How do you define calling? One of my favorite quotes on this is by the 14th century mystic and activist named Catherine of Siena, who said, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” To me, this is such a more meaningful way to talk about calling than just “What do you do?” It’s really asking the question, “Who has God created you to be?”
So today, I want to share two truths and a lie about this life task of answering this question for yourself. And what I’m sharing is based on working with hundreds of people in this process and what I’ve learned and observed through that. I’m actually going to start with the lie, and the lie that I see people struggling with a lot is: “If I don’t know my calling, there’s something wrong with me, it’s my fault. It’s some personal failure if I don’t have clarity about this in my life.” And they feel guilty or even shameful.
And I just want to say, if that’s you, it is not a personal failure if you’re confused about this in your life. It’s a simple question, but it’s a really hard-to-answer question. And so many of us haven’t been given the sense of agency, or the frameworks, or the safe space and support to figure it out. I would argue that those things are essential. And without that, it’s very hard. And I’m not gonna lie, I think Christians’ theology can get a little weird about this sometimes. It definitely took me a minute to unlearn this belief that I had that God’s calling for me was whatever sounded most terrible. Whatever I didn’t want the most, that’s what God must want me to do.
And I also think it’s important to just name that I think this is especially true if you are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), if you’re a woman, if any of your identities lead you to be marginalized — your sexuality, being neurodivergent, being disabled. If you have experienced marginalization, then you’ve gotten conflicting messages about who you are and what you bring. And that’s happening implicitly and explicitly, and it’s exhausting.
So it reminds me of a Harvard Business Review article called “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” and it’s written by two women of color. They say if you phrase it that way, it makes it sound like it’s the fault of the women. And we’re not looking at the effects of systemic racism, and classism, and xenophobia, and other biases. And so rather than putting it at the feet of these women, let’s look at the environment that’s contributing to this, that’s making it hard for people. And I would argue the same thing sort of happens around calling, and it’s like this feeling like, “Well, you don’t know? What’s wrong with you?” Or we do it to ourselves. And we don’t often get pointed to look at the environment or what makes it hard to do so. So if that’s you, I just hope you can let that go.
The two truths are simple, but they never, ever fail to blow my mind. So the first truth is that you are created in the image of God. And the second truth is that the way that you are created in the image of God is completely unique. So I’m not going to go too in depth on the fact that we’re created in the image of God. Genesis 1:26, I think we all agree with that. That’s not debated, that’s been taught on a lot. But the second truth is where it gets a little bit tricky because I have literally heard pastors say, “Wanting to pay attention to what’s unique about you, well, that is selfish and that’s narcissistic.” And they very much pit knowing God against knowing of self. Like those are opposites. And they shame people into thinking that, “Well, if you care about knowing yourself, that must mean you don’t really have enough faith or that’s some sort of sin on your part.” Whereas I would argue that it’s not binary; those are meant to go together. They’re meant to flow together. And one author said it really well: “There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.” It’s not a binary either/or. It’s a beautiful and sacred both/and.
And I think the majority of the confusion that we have around calling is because we have not adequately understood our own uniqueness. We haven’t been helped to do so. We don’t have that deep knowing of self. For all the time that we immerse ourselves in wanting to know God and know God’s Word, we aren’t also helped to know ourselves. And so there’s this imbalance, and we don’t have that. And so we’re trying to come, like I said, to this life task of discerning, “What is my calling? What is my life meant to be about?” We are stuck because we don’t have that understanding. We don’t know what are our strengths, what are the things that light you up and bring you joy and energy. So many people tell me, “I have no idea how to talk about what my strengths are.” You know, like getting ready for a job interview. “I have no idea how to talk about that.” And that is such a common struggle. Or “I don’t know how to figure out what really brings me joy, what’s life-giving, what’s draining, what my desires are.”
And all of that — your strengths, your limitations, your struggles, your story, your heritage, your identity — these are all very intentional and intricate ways that God has created you. This is all part of the unique way that you bear God’s image. And so it’s no wonder we’re confused, because it’s like trying to create this beautiful piece of pottery and you have no idea the material you’re working with, the clay.
One small example that I use to kind of counter this thinking comes from StrengthsFinder or CliftonStrengths. And it’s one of the modalities I use a lot in my work. Some of you have probably done it. And if you haven’t, it’s just an assessment that you do, and you answer a bunch of questions, and it tells you, here’s your top five strengths. Do you want to know what the chances are of you having the same top five strengths as someone else in the same order? It’s one in 33 million. One in 33 million. That is mind blowing. So the Super Bowl just happened, and that stadium holds about 71,000 people. So I did the math, and it means that it would take 469 Super Bowls full of people before you ever met anybody with the same strengths.
So imagine if that’s true — just this one part of you — how much more true is that of all of who God has created you to be? It’s amazing. Embedded in your unique and authentic self are the signposts to your calling. But the problem is, we haven’t often been taught to notice them or even look for them. But I would say it’s also just like learning anything else: learning how to cook or learning how to ride a bike. This is something we also can learn. So it’s not hopeless.
I would say, learn how to study your own life. So in the same way that we observe and interpret and apply Scripture, we can do that in the scripture of our lives. Learn how to hold both agency as well as relational support as you figure this out, because we really need both. Some of this is your work to figure out on your own. And some of this is really needing that collective, that communal space to do that. Learn how to hold a high view of God with a high view of self, and see what that does for your spiritual life. See what that does for your spiritual growth and your relationship with God. Just play with that.
I want to end with the quote that I started with as a blessing and a prayer this time because I believe it for each and every one of you. I see in the people that I get to work with story after story after story, almost every day, of how God just delights and has all this creativity and abundance when we are living into who God has made us to be. And so I just really want, again, for you to receive this as a blessing and a prayer.
“Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
I believe that’s absolutely true. And at the risk of sounding kind of naive, I truly believe that this is also what the world needs more of, is more people who are awake to the goodness of who they have been created to be. Amen.