I try not to make a habit of this, but I’m going to start out by telling you a lie. It’s a lie that you already know and might already believe. It fills advice columns, podcasts, self-help books and Disney movies. Like the most insidious of lies, it even beckons us to make it the defining philosophy of our lives. And many do.
This culture-shaping, generation-defining lie is the 2017 life-narrative that if you can just find your passion and focus on doing that, you’ll be fabulously successful and happy. Sometimes it comes as a question—“what would you do if money was no object.” (For 99.9% of us it always will be). Or maybe it’s “find your passion and figure out how to get paid for it.” You can even go back to Confucius if you want—“choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
It’s [sort of] true.
Like all well-told lies there are elements of truth in these maxims. First, it’s true that we do each have individual skills and proclivities that make us capable of doing things other people can’t do. The world would be a very boring place otherwise.
Second, there is wisdom in recognizing our strengths and making real, tangible efforts to capitalize on them. There’s no reason to languish away at tasks we can hardly manage or figure out. Be wise—do things you’re naturally good at and even learn to get better at them.
Third, there is real joy in doing something that you are particularly good at. God gave you the ability to do that thing and He even motivates us with joy at doing it. Skill, well-cultivated and rightly used is a beautiful thing. It might even bring glory to God.
Turning to the framework of the church, we can recognize our spiritual gifts and work to use them well to help other people. In fact, if it’s truly a gift you probably won’t have to arm-wrestle your way into doing it. One of the marvels of spiritual gifts and the church is that you will generally be called on to use your gifts for the benefit of the body. The best way to know what you are gifted at is to observe what the rest of God’s people ask you to do.
Still just lies.
But don’t take these as mottos for life just yet. There are definitely lies. First, the whole scheme is me-centric. You’re called on to find your passion, make that your pursuit, and reap the benefits of fabulous success and enjoyment for yourself. There is no room for the distinctly non-hipster call to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
Second, this quickly becomes quite practical, for almost no one has the luxury of pursuing their pure passion. Every job involves things we hate. The life-narrative of 2017 promises to abolish the “workiness” of work. In biblical terms it’s a denial of the curse and Ecclesiastes. There is great joy and beauty in a pursuit rightly made. But there are also days of sheer grunt work. Even jobs that we genuinely love will always have elements we don’t—probably lots of them. Another way to say it is that in any society, someone has to drive trucks, cut grass, change sheets in a hospital, care for children, fill in spreadsheets, answer customer phone calls or any number of other tasks that are probably not going to be anyone’s “passion.”
Third, most of us are called to do things that aren’t exactly in the center of our first choice. It is part of the extreme luxury and ease of our leisure-centric culture that we even act as though making a living must be exactly what we would tailor design for ourselves. Most humans historically and not an insignificant number alive today feel good about themselves as long as they manage to eat consistently. Having the luxury to do only the type of work you want to do is nice if you can swing it. Expecting it or making it an entitlement smacks of all the bad types of privilege.
When culture enters the church
When it comes to vocation, I feel only a limited need to attack the myth of finding your passion instead of a job. Most of us figure it out pretty quickly when we enter the workforce and live life for awhile. Where the idea is most damaging might be when it invades our idea of how church life should work. Asked to serve, we might refuse because it’s not something we feel comfortable doing or feel a desire to do.
But truthfully, true service is a net drain. It will wear you out. It wouldn’t be called service if it didn’t. Love requires you do things you don’t feel like doing. It’s precisely the decision of love for the other person that drives you to do it anyway.
So here’s a baseline for service within the church. Expect to do a lot of things that aren’t your first competence or even that you think you can’t do. A good rule of thumb is that if the body is asking you to do it, they’re probably seeing a capacity there, whether you recognize it or not. Make a choice to stretch beyond your comfort zone. You can do things that aren’t your first and greatest enjoyment because you want to serve, love and bring honor to your God.
And ironically, in the process you might discover something about yourself and life. Serving doesn’t come naturally. It does cost. And yet because we are made to do something more than consume and serve ourselves, service quickly turns into a privilege and a joy. In fact, eventually you might even discover something more. You might discover your passion.