The most common misunderstanding about Christianity is to think that it is all about “being good.” According to this view, Christianity is seen as exclusively about will power and doing good things. In fact, however, the gospel’s central declaration is something entirely different. Christianity at its pulsating core proclaims not: “be good” but: “be loved.” The good news is that the God who created us is the God who forgives us, loves us, and calls us to a life of love.
The second most common misunderstanding of Christianity is the exact opposite of the first. This view assumes that Christianity has nothing to do with being good. On this view, life itself can seem like a giant waiting room — boring at best, nightmarish at worst — because getting to heaven is the only message of Jesus.
To steer between these two misunderstandings, Christians must see that their lives are built on grace – God’s initiating love and forgiveness — but without letting that diminish our inbuilt sense that what we do in this life makes a difference. People need something to live for, a purpose in their lives, a meaningful and fulfilling plan to use their God-given energy in this life. In Christian terms, this quest can be seen as the search for vocation.
The English term vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, “to call.” Many think of God’s calling as primarily related to a particular job or career. In the Christian context, however, this is not the case. As Os Guinness has pointed out in his book The Call (Nelson, 2003), Christians are not called primarily to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. Our calling is to God. What is beautiful about this is that no circumstances of the job market can keep us from fulfilling that calling, because Christian calling is much deeper than a job.
Being faithful in our calling to God might mean any number of things depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For someone supporting a family, it might mean working for a season in a job that is not completely fulfilling, but that allows the bills to be paid. Living out your calling to God might have very little to do with what you do for a living. But it has everything to do what you do with your living.
Having a mature vision of Christian vocation means accepting two equally important truths: we are both called by God, but we also free to respond — or not respond — to that call. The characters in the film Forrest Gump illustrate this dynamic that defines so much of our lives.
In Forrest Gump, we see a striking contrast between two views of life, with each view personified by one of the main characters. One view sees life as entirely predetermined and ruled by “destiny.” This is embodied by Lieutenant Dan, who thought his destiny was to die in war, the fate of both his father and grandfather. The other sees life as nothing but randomness. This is embodied by Forrest Gump’s momma. Her catch phrase is “life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get.”
At the end of the film, Forrest, standing heartbroken at the grave of his beloved Jenny and looking back at his life, is trying to decide if it’s Lieutenant Dan who was right or if it was his momma. Is reality fixed and predetermined, or is there some element of indeterminacy, with room for human freedom and agency?
Forrest’s answer? He said, “I think maybe it’s both.” And I think Forrest was right.
When Christians say, “It’s both,” we are saying that in this life there is a providence — God does “provide,” God’s grace is active. But this providence does not equal a “fate” or “destiny” that overrides human freedom. God’s grace is real and on the move, but our freedom is also real. It’s both.
To be sure, our freedom is limited in many ways. It is limited by our finitude — we are finite beings with limited power to control important circumstances of our lives. Our sinfulness also limits our freedom, for when we misuse our freedom (i.e., when we “sin”), the consequences can drastically change the playing field for our freedom. Our brokenness, when someone else’s sin impacts us, can also lead to a narrowing of the scope of our freedom.
But the spiritual resources of our Christian tradition allow us to live gracefully with these limits. Humility can help us live with our finitude; confession, repentance and restitution can help us deal with our sinfulness; and God’s healing can help us move beyond the blockage of brokenness.
Our vocation is much more profound than a career. It is a calling to be God’s people in whatever finite, sinful and broken circumstances we find ourselves. When we embrace that challenge, we become a part of God’s cosmic drama, and we find ourselves living the life worth living.
Adapted from Clapper’s book Living Your Heart’s Desire: God’s Call and Your Vocation (Upper Room Books, 2005).