Hi! This is the 3rd in a series of foundational posts in Embrace Our Calling. Previously, we have talked about the idea of calling, and how calling is different from passion. In this post, we will be learning how we can discover our calling in life.
Before writing this post, I’ve read several books and attended some courses about finding our calling. I wish I could say that this has made me an expert on this subject, but, to be frank, the more I learned about calling, the more I realize how little I know. Different authors have different takes on what constitutes a calling, and how one can best discern it, so it is difficult to come up with a comprehensive plan to figure out your calling. And there’s only this much we can cover in a blog post! Nevertheless, I want to give credit to Dr. Tan Soo-Inn’s book, Discover Your Calling, in particular, because it was so helpful in putting together the process in a simple A-B-C method:
- Critical life incidents
Soo-Inn has also consulted several prominent writers and Bible teachers in his book, and this has helped me tremendously in my research. I will be making references to some of them, as I put together my own take on how to find your calling.
With that said, let’s begin!
We first need to know our greater purpose in life.
Often, when we talk about calling, we meant the specific role or path that we are to take at this point in time, whether it is a job, a career decision or a marriage partner. These are our secondary callings. Yet before we can know these, we first need to be right with our primary call – our relationship to God.
We need to know our Caller. That is, we need to be in a relationship with God who first calls us to Himself. This doesn’t mean that if you are not a believer in God, there is no way you can find your calling in life. God’s call for all of mankind is part of His common grace to everyone, whether or not we are believers. Each person can find his or her place in life, even if he/she does not know that it was God who places him/her there.
However, to find one’s calling with knowing the Caller is to miss the greater purpose behind that call. The most important thing in life is not what we do (our work). It is not even who we are (our identity). It is Whose we are (our relationship with God). When we belong to God and are rightly related to Him, who we are and what we do become infused with meaning and purpose. Christians – people who have entered into a special relationship with God through Jesus Christ – are called to be children of God, and everything we do flows from that relationship.
The purpose of our existence, as the Westminster Catechism puts it, is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. The glory of God is the highest goal of our existence. As the people of God, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession”, that we may “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9). This is the purpose of our existence, and our calling flows from there.
The 4 Elements of a Calling
Our calling is the intersection of what we are good at (Ability), what we love (Affinity), what the world needs (Awareness of human need), and what opportunities are open to us (Access to opportunities). I have arranged these 4 elements visually in a diagram, by using the 4 A’s as a mnemonic:
Let’s look at each of them in turn.
1. Ability – What We Are Good At Doing
Our calling allows us to do what we do best.
Romans 12:4-8 highlights the biblical principle that each of us are endowed with unique gifts and abilities in order to serve the larger community we are in. As Christians, we are endowed with spiritual gifts by virtue of our salvation. But everyone is endowed with natural talents and abilities, by virtue of the fact that we are all God’s creation.
Identifying what our primary strength or ability is can be a helpful starting point to discovering our calling. Think about the kind of activities you do well, something that you can fully immerse yourself in doing. What gives you the deepest sense of satisfaction? Do people praise you for doing this well? Is there a ‘pattern of giftedness’ emerging?
One of my greatest satisfaction is in doing consecutive interpretation for my church. The speaker will speak in one language (usually Mandarin), and I will interpret the message in another language (usually English). Each time I do it, I experience a sense of flow in my thought and speech. It is as though the speaker’s thoughts and voice are merged with mine. My body movements were engaged, and I am immersed in communicating with the audience. I would not call this a spiritual gift, but an ability I am grateful to God for, as it helps serve the needs of my brothers and sisters in our bilingual church.
Knowing your primary strength or ability should rightly humble you. It should not be a source of pride or something to brag about, but a reminder that you are made for a larger purpose, and you are called to serve others.
When you identify that primary core strength or skill set you have, you are one step closer to discover your calling.
2. Affinity – What We Love Doing
Our Affinity (what we love doing) is closely related to our Ability (what we are good at), but they can be different at times. Sometimes, what we are good at doing may not be something we actually love doing for our entire lives. There are many capable engineers, lawyers and even doctors who are more than qualified in their jobs, but chose to take on another path later in life when they discover their true passion.
I remembered reading about a research scholar from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), who protested against her six-year scholarship bond with the agency and said she had “no interest at all” in science – even though she had obtained 2 university degrees under her scholarship! Whatever we may think about her sense of entitlement, it is important that our calling is aligned to what we love to do, instead of merely what we are good at doing.
The thing is, we may not fully realize what we love doing, at least in the early stages of our self-discovery journey. This is especially if we are not even aware of that activity, or have never experienced it before. Therefore it is important to gain exposure to different areas of life – sports, commerce, humanities, sciences, the arts, and many others. A broad-based education system enables one to gain sufficient exposure to the various facets of working life, so that we can make a more informed decision in choosing our career path. Yet there is always a limit to what opportunities schools can offer us. Hence, we need connections to our broader community to gain that exposure – our family, churches, associations and organizations can provide internships, part-time work, and job attachment, to help us experience how working in that line feels like.
As we build our experience, we begin to notice the kind of work we have an affinity for. This is where our passion really is. Your calling is something that you are not only good at, but also passionate about. Passion interacts with ability by reinforcing each other. Passion propels a person to pursue something, to grow one’s competence in doing something well, and that sense of competence and autonomy also fuels one’s passion for the craft.
When Affinity and Ability are one, you are another step close to discovering your calling.
3. Awareness of Human Need – What Our ‘Burden’ is
Calling is the place where you meet the world’s deep hunger, in a way that you know best.
We are keenly aware that we live in a broken world. Poverty, injustice, depravity, illnesses, environmental destruction, and all kinds of suffering are the everyday stuff of news media. But we don’t perceive brokenness in the same way. Some of us feel more strongly about social injustice than others. Some are more concerned about protecting the environment, or defending human rights, or providing access to education. This particular awareness of human need is what we call our ‘burden’.
How do we know what our particular burden is? One (interesting!) place to start is to ask yourself: what makes you angry? What upsets you the most? If you can change one thing in the world, what would it be? That one thing would be the clue to the 3rd element of our calling: burden.
My friend and mentor, Soo-Inn, shared that it was his burden for good Bible teaching in the church that had first led him to discover his calling as a pastor. During his younger days, he was frustrated by what he perceived as poor teaching in the church, and he wanted to make a difference. This desire to make a difference led him to pursue a calling in the pastorate.
What we perceive to be the world’s deepest need will draw us to contribute to improve it, to make a difference. The more we are keenly aware of the need, the more we perceive the cause as larger than ourselves. That is why some devote and even sacrifice their lives for humanitarian or political or ideological causes. As an outsider, we may not understand their reason for making such a big sacrifice. That is because each of us perceives the need differently. What is significant to one may be inconsequential to another.
When we respond to the burden of our heart, we are inadvertently responding to God’s burden for the world. God’s heart for the world is so big that none of us can bear the full weight of His burden. Hence, He divides this burden to each of us, so that together we may fulfill His purposes for the world. This is how we are all called to different areas. The Bible said that we are all endowed with different gifts for different functions, and we are to use these gifts for the purpose of building up God’s community of believers (see Romans 12:4-6). We should respect the unique burden that others possess, knowing that God has placed that burden in his or her heart, to fulfill God’s broader purpose, while seeking to be aware of our own.
By becoming aware of where we sense the world’s need most keenly, we are better able to discern our unique calling in life.
4. Access to Opportunities
The final piece of the puzzle is our access to the opportunities open to us. Whatever our talents, passion and burden may be, if the opportunity to do the job is closed to us, it may not be our calling at present.
Remember, our primary call is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Since He is the One who calls us, it is only right that He determines when and how we fulfill that calling. Thus, it is possible that we may feel called to a particular role or need, but are prevented from fulfilling that call at this point in time. Sometimes, we may be mistaken about what our calling is, and the closed doors in our lives may be God’s gentle way of prompting us to look elsewhere. Sometimes, our calling is always present in the here and now, in our current station in life, and not some faraway mission field or overseas organization.
On the other hand, sometimes the opportunities are already open to us, but we may fail to see them presently. We need to ask ourselves:
- What are the doors open to us? Is there a position ready for us to fill? Does the organization or community invite us to come in, right now?
- Do we have the resources to meet this need? Financial stability, sustainability, transport, and accommodation are some of the basic yet practical things to be considered.
- Who are the people that can support our desire to follow this call? These may be our church small group, the leadership, or the decision-makers in a committee.
- Will the people we trust (such as our family, our pastors or leaders) give us their blessing to accomplish this calling?
In Soo-Inn’s book, Discover Your Calling: The A-B-C of Vocational Discernment, he considered the final element of calling to be ‘Critical Life Incidents’. I fully agree that God shapes our journey in life through these key milestone events to lead to our true calling. For the purpose of this post, I’ve adapted this idea into ‘Access to opportunities’, as it is easier to think about calling this way. However, I strongly recommend that you read his book to learn how to discern God’s guidance through the critical incidents in your life.
Putting it together in my life
As mentioned earlier, one of my callings in life was to be an interpreter for my church. I grew up in a bilingual church, and from the age of 12, I had been listening to sermons that are usually Mandarin interpreted into English. For years I tried to do the interpretation in my head and mentally evaluated how the interpreter on the pulpit performed. That was probably when the Ability was forming. It was at age 21 that I was given the opportunity to interpret myself, first at the Wednesday night prayer meetings, then on the church pulpit (Access). The feedback I received helped me to improve with every session.
Some of the listeners in the audience were very appreciative of the work, as they were only able to understand English. This made me aware that, since they cannot understand Mandarin, to them I am the main speaker! My burden for this ministry grew (Awareness). With that awareness, I began to hone my skills in public speaking, so that I can not only convey the correct meaning of the message but the emotions and nuances of the speaker. The result is that this creates a synergy with the main speaker so that we mutually reinforce each other, and multiply the impact of the message! (Affinity) That is when I realize that consecutive interpretation is one area God is calling me to, and I feel the burden to train up other interpreters in the church.
Ability, Affinity, Awareness of Human Need, and Access to Opportunities – these 4 elements must align to constitute a call. Yet they are not lined up in any particular order. Each of them can be a ‘starting point’ for us to think about what our calling might be. And they may not arrive all at once! So we need to be patient as we seek to discern our calling.
While each of these 4 elements can be a starting point, it is better to start with the awareness of human needs. Go out and get exposed to the needs of people out there. Volunteer, intern, hustle, or do whatever to help others. See if your heart becomes burdened for them. You never know until you step out and try. Then, look for the open doors to do this on a permanent basis.
I hope you have found this post helpful to you in finding your calling. Remember that this process is not a once-and-for-all process, but one of trial-and-error, a constant discerning and seeking and adjusting. Do not be discouraged if you cannot find your calling at the outset. Important as it is, your calling is not as important as your primary relationship to God. It is possible that, due to illness or other limiting circumstances, you find yourself unable to pursue your calling at this point in time. That’s perfectly fine. We should not let our work define our worth.
The key verse I used to keep me grounded in what is most important to me, is Micah 6:8 (NIV), “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
So, resolve this day to walk humbly with God, and He will show you where He is calling you right now.