I think it was at a summer camp where I heard it for the first time. A wide-eyed, eager-eared teenager excited about the prospect of growing up and discovering what I was destined to become. Almost a slogan. It wasn’t long before I started coming across it everywhere: Christian festivals, Bible bookmarks, fridge magnets – even the odd sermon. And when inspirational posters became sickeningly popular, what better verse is there to pair with a beautiful mountain sunset to tell you that everything was going to work out brilliantly, than Jeremiah 29:11:
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
It’s a great verse if you don’t think about it too hard. It tells me everything is going to work out great – I’m going to get that killer job, dazzle everyone with my musical talents and get the girl. It tells me that there’s a plan. My calling is already mapped out.
So filled with this assurance, I set off to pursue the perfect calling that I just needed to take hold of. For me, it looked pretty simple, and while some of my fellow adventurers were stuck working out exactly what type of worship leader they were going to be, or which particular African country they were going to start an orphanage in, I was definitely going to be the next Jacques Cousteau. I went to university and studied marine biology. After a three-year hiatus in student ministry, I came out with an MSc. Finally, at 26, I was on the cusp of fulfilling my destiny!
Except… I wasn’t. I spent five years wandering around the country, volunteering and working short-term contracts, desperately trying to find the place where I was going to be able to save all the fish (actual fish – not a holy metaphor). It was four years before I even could legitimately call myself a marine biologist and during that time, I gradually forgot how to live well in community. A transient being, I forged a deep self-reliance and continually struggled to make connections.
On reflection, it’s startling to see how much of my identity had been wrapped up in becoming a marine biologist. It had seemed a logical thought process to find my place; God had given me a passion for the fish, I would go and become a fish guy and would then help to save the fish and participate in God’s plan to renew creation. And really, there’s not a huge amount wrong with that, except that there needs to be a whole lot more.
The passage in Jeremiah was never written to be a panacea for a millennial generation worried about a lack of purpose. It was a prophecy for the Israelite nation in Babylonian exile, reassuring them that God was with them and would ultimately restore them. Assuming that it’s a direct promise to a successful and pain-free life is for me, a gross misreading.
When Jesus was asked what matters above all, the answer was simple: Love God with everything you have and love people as you love yourself.
So instead of attempting to be successful under the guise of calling, maybe we should shift our priorities and ask where we can best do the loving. Of course, God gifts us personalities and skills that fit better to certain vocations, but when we see a specific job as our priority, we’ve got it wrong.
It’s far too easy for our identity to become wrapped up in what we perceive to be a calling that we miss the reason we’ve got these gifts at all. If we’re too fixated on what we are to become, we miss the loving we can do along the way.
Eventually, I quit my job as a fisheries manager and on the recommendation of folks who know me well, moved to Canada in search of a better fit and a fresh perspective on loving God and my neighbour. And it’s worked out well – being released from the pressure to fit a certain career because it was my ‘calling’ has helped me learn to uncouple my identity from my dream job. It has allowed me to find a community that fits my unique personality. It’s here that I’m finding space to learn to love better and grow out of my selfishness.
Love God and love people. That’s our calling as Christians, and it turns out we can do it whatever our job is.