a calling isn't telling God what you want to do

“We are not wise enough, pure enough, or strong enough to aim and sustain such a single motive over a lifetime. That way lies fanaticism or failure. But if the single motive is the master motivation of God's calling, the answer is yes."  -- Oz Guinness

my plans for my life

“Mom. Dad. I know what I want to do with my life.” We were driving home from a basketball game, the summer before my senior year of high school. “I’m going to major in rhetoric,” I announced, “And then go to law school to be a lawyer.” I spoke with the confidence you only have when you’re young, when you believe that the world is yours and nothing can stand in your way. "Ok, Luke." my mom replied. "That sounds like a good plan." And just like that, my 17-year-old self had made it clear: I was going to be a somebody.

Growing up, our culture tells us you’re in charge of your life. You need to make things happen, working to impose your will on the world around you. We’re told that successful people take initiative and create their own opportunities, not letting up until they achieve their goals. Before long, you’re the main character in your life novel, charged with the role of forging your path forward.

As we’ve assumed control for our lives, we've changed how we choose our careers. In the past, people talked about receiving a calling, a call from God into a certain vocation. While we still use that word, most young people have replaced their calling from God with a “telling,” where you tell God what you’re going to do with you life. Subconsciously, we don’t like callings, since it implies that we listen and respond to God. A telling makes us the authority; we tell God, our parents, and others what we want to do with our lives.

why we refuse God’s calling 

We all gravitate towards a telling because it allows you to maintain control over your life. Tellings allow you to project your desires onto God, instead of listening to His call for your life. In the resultant power struggle, there are three main reasons you reject God’s calling and replace it with your own telling:

  1. You want to be more than God calls you to be: You have big plans for your life and you’re afraid that God will call you to something small. Like an Old Testament king who went into battle without consulting God, you attempt big things without asking God about them, afraid He might say no. Tellings like this one often result when we ignore our limits and try to do too much.

  2. You want to be less than God calls you to be: You’d like a nice, average life, and you’re afraid that God might call you to something bigger and more difficult. Like Moses refusing God’s call to lead the Israelites, you often say, “I’m not gifted enough," and have a long list of excuses why you’re the wrong person.

  3. You want to be something different than God calls you to be: You go along with God for a while, but when He calls you to something you don’t want to do, you go the opposite direction. Like Jonah, you rebel against God when His directions for your life don’t fit your plans.

The common thread between these is our desire to maintain control over our lives. Having grown up in a small town, I was afraid that unless I told God that I wanted to do something “big” like law, He would call me to some quiet and obscure life. I thought a telling was the only way I could ever get what I wanted out of life.

tellings thrive on idols

People always said the same thing when I told them I wanted to go to law school. “Wow, Luke, that’s impressive!” “Yeah,” I’d congratulate myself, “I’m going to make it big.” My telling got me what I wanted, respect and an association with success. We’re all driven towards telling God what we want so that we can get what we really want out of life, our idols. An idol is anything more important to you than God, a good thing that you’ve made into an ultimate thing.

While we’re all different, there are a few main idols that drive us to take control:

  • Power/Success: if I do something where I’m successful and well-known, then people will think I’m a somebody. Greatest fear: living a quiet and obscure life.

  • Comfort: if I do something that isn’t too hard, then I’ll never have to be uncomfortable. Greatest fear: doing something challenging and hard.

  • Approval: if I do something prestigious, then my parents/friends/community will give me the affirmation I want. Greatest fear: disappointing others.

  • Security: if I do something where I can make a lot of money, then I’ll feel safe from the uncertainties of life. Greatest fear: financial, emotional, or physical risks.

These idols and the tellings they create are insidious, not because you’ll openly reject God, but because you’ll start using Him to get what you want. Instead of Him being your God, you'll make Him into your cosmic genie, expecting Him to grant your every wish for life. You'll no longer serve Him, but will expect Him to serve you.

When I told people I wanted to be a lawyer, I always disguised my telling in spiritual terms, saying things like “I want use law to impact the world for Christ.” But at my core I wanted success, and only wanted God to help me get the most important thing in my life. 

the problem with tellings:

“Something just doesn’t feel right.” I was sitting alone in the library on a Thursday night, my junior year of college, trying to will myself to study for the LSAT. But it wasn’t working I just wasn’t interested in law. This is how tellings often work. They may appear to work for a little while, but eventually the tension on the fault line between who we are trying to be and who we actually are becomes too much for us, leading to two types of events to occur:

Tremors Events: As I went through college, more and more warning signs suggested that law wasn’t right for me. I tried to take a business law class but dropped it because it was so uninteresting. I forced myself to study for the LSAT every Thursday night, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had started to feel the dissonance between my plan for my life and God’s plan for me. Despite these tremors in my “calling,” I ignored and excused them away, saying that once I was in law school I’d be excited about law. But the gnawing feeling that maybe law school wasn’t a good fit for me kept growing.

Earthquake Events: Having ignored the tremors I felt during college, I went to Washington DC after graduation for an internship. I went thinking this would be the start of my career in law, but it ended up being the place where my telling collapsed. I was miserable at work, and couldn’t wait for my internship to end.  

Tremors and earthquake events are painful times, but God graciously uses them to open your eyes to the fact that your way isn't working. 

how to get back into a calling mindset

Once back home in Kansas, I had to face the reality that I had no interest in law or politics, which meant my plan for the last five years had crumbled. But through this time, God used my earthquake events to teach me two foundational truths about my life: 

  1. Your life is not your own: Since you're not your own, you don’t get to control your life. Instead, as a part of God’s creation, you have to allow Him to be in charge of your life. That sounds scary, but it makes sense when you consider the second truth.
  2. God knows you better than you know yourself: God is not some angry authoritarian trying to force you into things you hate. Since God both created and knows every part of your personality and gifting, He's uniquely able to call you to something you can find joy in.

how to discern a calling from a telling:

Even with tremors and earthquakes events, the struggle with the tendency to tell God what you want to do will never go away. Here are three questions to ask yourself to help expose if you're pursuing your idols or following God’s calling.  

  1. If I got paid just enough to get by, would I still want to do this job?

  2. If I could never tell anyone about what I did, would I still want to do this job?

  3. If I knew I would always be obscure and never make it big, would I still want to do this job?

These questions help tease out whether you're pursuing the work itself or the fame, prestige, or money that comes with with certain types of work. The more trendy a job, the more important these questions become. If you answer no to any of these questions, it's likely you're pursuing your idols more than you're pursuing God’s calling.

God’s calling: your best way forward

As I reflect back on my telling towards law, I’m thankful God stepped in and altered what I thought was best. Law would've been incongruent with my gifts and personality. Sadly, so many people in their twenties are stuck in their teenage tellings. It’s never too late, though, to get out of a telling and start walking towards God’s best for your life. It won’t be easy, and you'll probably lose prestige, money, or comfort, but there are few better feelings in the world than serving God according to His call on your life.

"And the Lord came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” 1 Samuel 3:10