Stop Overspiritualizing ‘Calling’

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My brother and I both took piano lessons when we were growing up. Starting with scales, we tried to master the basics. At first it was boring—not to mention, unpleasant to hear. After a few lesson books, Zach quit. But I continued.

My first recital piece was Kokomo by The Beach Boys, but over time I played increasingly difficult pieces, moving from pop music to classical. If I was working on Bach or Chopin, for example, I’d do deep work—slowing down, taking each measure at a time, and playing the notes deliberately and repetitively until I mastered them. Then I’d move to the next measure. It was painstaking.

As I mastered the instrument, I began to have fun. My teacher had two grand pianos, and we’d sight-read duets together, enjoying our efforts and laughing at our mistakes. For my final recital piece, I memorized and performed Beethoven’s Pathetique with sheer joy.

My brother didn’t have the same experience because he didn’t put in the hard work. To be fair, he worked hard in baseball and, as a result, was named all-state in Florida. But he never came to experience the joy of playing the piano.

I didn’t foresee that joy when I started taking piano. In retrospect, after 13 years of lessons and thousands of hours of practice, I saw that my love for the piano wasn’t forged by a desire for self-expression but by discipline, perseverance, and deep work. Passion often comes after mastery and control—we love doing things we can do well, and doing things well takes time, effort, and faithfulness.

Called to Be a Pianist?

In college, I briefly considered majoring in music, but I ended up studying Spanish and international studies. Although I’d occasionally waste hours in a practice room at the music school, I didn’t make it a priority. Today I don’t have a piano at home, my talent is rusty, and, therefore, playing isn’t as much fun as it used to be.

Did I forsake my calling as a pianist? Did God create my hands—with abnormally long fingers that are able to palm a men’s basketball—to play the keys? Was I disobedient to God’s call?

Instead of becoming a pianist, I’ve worked in a variety of industries—government, education, communications, law, and non-profit. In each of these places, I’ve applied the same deep-work philosophy I did with the piano—going slow, being deliberate, and focusing on mastery. In each case, even if I didn’t start out loving a particular job, I increasingly enjoyed it because I got better at it.

In any given season, we usually must choose a single vocational path, but the reality is most of us can do a great number of things. We have many latent talents and gifts. When we work hard at them, our passion for them grows. What we do or how we start matters far less than what we do once we’ve started. As Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”

How We Work

As a Christian, whether I’m called to be a pianist or a writer is incidental to my main vocation—to be a child of God. When the Scriptures speak of “calling,” they mainly speak of our fundamental call to know Christ. As William Taylor writes:

There are at least 51 uses of the word “calling” in the New Testament. Forty-six refer to becoming a Christian (e.g., Rom. 1:7), and four to living a holy or peaceful life (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:15). In just one case (1 Cor. 7:20), it’s used to speak of the station for which we have been appointed.

In 1 Corinthians 7, he continues, Paul is explaining that people are called to various stations—single and married, circumcised and uncircumcised, slavery and freedom. What matters more than our particular situation, Paul says, is how we live out our calling as God’s children in that situation. As Paul writes, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Cor. 7:19–20).

There’s No Job Charming

This doesn’t mean that we can never change jobs or that we don’t serve a God who calls. It does mean, though, that work isn’t a means of expressive individualism but of faithfulness. God’s far more concerned with how we work—with faith, hope, and love—than with what career we have.

Too often we overspiritualize “calling” and make it about self-expression instead of faithfulness to God and service to others. We search for the perfect job—just what we’re “called” to do—and use “calling” as a trump card to replace perseverance, risk, and qualification.

Yet there is no Job Charming. Most of us could do any number of things. We simply must make a vocational choice (using the classic disciplines of prayer, community, and Scripture reading), work deeply at it, and be faithful in it. As Paul summarizes, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23).

Even if we feel “called” to a particular work, we usually experience that “calling” in retrospect. It’s far easier to look at the past and see confirmation than to look into the future and feel confident. Yes, the Lord speaks to us and calls us in advance, but the primary way he does so is through his Word. We step out in faith, work heartily, and—in retrospect—feel increasingly confident that we’ve been faithful and obedient in our vocation. Such humility recognizes that time, experience, and community are vital pieces of our vocational formation.

Let’s not, then, overanalyze or overspiritualize “calling” in our lives. Our primary calling is to know Jesus Christ. That’s his resounding voice in his Word. Yes, in addition to his Word, he has given us gifts and talents—as well as prayer and community—and called us to different stations. But there’s no perfect job and, even if we love our work, we often only experience that in retrospect after years of deep labor, working heartily as unto the Lord.


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