“One’s life, especially as it relates to the kingdom, is certainly not tied to securing that particular job or really any kind of career advancement—if we can grasp and hold on to that truth, the inevitable disappointments attendant to any vocation can be endured and even turned to our good.” – Bryan T. McGraw, “Seeing What’s Around: Vision and Vocation,” in Faithful Is Successful
A lot of Christian high school and college students across the United States fret over what God wants them to do with their lives. The older I get, the more tempted I am to say to the worriers that God wants them to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep. Political theorist Bryan T. McGraw does not reach quite that extreme a conclusion in his essay “Seeing What’s Around: Vision and Vocation.” McGraw does, however, remind us of the point emphasized in Proverbs: we may make plans, but the Lord has the final say in their execution.
In order to make his point, McGraw skillfully synthesizes his intellectual development with the progressions and digressions of his career path. He reveals to us the evolution of his professional goals from his undergraduate years, through his service in the Army, his studies at some of the most highly regarded graduate programs in the nation and his eventual appointment to the faculty in Wheaton College’s Department of Politics and International Relations. And he contrasts his initial idea of what becoming a political theorist entailed with what he, rightly in my view, refers to as the “transformation” of his sense of vocation after he landed his position at Wheaton.
Key to McGraw’s transformative experience was his realization that as a Christian, he does not have to resign himself to the notion that he has settled in life simply because he did not end up the cultural power broker he once envisioned himself becoming. Many of the milestones, hairpin turns and redefinitions that saturate McGraw’s professional and spiritual life will ring quite familiar to many Christian academics: The early prediction from his pastor that God had destined him to “do ‘great things’,” his later vocational decisions made out of seemingly practical considerations and the fact that circumstances did not always cooperate with his ambitions.
At one point in the essay, McGraw questions the wisdom of accepting a tenure-track position at a “top-50 university” early in his career knowing that it would complicate his family life. His decision, he admits, was based upon fear that if he turned it down, he would be left without another offer. “Of course, not securing a tenure-track position would be a failure; there is no need to sugarcoat that. But it is not an ultimate sort of failure,” McGraw tells us as he considers from his current vantage point what he once thought to be his worst-case professional scenario. “One’s life, especially as it relates to the kingdom, is certainly not tied to securing that particular job or really any kind of career advancement—if we can grasp and hold on to that truth, the inevitable disappointments attendant to any vocation can be endured and even turned to our good.”
Bravo for the second of the two statements. To the first of the two, however, I find myself asking “really?” As one who received the Ph.D. from a school that rests far and solidly below the top tier—and who teaches at a Christian college that does not grant tenure—I am nonplussed by McGraw’s characterization of failure at this point. On the other hand, I wonder if his characterization and my chafing at it both reveal the folly of making self-comparisons. After all, according to some in academe, McGraw and I are BOTH teaching at institutions of questionable legitimacy. (See http://chronicle.com/article/The-Great-Accreditation-Farce/147425/). As for me, I have “failed” far more than I have succeeded. I “failed” to be admitted to my first-choice undergraduate institution, I “failed” to get into my first-choice Ph.D. program, I “failed” to get a visiting faculty appointment renewed, I “failed” to receive job after job for which I applied. I was not the first choice for the job I eventually was offered and accepted. Thank the Lord for every “failure.” Each one led me to a wonderful vocation. “You were God’s first choice,” my department chair assures me.
Ultimately, McGraw and I come to the same conclusion about “failing” to reach our career goals (“So what?”) and watching God at work in our lives where we live and work today. (“Surely the LORD is in this place and I was not aware of it.“ Genesis 28:16, NIV) Happily, McGraw encourages us to awaken to the realization that as we fret over how well we are accomplishing our vocation, life goes on around us and we may be mislabeling as distractions God’s greater plan for us. This remains true even for those hopefuls who DO NOT end up with jobs in academe. The Bible does not refer to the saved person as the one “who succeeds to the end” but the one “who perseveres to the end.” The very idea of success may more often than not be a careerist substitute for the “law” or “prattler” that threatens to enslave us wherever we turn. Vocation, by contrast, implies freedom from such weights.
God’s calling may have to find you despite your efforts. Make your plans and pursue your vocations with zeal, McGraw encourages us. Advance if you may, but do not expect a life free of disappointment. And don’t fret if God ends up surprising you with a life different than the one you thought He called you to. Instead, celebrate the fact that all along, whether you knew it or not, you were set free from the tyranny of “succeeding.”
- Is my view of God’s calling conflated with my personal ambitions?
- Is it necessary for me to enter the professional world on its terms—and succeed on its terms—in order to be effective for Christ?
- Ponder the lives of those who DID, at least according to Evangelical biographers, receive clear callings, set their hands to the plow as they fought overwhelming obstacles, trust God to make clear their paths, and reach the position to which they were specifically set apart (for example: William Carey, Jim Elliot). Did they succeed at their tasks according to your definition of success?
Lord Jesus, our lives and plans are in Your hands. Please protect us from dismay when we pursue to no avail that which we may have viewed with certainty as your plan. And use our frustrated plans and hopes to shape us into people free to experience joy in serving You wherever we may be. Amen.
McGraw, Bryan T. “Seeing What’s Around: Vision and Vocation.” Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 18-35.
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