Returning now to the ongoing series of posts on Calling/Vocation, I want briefly write about some of the greatest questions I have wrestled with in the move to England for a PhD program:

Is the primary source of my desire to take up this venture God’s call or my personal ambition?

Am I being beckoned by an external voice that resonates deep within my spirit, or am I propelled by an internal drive that I am simply clothing with the language of vocation?

Our internal longings, of course, could well be in accordance with God’s nudging and guiding. This is surely part of abiding in Christ, when our desires become conformed to his. And surely part of the way we sort out our vocational path as Christians is pursue these inclinations.

But it would be wrong to assume that God’s call on our lives always matches our personal interests. Sometimes, this is indeed the case—we may find ourselves thinking, “I love my vocational service so much that clearly I was made for this!”

But often, God’s call runs hard against the grain of our predispositions. Throughout Scripture, divine calling often comes not as a relieving sanction of what someone is already doing. When God assigns a trajectory, it often requires redirection. Accompanying God’s call often provokes a great deal of protesting (think of Moses) and a painful sense of loss (think of Jesus’ disciples).

God’s call often results not in rejoicing, but squirming.

This biblical reality is important to keep in mind when discerning our own sense of calling or vocation:

“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death” (Prov 14:12; cf. 16:25).


Here is another danger to recognize: the language of divine calling or vocation can be used to disguise our personal ambitions and internal drives. Vocation rhetoric can be (self-)deceptive. History is stained with the misguided actions of those who believed they did what they did in the service of God. “Indeed,” Jesus told his disciples, “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (Jn 16:2). An extreme example, perhaps. The point is that we can justify a great deal in our lives by employing the language of calling and vocation.

So how do we proceed? How do we ensure that our internal vocational desires are sourced in our abiding in Christ and therefore reflective of God’s call, rather than sourced in our vain ambitions and expressive of our misguided wills?

Along with seeking Godly counsel from others, I think severe testing is a big part of it. And that testing often comes from God himself. This makes for a lot of confusion—after finally embracing “God’s call” in our lives, the obstacles and trials seem only intensified. Sometimes this may well be evidence we are going in the wrong direction. But it is sometimes a divine testing of the heart. It is hard to determine if you are kicking against the divine goads, or being approved and tested by divinely ordained trials.

Ultimately, our deliberations about personal vocation and calling is safest within the communal life of a local church. This is where brothers and sisters can ask us hard questions, while also providing encouragement. In truth, subsuming our sense of personal calling within the broader communal calling of a church can get messy. And there may be times when it is necessary to disagree respectfully. But there are also times when our interactions with our family of faith lead us to place ourselves on vocational hold, or maybe to embrace a different direction altogether.


One thought on “External Call, or Internal Ambition? The (Deceptive) Rhetoric of Vocation”

  1. This resonates with me. When I decided to go to seminary I was nagged by doubt–am I called to this or is part of it a desire to impress my Christian friends?

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