way that God is on display to the whole cosmos through us. The only storyline that has the chance to demonstrate who God is with your particular combination of history, passions, and circumstances exists in your life. There is a unique "God-fingerprint" we can leave in the eternal story God is writing because the plot of our lives is unique. There will never be another instance where God can be seen from precisely the point of view that we have the chance to display him from.
This is important because it means that our calling isn't entirely chosen; the opportunity we uniquely have to image God is a paradoxical combination of what we choose and what is handed to us by the world around us. In many ways we are powerful and we get to choose who are are, but in many ways we also don't have the ability to choose the "plotline" for our life, and to the extent that is true, our job is to receive the story God is writing through our lives as equally valuable and important as any other. On the whole, every possible story that reveals God is a story of God himself, and has intrinsic and eternal value. There are no "better" and "worse" pictures of God; there are just different ones.
And to this end, our calling requires choice, but also discernment. How well do we know the image God is composing through the story of our lives? Do we know the plot to our own story? How do we know it? These are deep questions that require a lifetime of inquiry, for the arc of our life isn't over, until it is.
Each of us is granted an incredible privilege in this life; to co-write a story with God who promises to leave his resemblance on it. I want to invite you to join me in discerning the plot, and choosing your lines.