What is vocation, and what is the test for knowing whether you have one? This is the last post in a three part series. Tim Keller shares in his book Every Good Endeavor that “A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself…our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.” The term “vocation” has its roots in the historic Christian church, but that’s a topic for another post. For now it’s enough to say that we often use the words “vocation” and “job” synonymously. While that is usually fine for casual conversation, let’s remember that words actually mean something. You can do a “job” for a variety of reasons and motivations, including completely selfish ones. But you have a true vocation only if your abiding primary motivation is to serve others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have ambitions or have an expectation of a reasonable income and livelihood.

It simply means that your primary motivator should be to serve others. It means your chief goal is to give rather than to receive.

The summer of 95 was an exercise in vocation for me. I was a rising senior in college, and I had been accepted to a prestigious psychology internship at an elite university in the Midwest. I knew that the actual work of the internship would be with emotionally and psychologically troubled kids, but I couldn’t possibly have known what I was getting myself into. What I saw on the front end of that opportunity was first, a resume’ building experience. I would be working alongside some of the country’s finest Ph.D. psychologists and M.D. psychiatrists. Second, I saw a chance to increase my professional skills. Finally, I rightly recognized it as a rare break into an elite network that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Before I go on, let me point out that, in and of themselves, those are good things. I needed each of those professional hooks to hang my early career portrait. Was I living in vocation? No, not yet. My challenge, as I reflect on that experience, was that my primary motivation was me. It was to receive a career reward instead of giving to others. It was about my path, my career, my future. I wasn’t going there primarily to serve. What I was heading into was a career-building job. And, it was all of that. What did I discover about vocation–in the biblical sense–through that experience? These things:

  • The front-end energy rush that came from diving into an amazing resume’ building experience wasn’t enough to sustain my zeal, passion, and overall energy for the actual work through the duration of the experience.
  • When I was too absorbed in thinking about my career trajectory, I wasn’t thinking about how to serve those around me in the here and now.
  • None of my work that was selfishly driven at its core was enough to satisfy me. Only a true heart of service to others could do that.
  • When my work was motivated by true service, I went above and beyond what my “job” called for, and I did better work.
  • I found that my desire (or lack of it) to serve was directly connected to how involved I was in a faith community as well as how engaged I was in key spiritual disciplines such as Scripture study, solitude, and silence.

Over the years I’ve learned to invite others in to ask me hard questions as to what they are seeing in me as I lead and serve. I’m grateful for the ones who, as Keller puts it so well, challenge me to give my best out of a sense of mission and service instead of working to receive something for myself.