In Response to “The Difficulty Discerning Calling”

Dr. Bryan McGraw, Driven Pilgrim contributor and author of today's excerpt

Dr. Bryan McGraw, Driven Pilgrim contributor and author of today’s excerpt

This article is part of series looking at chapters from a book being developed called Faithful is Successful, Notes to a Driven Pilgrim. Every two weeks are are responding to excerpts posted at, considering how these issues might relate to emerging scholars. Today, we are looking at The Difficulty Discerning Calling by Dr. Bryan McGraw.

I once had a student who in her first advising session here at Wheaton sat down in a chair opposite me, flipped open a laptop and proceeded to describe how her color-coded Excel spreadsheet showed how she could complete a double-major in three years and set herself up for a career in the State Department.  She knew exactly what she wanted to do career-wise and what she needed to do to get there.

I was never organized enough for a spreadsheet, but I do know a thing or two about trying to plan one’s life around a specific career goal. I still remember preteen-me reading about HIV in an issue of Discover and being struck both by the human cost of the growing epidemic and the intellectual challenge of outwitting a virus that had learned to infiltrate the very cells of our body that were meant to keep out foreign invaders. That fascination with viruses and desire to help those afflicted by them guided my decision making for a solid decade thereafter.

I also have a vivid memory of taking the “T” to Cambridge to visit MIT during the New England leg of our family’s college tour. As I stepped out of the station, I was struck with a strong sense that God was telling me this was where I would spend the next four years. I was so convinced, I bought an MIT hat and applied under early admission as soon as possible.

And yet, as I’ve discussed previously, I am not in the lab searching for the latest vaccine or cure for anything, although I do work in the public health sector broadly and still have a desire to reduce the disease burden of the world. Nor can I call myself an alum of MIT, having been rejected for both early and regular admission there and instead joining all my fellow MIT castoffs at Carnegie Mellon (where, incidentally, I met Tom Grosh IV, starting a relationship that would lead to me writing for this blog, among other things).

So I can relate to Dr. McGraw’s personal experience of unexpected career developments (detailed in the chapter quoted above), and the pragmatic value of adopting a fluid understanding of one’s calling. It also seems like a timely topic for ESN, given the number of discussions on the FaceBook wall about job options for academics and whether the tenure track faculty position is an endangered species in certain disciplines or perhaps even the academy as a whole. Or then there’s yesterday’s blog post about grad school as a path to doom — a bit of scheduling serendipity as far as I know. Clearly there is some Zeitgeist in the water.

But why do we and so many others have these stories of career paths seemingly interrupted?

Surely some of it has to do with growing out of a childhood understanding of career options, perhaps best encapsulated in the very discrete and clearly defined spaces in “The Game of Life.” It will always be the case that with maturity will come appreciation for nuance, but I do wonder if we need to do a better job of setting our children’s expectations for what the job market really offers. Likewise, perhaps we should frame the merits of a college education in terms beyond direct vocational training.

Box for the Game of LIFE

Turns out, there are more than 9 career options in the real world. On the plus side, my wife is way more awesome than any pink peg.

Another dimension is the experiential component of discerning God’s calling. I mentioned feeling that was I being led to MIT, but obviously I misinterpreted that feeling somehow. Many Christians I knew talked about God leading them via experiences of this sort — was I misunderstanding what they were describing, or was I perhaps not properly tuned in to God’s wavelength? Since then, I would say I’ve relied less on such experiences, and focused more on available opportunities and what, if anything, I have to contribute to them. Dr. McGraw doesn’t address experiential discernment explicitly, but his context-oriented understanding of calling seems similar to mine.

It’s also possible that God does call us down apparent side paths because we wouldn’t actually be able to find our way to where He would have us end up if we tried to get there directly. If someone told me when I was 12 what my current job is, I probably would have been overwhelmed trying to tease apart the various components and plan accordingly. Perhaps God has taken it upon Himself to decompose my career path into concrete, manageable intermediate goals on my behalf. Dr. McGraw seems to allude to this possibility by questioning whether any of us have the “clarity of vision” to see our path deep into the future; God may very well know that we do not.

Finally, this kind of context-dependent understand of calling, one which emphasizes our response to local conditions rather than driving towards a long range goal, reminds me a lot of the process of biological evolution. There is a sense in which both value being present in, and making the most of, whatever circumstances one finds oneself occupying; a notion not dissimilar to the lesson Jesus teaches Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Both are also characterized by taking small steps based on the opportunities at hand, rather than long range planning. And so I can’t help but wonder if the adaptability and exploration (and dare I say creativity?) that are common elements of the two represent themes that God is weaving throughout the various scales of His creation.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Stefan Stackhouse commented on April 17, 2013 Reply

    If one were to do a study of the major characters of the bible, one would be struck by the number of times that the life work that God gave that person was very different from the trade or profession in which they had begun. God seems to delight in calling people that we would never guess to missions for which they would seem to be totally unprepared and unqualified. All the more to His glory, I suppose. In retrospect we often see that they were indeed prepared, just not in a way that was initially obvious. We are told that He knows the plans that He has for us, and they are for good and not for evil, but we should not assume that those plans are always as straightforward and obvious as we might think. His plans might ultimately take us in a totally different direction than we might presume. A certain amount of openness toward the unexpected is thus well-advised.

      Andy Walsh commented on April 22, 2013 Reply

      Thanks, Stefan. Your comment reminds me of the life of Jesus himself, who spent most of his life learning a trade that few would see as preparation for a career as an itinerant preacher.

    John Hundley commented on April 19, 2013 Reply

    Here’s my take on the idea of calling.

    Biblically, at least, when God calls someone to a specific path he doesn’t mumble. More commonly is wise decision making. Luke “decided” to write his Gospel. Several times in Acts the leaders of the early Church did things because they “considered it best.” I do think from time to time God directly and explicitly calls people for specific jobs or missions. More often, though, he gives us talents and desires and wise conversation partners to discuss opportunities. We do what we, in God’s wisdom (and moral will), “consider best.”

    This takes away the soft landing pad of blaming God for jobs or moves that don’t work out, “you told me to do it, why didn’t it work?!” to which God might reply, “By ‘you told me to,’ do you mean that you got a hunch and saw some graffiti under a bridge that confirmed your hunch? Have you called hunches and superstition my voice?” God wants us, in love and wisdom, to make God-honoring decisions with our lives.

    This does not mean, however, that we ought not be open to the voice of God. Sometimes he does make himself very clear. But it won’t be missed. When God shows up people hit the deck and tremble. And usually, biblically, he shows up to call people somewhere they didn’t want to go.

      Andy Walsh commented on April 22, 2013 Reply

      Thanks, John; it is important to note that the Bible illustrates several modes of calling. Some are called like Moses or Saul/Paul. Others are called like Esther.

      Then others are called like Jonah, which I think is the model by which we get tripped up the most. We read that “The Lord said to Jonah” and wonder what that was like. There is no description of an unmistakable visual cue (e.g. a burning bush) or physical messenger, and so we are left to wonder if there was an audible voice or if Jonah heard it only in his “heart.”

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