In the previous article we offered a definition of minimalism which took the focus off of stuff and placed it upon purpose. It isn’t about getting rid of things per se, but about getting rid of the things which do not contribute to our purpose in life. This is the reason that minimalism looks different for every person. Every one has a different purpose. This is also the reason that no one can give you a list entitled “The Things You Must Get Rid Of.”
Also in the previous article we suggested that simple living is beneficial because it provides the time and space you need to pursue what you love. But this assumes that you know what you love or what your purpose is. That knowledge seems to me a necessary beginning. If you don’t know what you want to focus on you cannot proceed because you cannot know what is necessary and what is superfluous. You will always be plagued by the question whether or not you might need this or that thing, whether or not you will regret getting rid of it. So, this article intends to explore the relationship between calling (or passion or purpose, whichever term suites you best) and simplicity.
Passion, Purpose, or Calling?
Passion. It is common amongst self-help books about happiness, business, and success to read about following your passion. I prefer, however, not to talk about passion (though I may use the word occasionally). This is because passion is too often equated with excitement. To follow every “passion”, thus defined, would be a license for mere self-indulgence. While I believe that a person will indeed be passionate about his place in life, self-indulgence is a world away from calling. Also, excitement is often fleeting whereas true passion is a steady sense of desire and direction. Though I think Cal Newport oversteps when he says, “there is no special passion waiting for you to discover,” I think that he is on the right track with a number of his observations. His chief contribution, in my opinion, is that he mitigates the glib use of “passion” in our contemporary society.1
Purpose. Another word used to describe one’s place in the world is “purpose.” The benefit of this word is that it moves beyond the syrupy-sweetness of excitement-mistaken-for-passion. It extends beyond the emotion of a moment and considers the farther reaching vision of an all important goal. Another advantage to “purpose” is that it carries the idea of an individual place. It suggests that there is something that you are uniquely suited for in the world (contra Newport). The disadvantage of the word, however, is that purpose is sensible without any reference to God. Much of the literature in the self-help genre discusses purpose with no talk of God whatsoever. Further, because it does not require reference to God one’s purpose can only serve two things: self and society. The best of the literature points out that fulfillment is only found when talents are used to serve others (society). The worst of it makes discovering one’s purpose sound as if its only goal is to make money (self).
Calling. I prefer to speak of “calling” or “vocation.”2 I prefer “calling”, first of all, because of its obvious religious connotations. I am a Christian and I believe in calling because I believe there is a Caller. Second, I prefer “calling” because it has the virtues of “purpose” with none of its vices.3 Insofar as we are called we receive it as a gift, not an achievement (this need not, however, preclude effort/development of our call–Newport is good here). Though it remains possible to brag about one’s calling, acknowledging the Caller helps to suppress the prideful impulse. In the Corinthian church it appears as though there were some who thought highly of themselves because of their gifts, indicating that it is still possible to brag. But that one should not brag seems obvious in Paul’s retort, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Os Guinness describes this necessary humility when he writes, “God normally calls us along the line of our giftedness, but the purpose of giftedness is stewardship and service, not selfishness.”4
General and Specific Calling
Both our general and specific callings are correlates of our being human. First, as human beings we all share a common purpose, i.e. to image God into the world (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). We are to imitate him by shining his love and creativity into the world. This is our general purpose. It is incumbent upon all men and women every where. Regardless of whether a person is an author, a health coach, a bank teller, a garbage man, a surgeon, a musician, a dancer, or an elementary school teacher, he must always perform his duty with love and to the glory of God.
Second, as human beings we are also finite. This is the condition which requires our specific callings. No one person can do all that needs to be done. The skills necessary to create a peaceful and productive society do not all reside in one person. This requires that each person have a specific place. A politician may have little interest in mechanics but when the politician needs her car repaired she will be thankful for the mechanics in the world. Likewise, the mechanic may have little interest in economics but when those issues are debated he will be thankful for those who are well versed in such things. We need one another. We ought to be thankful for those in the world who have different interests and talents than we do. We need them all to preserve and improve the world in which we live.
Discerning Your Calling
In some sense discerning one’s calling is equivalent to seeking the answer to the question, “Who am I?” Four answers5 are commonly suggested: A. I am who I am constrained to be. This is the idea that I am the result of my circumstances. I was born into this family in this country in this neighborhood to these parents at this time. That is who I am and I cannot be otherwise. B. I am who I am constituted to be. This is the idea that one’s DNA determines one’s life. C. I am who I have the courage to be. This is the idea that you are the master of your fate. Your identity is not fixed by anything but your own will. D. I am who I am called to be. This is the Christian belief. While acknowledging that circumstances and DNA play their part, and that courage is necessary in answering God’s call, it does not make any one of these things the whole. Our identity is found in God alone, our creator. Therefore, we may only properly discern our call with reference to him. I offer here three suggestions for doing so:
- What do you enjoy? God is involved in forming who we are from the very beginning (cf. Ps. 139:13-18; Jer. 1:4-10). God also loves us and expects us to enjoy the life he has offered us (Php. 4:4; 1 Tim. 6:17). It stands to reason then that we will likely enjoy doing whatever God has set for us to do. As John Piper is fond of saying, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” If you don’t know what you love to do, take the time to find out. Try new things. Dream dreams. Imagine a life that you would love to live.
- What are your talents? God grants us inclinations and abilities which reflect his varied grace into the world (cf. Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Pet. 4:10, 11). This means considering both your natural abilities and those that you have worked to develop. And while those may be the same thing they need not be. It is important here to listen to the people around you. The primary way God speaks to us is through his word; Second to that is through the community. It is entirely possible that others notice in you a skill that you have never noticed in yourself. During this time of discernment speak to others about your journey and listen to what they have to say. All the while be sure to pray. When Judas’ apostleship was being replaced the community nominated two to take his place. The final decision, however, was left to God (Acts 1:15-26). The decision was made by both community and prayer. These will help set you in the right direction.
- What needs to be done? This is immensely important. Without this question calling is tempted to selfishness. But there is no room for selfishness in vocation. Our gifts are “ours for others.”6 God is on a mission. There are things that need to be done in the world, and we are his body on earth. We are the hands and feet through which God works to accomplish that mission. The ultimate example of calling is Jesus Christ and his self-sacrifice. He “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Whenever Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discusses discerning one’s calling he suggests our purpose is found “where what you want to do meets what needs to be done.”7
These suggestions ought not to be treated as a mathematical formula as if one could put the data into a computer and get the answer. There is a mystery about life. God is not in the habit of shouting from heaven. Our sense of calling rarely comes with such clarity. Oswald Chambers is supposed to have written: “If you can tell where you got the call of God and all about it, I question whether you have ever had a call.”8 This ambiguity, however, must not stop us from living. We cannot sit back and wait until “we’re sure.” There is work to be done and we must do it. Rather, this ambiguity invites us into purposeful play. If you are unsure of your place in the world then you are duty bound to pursue it, and that gives a purposeful direction t0 your life. But so long as we offer our efforts to God we need not fear his displeasure. This makes it play. We may not discovered a settled certainty until later in life but that is the nature of calling. Wisdom is always a process. Discernment is a journey. Life is lived forward and understood backward.
Simplicity and Calling
Simplicity relates both to our general and our specific call. All people have been called to glorify God in their lives. Part of that involves maintaining godly relationships and maintaining good health. Whatever impedes the fulfillment of such a call needs to go. If that means getting rid of bad relationships, working less, getting rid of stuff and/or buying fewer things then that’s what needs to happen.
In regard to our specific callings: if you have confidence in the particular direction God is calling you then you have a responsibility to answer that call. To ignore it is to be in dereliction of duty. That means that whatever impedes that purpose needs to go. This is the relationship between simplicity and calling. If living a simple life means getting rid of unnecessary things in order to focus upon what is most important that requires that you first know what is most important. Hopefully this has helped to give you some perspective into what is most important and how to find it. The only question is, will you fulfill that purpose? Being human means sharing a purpose with all humanity (because we are all human) and have a specific purpose (because we are all finite). So get rid of the junk. And be simply human.
©M. Benfield 2017
1. “‘Follow Your Passion’ is Crappy Advice.” Joshua Fields Millburn. Available at http://www.theminimalists.com/cal/ ; Internet; Accessed 2 January 2017.↩
2. They both mean the same thing. “Calling” comes from an Anglo-Saxon root while “vocation” is from Latin. Given a choice between these two I prefer “calling.” Although they are technical equivalents “vocation” has often been flattened to indicate mere occupation/job.↩
3. It is not my intention to argue over semantics. The most important thing is not what word we use but what we mean by that word. I have made a distinction here as a heuristic device to describe different conceptions of “goals” although I often use these terms interchangeably. While I use vary my terms for stylistic purposes one should always understand my description of “calling” as being the background of all such usage.↩
4. Os Guiness, The Call, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 45.↩
5. Ibid, 20-26.&#*617;
6. Ibid, 47.↩
7. “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Finding Purpose.” An interview for JINSIDER. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDZV6v7BLrs ; Internet; Accessed 6 January 2017.↩
8. As quoted in The Call, Os Guiness, 51.↩