Man mountain climbing standing suspended against a rock face.
Editor's note: This commentary is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
At times I fall into the trap of thinking my “calling” as a Christian is nothing more than the temporary assignments I’m given in my local congregation. This is primarily because, as a Latter-day Saint, when a fellow parishioner asks me, “What’s your calling?” it’s implied they are asking only about my current volunteer role at church.
But we are to be Christians “at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9). Our church assignments are only a piece of the larger calling puzzle, which also includes the home, the workplace and everywhere in between.
The patience of discovery
I recently heard Christian journalist and author Andy Crouch speak of his four-decades-long quest to define his life calling. Beginning in his early 20s, while sick in bed with pneumonia and unsure of his next steps in life, he started thinking seriously about things that endure.
He describes his thought process like this: What lasts? The kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God about? Love. How can one maximally commit oneself to participation in God's love? Realizing that most of the people he will love in this life will eventually forget him, and that almost everything he does will be forgotten, Crouch comes to a clear answer — the opportunity to have children.
"Even though I don't remember the names of my great-grandparents, I know they've shaped my world for better and for worse, in really profound ways,” Crouch says. “My life is most shaped by the ones who most embodied love to their children, who were my grandparents. So I thought, 'OK, I'm going to pray that someday I'll be able to have children.’ And that is probably the deepest calling of my life."
It wasn’t until 20 years later that he came to a precise understanding of his calling at work. In a revelatory moment, he created his mission statement as a journalist and writer: "to make complicated things clear, quickly, for people who could be doing something else — in the service of truth” (The Calling, Episode 37).
In important ways, Crouch’s story is my story. I was about the same age when I came to a general understanding of life’s deeper spiritual meaning and transcendent purpose. To be a husband and father has indeed become my deepest calling — my wife and three daughters being four of the fundamental reasons for my existence on this planet.
Also like Crouch, my workplace calling has taken longer to come into focus. I’m in my early 30s, still learning what I am to do and be in the working world. The process is frustratingly slow and sometimes unsettling, yet the moments of self-discovery through the guidance of heaven are always sublime and comforting — a confirmation of St. Augustine’s confession to God that “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
A broader vision of ‘calling’
Perhaps discovering our true selves takes longer than it should because so many of us are raised in cultures that promote the materialistic life and the “meritocratic” self. We are groomed to master what David Brooks calls the “resume virtues” — skills and experience that help us secure a space in the competitive marketplace. This is a practical way to earn our daily bread, (Genesis 3:19), but what is rarely taught is the importance of developing the “eulogy virtues” — those things people talk about at funerals, such as your kindness, your courage, your character.
To focus on the eulogy virtues is to look at the world and our contribution to it in the service-first way of Jesus Christ. The late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi wrote that selecting an occupation based on pay, hours and workplace environment is completely reasonable. But he added, in "When Breath Becomes Air," that “putting lifestyle first is how you find a job — not a calling.” David Brooks adds in "The Road to Character" that "no good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation,” which is “found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?”
As a Christian, I believe I have been placed in this world as God’s image bearer to leaven society with good Christian thinking and living. The temporal and the spiritual are inseparable in Mormon theology (D&C 29:34), which is why it’s true that all areas of our lives provide opportunities to glorify God and share our gifts with the world. In the words of author James K.A. Smith, as Christians we can “see our vocations as ways to pursue God himself.” Such pursuits help us “become what we were made to be” — indeed, to “become ourselves” and “find our vocation.”
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A life calling doesn’t just come to us in formal ways from spiritual leaders or workplace management. Areas of calling also bubble up to the surface from the wellsprings of our souls, urging us to use our gifts eagerly and freely to bless the world in diverse ways (D&C 58:26-27). This is a day when God is revealing “many great and important things” (Articles of Faith 1:9), some of which concern what you and I are called to do and be in all areas of our lives.
To discover your life’s larger calling and purpose is, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Kalanithi, to find a “joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.”
Samuel B. Hislop is a manager and writer with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His opinions are his own.