What work can I do best?
If you’re contemplating a job change, that’s a question you might find yourself asking. In an economic environment where there are so many options, deciding what kind of work to pursue can be daunting (even before getting down to the work of pursuing it).
It’s a question that goes hand-in-hand with a strengths-based approach to career choice. Figure out who you are, what your unique personality and experience make you good at, and pursue a career that will help you fulfill what matters most to you.
Among Christians, there’s often a spiritual take on this same question: What is my calling? A few months ago, I was at a reunion event at my Christian liberal arts alma mater, and a leader said, “Every calling is a Christian calling.” He was encouraging alumni’s diverse vocational contexts, saying that being an investment banker or a chemist or an editor can be a calling just as much as being a missionary or a pastor.
[Today we continue our series Work: Who, What, When, Where, Why. We’ll be looking at these questions:
- Who am I working for? (Service and Motivation)
- What work can I do best? (Callings and Fit)
- When can I work? / When can I rest? (Setting Boundaries)
- Where does my work make a difference? (Proximity and Community)
- Why work? (Purpose and Meaning)
Subscribe to get the next post in the series in your inbox.]
Rethinking Fulfillment and Calling
But as disciples of Jesus, there are some dynamics in this conversation that should give us pause. There’s a narrative about personal fulfillment and self-actualization in our work that lies behind the question, “What work can I do best?” When we dig into Scripture, we find teachings that affirm some of that narrative, but also teachings that profoundly challenge it.
Highly educated, middle-class Christians are in particular danger of confusing the self-fulfillment narrative with the redemptive story of Scripture. If we set our sights on fulfilling our “calling” based on faulty assumptions, then we’re in danger of missing the true calling that God has for our lives.
Here’s a different take: What if the best way to fulfill your calling at work . . . is to not think of your job as a calling?
It’s not that finding work that’s a good fit for you is a bad thing. It’s that there’s no guarantee in Scripture that we’ll always get to do work like that—or that we need to in order to respond to God’s call in our life. The Bible offers better news: No matter how difficult or disappointing your job is, you can fulfill the calling of God on your life in the work you have today.
Fulfilling Your Potential Through Fulfilling Work
Let’s start by looking at the water we’re swimming in: the self-actualization narrative. The term “self-actualization” was popularized by psychologist Abraham Maslow about eighty years ago. Maslow’s maxim to explain the concept was, “What a man can be, he must be.” Maslow contended that, once a person’s more basic needs are met, they can pursue their own goals according to their own values. They can realize their innate potential.
Fast-forward to today’s pop-psychology job-seeker advice, and self-actualization has become “Do what you love.” If fulfilling our ultimate potential is about pursuing our own goals, then we should find work that aligns with our goals, shouldn’t we? You can fulfill your potential by finding fulfilling work. Life coaches abound who will encourage you to take charge of your life and make your job work for you, not the other way around.
It’s a compelling vision. What if we weren’t bound to slave away in a career rat race? What if we had the freedom to pursue work that really matters, that fits who we most deeply are?
The Apostle Paul Was an Awful Life Coach
Enter the Apostle Paul. He also has a compelling vision about who we most deeply are. But it looks a bit different. In his first letter to the believers of Corinth, he addresses a concern they had: Does becoming a follower of Jesus mean you need to change your work or station in life? Paul answers:
Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
(1 Corinthians 7:20-24 NIV)
Paul would have failed the life coach certification class. What kind of advice is this? Remain in the situation you’re in? Don’t let it trouble you, even if you’re a slave? So much for taking life by the horns.
Even the Enslaved Can Fulfill the Call
To put Paul’s comments in context, it’s important to understand the kind of slavery he’s addressing. The slavery of the first century Roman world was not the race-based chattel slavery that developed in later centuries. It wasn’t limited to one racial or ethnic group, certain slaves could earn money and buy their freedom, and some slaves even held positions of influence that required an education. But first-century slavery was still bondage. It was no cake walk.
When Paul says “don’t let it trouble you” about slavery, he’s not minimizing the dangers and difficulties that slaves face. Instead, he’s speaking about what it means to follow Jesus; he’s saying that being faithful to the Lord is possible even if you are enslaved. Dr. Esau McCaulley explains that Paul is probably thinking about the moral hazards that slaves face—for example, if they are asked to do something immoral by their master, or face sexual abuse. “Don’t let it trouble you” means that God understands the compromised autonomy that slaves endure. Despite their situation and its hazards, they’re still fully included in Christ.
Paul flips the script on the situation of slaves: “For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person” (7:22 NIV). Just like other believers, the enslaved received a call—the call to faith in the Lord. Their situation does not prevent them from responding to that call, and everything that comes with it. The fullness of life with God is possible for them: Living in the power of the Spirit, maturing into Christlike character, doing the Lord’s work, experiencing joy, and resting in the hope of Christ’s return and the future resurrection.
The Work You Have Right Now
If that’s really true—if disciples of Jesus can experience a joyful life with God even in the circumstance of literal slavery—it should make us rethink our approach to fulfillment at work. Do you feel stuck in a dead-end job? Have you seen the death of a dream in your career? Are you frustrated by the constant limitations at work that prevent you from doing all you could?
According to Paul, the solution does not necessarily come with a change of circumstance. It comes by answering the call to faith in the work that you have right now. “Don’t let it trouble you.” The Lord understands the limitations of your situation. Even inside those limitations, faith in Christ opens the way of life to you.
Speaking to the situation of people with difficult jobs, philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard puts it like this: “God has yet to bless anyone except where they are.”
Good News for Everyone
This is where the story of Scripture comes into conflict with the self-actualization narrative. When we think about what will give us real fulfillment, the self-actualization narrative tells us we should find a job that meets our deep existential needs. The trouble is that it’s a recipe for disappointment. No job, no matter how deeply aligned with our identity and goals, can satisfy our need for fulfillment. Only the Lord can do that.
The other problem is that the self-actualization narrative is only good news for a small group of people: those with enough economic opportunity and social mobility to pursue “fulfilling” careers. The Christian conversation about “calling” doesn’t usually include the idea that people are “called” to be bus drivers or shelf stockers or janitors. Many brothers and sisters in Christ have such jobs, and may not be in a position to pursue a different line of work.
But the Good News is Good News for everyone. Paul says to the enslaved that they are “the Lord’s freed person” (7:22 NIV). No matter how constrained or dehumanizing your work, life with Jesus is possible for you. Paul says to the free that they are “Christ’s slave” (7:22 NIV). No matter how privileged or fulfilling your work, life with the Lord is what really matters.
Better Circumstances Not Guaranteed
Along with his reassurances to enslaved believers, Paul does address their practical circumstance and counsels them, “although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (7:21 NIV). Paul’s theological point that we all belong to the Lord, regardless of our social station, does not mean that we should never pursue improved circumstances. He also counsels free believers to “not become slaves of human beings” (7:23 NIV). Faithfulness to Jesus does not mean intentionally pursuing oppressive circumstances.
With this guidance, there’s room for aspects of the self-actualization narrative in the biblical vision. It’s well and good to pursue education or opportunities that will help you do things that you care about, if you’re in a position to do so. Ask for the raise. Keep growing and looking for ways to use your abilities better over time.
But the “if” in Paul’s “if you can gain your freedom” is a big if. Not all of the Corinthian believers in bondage were in a position to seek manumission. Not all of us will be in a position to pursue better circumstances at work. Paul leaves room for seeking improved circumstances, but he’s still a pretty bad life coach. He encourages the chance to better our external situation, but he doesn’t want us to set our hearts on it.
What Work Can I Do Best?
Paul’s view of work may seem “lower” than the one offered by Abraham Maslow or Tony Robbins. But it’s his idea of calling that truly ennobles every kind of work.
To be clear, calling can overlap with our work. God may very well call you to a particular job. God is a God of particulars, and this includes so-called “secular” work. For example, Nehemiah saw the construction and social organization project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem as something that “God had put in [his] heart to do” (Nehemiah 2:12 NIV). But just because a job can be a calling does not mean that every job is a calling. Sometimes, a job is a job. Part of Paul’s point is that that’s okay. You’re no spiritual failure for doing a job that lacks a strong, unique-to-you spiritual calling in terms of the content of the job itself.
More importantly, the main way that Paul uses the word “calling” is not to describe the job itself, but rather to describe the call to faith and life in the Lord, the call to salvation and holiness. For work, as for any area of life, who we are becoming in Christ is the most important thing we bring to the table. How you do your work—the character and spirit you bring to it—is far more important to God than what work you do.
The calling that all of us have is not to an immensely fulfilling job, but rather to live our life with Jesus in whatever job we have. It’s true that investment bankers and chemists and editors can do their work with spiritual depth and beautiful fruit just as much as missionaries or pastors. But it’s also true that bus drivers and shelf stockers and janitors can do their work with spiritual depth and beautiful fruit just as much as investment bankers and chemists and editors. It’s not the job that makes the difference, it’s Jesus.
With Jesus, we ask the question differently:
What work can I do best?
The work I have before me today.
Reflect and Practice
- How has the fulfillment and self-actualization narrative about work influenced you?
- Do you think that every job is a calling, or is a job sometimes just a job?
- What does it mean to fulfill your calling in less-than-ideal job circumstances?
- What would it look like to do your job today in the freedom of the Lord?
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