Recently, I caught an article over at a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) site that talked about a rare bit of Christianese: finding your calling. In Christianese, a calling represents Jesus’ orders for what his followers are meant to be doing with their lives. But in reality, finding one’s calling works in a very prosaic–and earthly–way. Even then, it doesn’t work at all the way that Christians think it does. All of these problems arise from one simple fact: the god they think is calling them either isn’t calling at all, or else he doesn’t exist so he can’t tell anybody to do anything. And I know which one is way more likely!
What a calling is, in Christianese
Back when I was Christian, I had no idea what my calling was. And that was a big problem for me.
Every Christian had a calling. That was what all the evangelical churches I attended taught. In fact, this is mostly an evangelical idea, from what I can see.
Catholic church leaders do teach this concept too, of course, but I never heard them talking about it when I was Catholic. Even if I had, they use the term differently. To them, a calling usually draws Catholics into what they call vocations. A vocation is like becoming a priest or nun; it’s an official job in Catholic orders. Catholics also think marriage and intentional singleness are vocations. So, that’s what callings are to them.
Evangelicals define it somewhat differently. To them, a calling can be literally anything. Sure, it might involve ministry somehow, or marriage, or singleness. But it also might involve opening a Whataburger franchise in Luckenbach, Texas. Or, as my then-husband Biff was convinced, moving to Japan to teach English, sliding into missionary work, and from there becoming big-name missionaries in that country.
Whatever that calling involved, it would somehow help Christians–and help them achieve their god’s plans for the world. Since even then, evangelicals wanted to own the entire world and everyone in it, a calling could involve any sphere imaginable.
When Christians disagree about someone’s calling
Because the idea of one’s calling is based on a bunch of claims that aren’t true, the calling itself turns out to be completely subjective. And when something is completely subjective, it’s very easy for two people to disagree about its nature and meaning. They have no way to test it in any meaningful way. So it can mean whatever someone chooses it to mean–neither more nor less, as Humpty Dumpty says in Alice in Wonderland.
So yes, sometimes callings didn’t make a lot of sense. A timid person might think they were called to front-facing ministry. Or someone who wasn’t very bright might feel called to business ownership. Christian folklore is filled to the brim of stories like that–of someone getting an extremely odd-sounding calling that turns out to be absolutely perfect for them and to be very successful for everyone involved.
About the only thing I can say on this particular topic is that there were some rules involved.
For example, it was usually men who made a big deal about finding their calling. If women got a calling at all, it was to marriage and motherhood, or one of the few professions that women could enter without any side-eye from the rest of the tribe, like teaching. Indeed, I knew a few evangelical women who thought their calling was to become pastors’ wives. Even so, mostly it was men talking.
‘You would have made a great preacher,’ Pastor Gene told me one day
That’s why, one day, my second Pentecostal pastor Gene said something curious during a discussion we were having. I don’t remember what the discussion was about, only that it was religious in some way and I had a lot of thoughts about it. He considered what I had to say–Gene was a great guy who always showed me a great deal of respect. And then, he delivered what he thought was the highest compliment he could give:
It’s too bad you weren’t born a man. You would have made a great preacher.
It stunned me.
But we both understood that under Pentecostal rules, I could not get a calling to preach. I’m a woman. Preaching was–and is still–only for men. I guess that was one of the first times I’d ever come face to face with the systemic sexism in my religion.
Gene was a good person, but he was locked into a cage of religious rules. In our tribe, any woman claiming a calling to preach would be told–gently at first, then more firmly if she didn’t fall into line–that she simply had to be wrong.
We can’t all be right about someone’s calling… but we could all be wrong!
And yes, that is the reaction I often see from evangelical men who get confronted by a woman claiming exactly that. I’ve seen plenty of evangelical preachers and pastors who were women, and the reaction of evangelical men to these women is sadly predictable. It doesn’t matter how loudly she proclaims that this is indeed her calling, nor how certain she seems of that point.
She must be wrong, these men insist.
Obviously, she misheard Jesus in a major way. Or she was listening to her flesh, as the other Christianese goes, or being prideful. Or she was simply led astray by demons, since they always want to wreck Jesus’ plans for the Earth.
So, when I said that I knew for 100% sure that whatever my calling was, it did not involve motherhood, that’s the exact reaction I got as well. I told my religious peers and leaders that Jesus had told me it was okay for me to be child-free and never have kids. And everyone just lost their minds over it. Nobody knew what my calling was, not even me. But everyone around me was completely certain that it involved children somewhere along the line.
Again, this is what happens when something is completely subjective and based on claims that aren’t true.
I couldn’t figure it out
When I was Christian, I may have known what my calling wasn’t, but I sure didn’t know what it actually was. I talked to the ceiling endlessly, begging my god to please, pretty please, tell me what it was that I was supposed to do.
And the ceiling, as you might guess, didn’t say a word back to me.
None of the usual folklore stories happened for me, nor for anyone else I knew. All of my friends had trouble figuring this out. None of us knew what our god wanted for us. I don’t remember a single person suddenly bursting into the room to announce that Jesus had just told them WTF they were supposed to do with their lives.
Instead, people figured out gradually what they’d be doing for a living. Or they began to explore ministry options, if they thought that’d be a good direction for them.
Basically, my evangelical friends and I used much the same methods that regular people use to figure out those big questions. But our religious leaders had no shortage of instructions for us on the topic, even if none of it worked or even made sense.
How to find one’s calling, according to people who have apparently never used phones
There’s quite an established body of instruction from big-name Christian leaders regarding how Christians can figure out their calling. After all: since it’s of utmost importance that Christians follow whatever instructions Jesus has for them, they must first figure out what those instructions are.
What’s so funny to me is that this body of instruction hasn’t changed at all from when I was Pentecostal. It all reveals, all too clearly, that evangelicals in particular have no clue in the world how to know for 100% sure what their calling even is.
Biola University (a place that does not impress me at all) advises: Don’t count on hearing directly from Jesus. Instead, seek out “mediators” who will tell you what your calling totally is. Their link also suggests a few common-sense methods of figuring out one’s calling, none of which require any gods’ intervention.
LeTourneau University advises “partnering with God to discover your calling.” Helpful! Then, they too suggest various methods of figuring out one’s calling that, though loaded with Christianese and demands for prayer, don’t actually require divine action of any kind.
Ironically, Cru–which targets college kids–offers the worst advice of all: it doesn’t actually paint any concrete pictures at all for those needing advice the most. Mostly, they just tell college students to Jesus super-duper-hard, and be open to callings that are way out of their comfort zones. Very helpful, Cru.
For most of the sites I saw online, it was just striking to me to notice that if we remove all the Jesus language from their advice, it comes out sounding like something an atheist school counselor might say to a teenager who’s trying to pick a college major.
Punting to the big picture and hoping for the best
A few Christian sites know very well that they’re going to have a rough time with giving concrete instructions about figuring out one’s calling. They choose to go another direction. I’m not sure which is worse, either: instructions that make no sense or that obviously are just real-world instructions with extra Jesus frosting, or chiding Christians for wanting more than a universal, generalized calling.
Theology of Work punts to the big picture like that. They obliterate the actual evangelical definition of “calling.” To them, the really important calling is just Jesus-ing for one’s entire life. That’s it!
A writer for Relevant magazine, which targets Millennial evangelicals, criticizes the idea of a richly fulfilling calling in the first place. That writer, too, embraces the big-picture idea that a calling might just be lifelong obedience and Jesus-ing.
The problem, though, is that this big-picture, universal definition is not at all what evangelicals have in mind when they talk about their calling. As a result, it’s bound to dissatisfy almost everyone reading it.
See, evangelicals like to feel special and singled-out by the god of the entire universe. They like to think that there’s some special duty they have in their god’s plan for Earth that nobody else could possibly fulfill. A universal calling that is shared by everyone is not going to make them happy.
When the calling is coming from inside Christians’ minds
Once we strip all the Jesus language from evangelicals’ advice, it just sounds like the same methods that all other people use to figure out where they fit into the adult world. And that’s a good thing.
It can be just maddening to think that the god you worship has this big plan for you, but he won’t just tell you what it is or how to get started doing it. Instead, you have to bash your head against the wall trying to figure it out. He’s coy! And once you do think you know, you might still fail utterly.
Because Christians fail at their callings’ requirements all the time. A missionary might come back trailing defeat visibly in their wake. The Jiffy Lube or Whataburger might go out of business. Maybe Bible college is just too tough for that person, so ministry is out of the question. Or maybe that fundagelical politician who thought Jesus specifically ordered them to run for office loses–and catastrophically, at that.
At that point, you get to ask yourself a tough question. Did your god set you up for failure? Or are you just that much of a colossal fuckup?
What’s more, if you are that much of a colossal fuckup, then how bad will your failure wreck your god’s plans for humanity?
Oh, and here’s another problem. I saw a lot of Christians in these advice posts who finished their goal, but now they still have years of life ahead of them and now no plan at all. Like one lady thought her calling was motherhood. Okay, but eventually, the kids grow up! What then? What happens after that? Now she was just lost!
Getting one’s calling wrong
For that matter, what if you didn’t realize Jesus actually wanted you to open a Whataburger in Luckenbach, Texas? What if you misheard? What if, instead, you joined the Air Force and became a military librarian?
How badly would that mistake fuck up the Endtimes timeline? For that matter, how could any human fuck up the timeline anyway, since that’d kind of contradict the entire idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing god, right?
Yeah, it’s a real mindfuck.
What I can say for absolute certain is that there’s no big god in a pretty palace in the clouds handing people their life plans from on high and expecting them to take those marching orders and go forth to execute them.
And that, in a nutshell, is the best-case scenario of all.
Choose your own adventure!
Life’s not about one set of perfect marching orders.
Instead, it’s more of a choose-your-own-adventure book. And that’s a good thing.
Instead of getting marching orders from someone else, we get to figure out what’s best for ourselves. What path works for our skills, aptitudes, and desires. What helps us best achieve our own goals.
And then, we can change our minds if we need to. If there’s no god assigning callings, then there’s no worry about messing up that being’s divine plan. (Hey, if he wants to play coy, then he can figure out his plan on his own.)
We can accomplish the goal we’ve set. Afterward, we can set another as we see fit. Or we can see that this plan isn’t working and switch to something else that’ll hopefully work out better.
When I say that we’re all the captains of our own ship, that’s what I mean. We set the itinerary. Bring me that horizon, we can tell ourselves, and then we can sail toward it at whatever speed, using whatever route, we think best.
And if Christians think that “Jesus” is upset about that idea, then I recommend he get off the potty and start learning some communication skills.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as a dollar a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of regular readers.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for listening, reading, and being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!