Editors’ note: 

TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].

What would you say to someone who doesn’t have a clear idea of their vocation after graduating high school? Go on to college and pick a generic degree? Trade school? Gap year? Something else?

Thanks for this important question! This is an area where families and churches have a lot of recovery work to do on the doctrine of vocation. So many believers follow the educational tracks laid out for us by our culture, and then suddenly discover that no one has equipped them for vocational discernment when they get to the end of those tracks.

It’s important to recognize that your vocation doesn’t begin where your formal education ends. In a time when almost no one has the same job—or even the same job track—their whole lives, we need to be aware that “vocation” means a lot more more than “career.”

We get the word career from a French word that means “running around in circles.” God calls us—vocation is from vocare, “to call”—to something more important than that.

In classic Protestant doctrine, vocation is the calling of the gospel. Our salvation calls us to a whole life formed throughout by the work of the Holy Spirit, conforming us to Christ in the gospel. Your formal education and your pursuit of a job are only two of many places where God summons you in this whole gospel-formed life.

So the questions you ask—Should I go to college? Should I go to trade school? Should I take a gap year?—can be reframed in light of the gospel call. Protestant theology has historically recognized three major categories for thinking about vocation:

  • What am I well-equipped to do, or what can I get well-equipped to do? This includes not only aptitudes, talents, and skills but also things like relationships, networks, credentials, and even doors of opportunity that get opened for you “by accident.”
  • What does the world around me need? Real vocational discernment is not narcissistic navel-gazing. It’s mission-focused. The goal is not self-fulfillment, but to put the holy love of God into action in a dark and broken world.
  • What do I feel called to? Although it’s not navel-gazing, real vocational discernment is really discernment. There’s no standardized test. God has authorized you to use your judgment, and a vocation that doesn’t feel right to you is less likely to be sustainable.

Of course, life isn’t this neat and tidy. Sometimes you can’t scratch all three itches well at the same time. But a wise approach to vocational discernment will take all three seriously.

As you already know, sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike isn’t a wise plan. But the options you’ve suggested all have merit. Taking a gap year to work or intern somewhere is a good way to feel out the everyday rhythms of a particular job. Trade school might be a great fit with your abilities and particular life situation. And a traditional Christian liberal-arts college education is just as much about transforming your mind to see all things through a Christian worldview as it is about career training. If the thing holding you back from such a program is your lack of vocational discernment, you might want to consider what larger value you might get out of college.

As you’re thinking, it’s a good idea to find older, experienced Christians—preferably ones who know you well and/or know the fields you’re considering working in—and talk with them. Discernment is an individual right and responsibility, but it is rarely done well in isolation. It thrives within Christian community.

As you feel your way forward, take heart. God placed you in this time and this space, with this education and those opportunities. He’s given you financial and geographical and familial limits. He’s been with you since before you were born, planning your steps.

The psalmist promises that if you delight yourself in God, he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4). And as you pursue him, in his right time, he’ll show you how to pursue them.

You can read other questions and answers in the Thorns & Thistles series.