How to listen for and answer God’s vocational call for your life

I am a waitress. With a Harvard degree. Given the seeming incongruity of these two facts, often times I’m embarrassed to tell my former high school and college classmates what I’m doing. To mitigate my feelings of occupational inadequacy, I often qualify my explanation by saying that I’m planning to “eventually” go to graduate school, or that I’m waiting tables while I figure out what I’m “going to be when I grow up.” I seem to have to justify my current job choice all the time, because whenever I meet someone new or am catching up with an old acquaintance, the simple question “So, what are you up to?” is always understood to be about the other person’s current employ.

As an alumna of a prestigious university, I always assumed that my degree, if not simply my intelligence, would afford me a certain degree of career autonomy. I could do what I want to do, be what I want to be. Isn’t that why my parents, numerous scholarship funds, and I paid such an exorbitant tuition for four years? I imagine you might have the same assumption, since we Harvard students are explicitly and implicitly told things like that all the time—we will be the captains of industry, the movers and shakers, the who’s-who, and all those other pretentious clichés. We are the cream, and we are destined to rise.

Christians at Harvard are not immune to this type of thinking. We repeat Luke 12:48 like a mantra: “Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.” (1) We seem to think that to “waste” our 1600 SATs and our 140+ IQs working in jobs that lack prestige and profit would be shameful, if not sinful. God has given us intelligence, we tell ourselves, and we are to use it to be fruitful for his kingdom. But what if God has things in his plans for us that don’t include doing OCS recruiting or taking the LSATs or graduating summa? I don’t mean this to demean those who are in fact called to be stockbrokers and Supreme Court justices and Nobel-Prize-winning professors—God assuredly does call his people to serve him in those capacities. But we limit God when we fail to admit that he also might call us to serve him in other ways that have lower profiles, are much less prestigious, and are certainly less lucrative.

In our society, we have taught children that, when asked what they “want to be when they grow up,” they are to reply with the job they hope to have. This sort of implication is simultaneously misguided and accurate. The average person spends about as much time each week laboring as sleeping, and certainly more time working than playing, relaxing, watching television, reading, praying, going to church, or even bonding with loved ones. In that respect, as far as our temporal commitment goes, we are our jobs. This clear connection requires then that our jobs reflect the people we are. One best-selling author explains it this way: “Who you are is more important than what you do. The goal is to bring what you do in alignment with who you are, so you don’t end up being someone you don’t want to be.” (2) In short, we must be intentional in selecting and shaping our jobs because otherwise they will shape us, and not always in uplifting ways.

If we are to be deliberate about our vocations, I believe that there are four steps we all ought to pass through as we attempt to understand our callings in life. First, we must come to understand our collective identity as children of God. Secondly, we must develop and embrace our self-identity through an honest and forthright examination of our talents and passions. Thirdly, we must explore realms in which our gifts can bless the world and glorify God. Finally, we must learn to be patient, for God’s timing is often very different from our own.

Who Are We? Discovering Our Collective Identity

As religious people, we often speak of figuring out our career path as finding our call, or our vocation. The two words mean the same thing: the word “vocation” comes from the Latin “vocare,” which means “to call.” The essential idea, of course, is that God calls us to be someone or do something. As Christians, we believe that God, through Christ, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, has a plan for us. In turn, since a paying job is such an integral part of our earthly work, we come to see our career path as the whole of our vocation. Unfortunately, this is a shallow and incomplete understanding of what it means to be called by God. We are first called to be, and then called to do. (3)

The timing implied in this statement means that we should probably figure out who we are before we can figure out what we should do. Our identity as Christians, and ultimately, as human beings, is two-fold: there are certain things about us that are true of every single person ever created, and then there are things that are exclusive to ourselves. It is the former category that comprises what I will call our “collective identity.” The Bible tells us that we are children of God, created in his image, loved dearly and desperately by him, who, because we aren’t perfect (a.k.a. gods ourselves), are in need of redemption. In the ubiquitous bestseller The Purpose Driven Life, Rev. Rick Warren explains that all people are first and foremost “planned for God’s pleasure” and “formed for God’s family” in order to “become like Christ.” (4) These “calls” on our lives apply universally, and are the simple, yet profound, spiritual truths that should be the core of our identity. All human beings are children of God designed to praise and serve God. We are called to be His disciples. We are called to be instruments and conduits of His love.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to believe that if something is universal, it must be less important (or at least less definitive) than something that applies specifically to us as individuals. We think that these ideas are too common, too ordinary, and simply too unexceptional to merit much of our attention, especially when it comes to figuring out the specific career that we are called to. When we allow ourselves to think this way, however, we are wrong, for two main reasons. First, the radical nature of the universal Christian identity is inherently so profound that it is impossible for it to be “common.” Think about it: the one, true, omnipotent and omniscient God, who created the world, loves you. Even in this great wide world full of people, God loves you specifically, and has a plan for your life. Second, the inability to recognize our status as a loved child of God can impart a sort of spiritual anxiety that will paralyze any attempt to discover existential meaning, let alone professional meaning. In other words, if you fail to own and accept this universal component of your identity, you will be left searching for love, meaning, and truth that only God can provide. No job, however exciting, fulfilling, or lucrative, can fill the chasm left in the human soul when God’s everlasting design is ignored or forgotten.

A good example of this is St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine is among the most influential of the Church fathers, but he wasn’t even baptized until he was thirty-two years old. His life before that was not empty; he was a prominent and well-respected professor of rhetoric. However, his acceptance of his identity as a child of God completely changed his perspective. At nineteen, as Augustine later recounted, he had “first begun to search in earnest for truth and wisdom,” but at thirty still found himself “floundering in the same quagmire.” (5) At the time, he rationalized his lack of progress by telling himself that “it would need little effort to win a position of some standing in the world, and what more could a man ask?” (6) The problem, Augustine eventually came to realize, was that although he was already a man of some standing, he was still floundering. Augustine’s life changed once he got right with God, but not before, and the lesson he learned is just as true for us today: without a solid grounding in faith, as believers chosen and justified by Christ, all our striving will ultimately be unfulfilling.

Who Am I? Accepting Your Personal Identity

It is only, then, by building on our communal existence as children of God that we are able to discover our personal identity. It is obvious that each person is created uniquely, and given gifts, talents, and passions that further define and refine his or her selfhood. In other words, each person is “shaped for serving God” and “made for a mission.” (7) While there are many ways to explain personal identity, Rev. Rick Warren has developed a useful framework to explain what we should examine in ourselves when attempting to discern God’s specific call on our lives. According to Rev. Warren, God SHAPE’s us in five ways in order to equip us to do the things He wants us to do: by means of Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, and Experience. (8)

I don’t want to turn this into a self-help article or a “how to get a job” advice column. I’m sure most of you reading this have taken at least one personality test and/or skills indicator exam in your lifetime. If not, go on-line or head over to OCS—it will do wonders in helping you understand your temperament and talents. These tests won’t be a magic machine that will spit out your perfect job, but understanding your strengths (and weaknesses) will allow you to have a more complete picture of yourself, which will lead to a well-formed personal identity. While our skills and personalities explain the ways we interact with your surroundings, spiritual gifts are the ways in which we are inclined to interact with God, and in turn, the world. Some listed in the Bible are serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing, leading, and being merciful. (9) Like understanding your personality and abilities, there are also many books and on-line resources that will help you gauge your spiritual gifts.

Equally important is taking time to examine your experiences. Look at the things you have gone through that have helped to define your outlook on life and your perception of what is most important in the world. One author suggests that we look to the pureness and innocence of our childhoods to help us discover who we are and how that speaks to our ideal careers. (10) Ask yourself: when you were little, what did you love more than anything? What felt most natural for you to do? What sorts of activities did you gravitate towards back when your understanding of goodness was unmarred by the sometimes-negative influences of the world? Another author suggests remembering the ten happiest moments in our lives. (11) Ask yourself: where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? What about the memory brings you the most joy? If you are honest with yourself, you will probably see some sort of link between the events. If you seem to like singing, but you only enjoy doing so with groups, it may be because you actually enjoy fellowship more than singing.

Beyond those cheerful reflections, however, I encourage you also to carefully examine your sufferings. Those who have lost a loved one to a devastating disease are often the most dedicated to finding a cure. Those who have overcome depression often make the most compassionate counselors. Those who have struggled through poverty can feel the most complete solidarity with the underprivileged. What have you seen, felt, and known that has made you weep? Perhaps God will use those experiences to allow you to bring healing to yourself and to others.

So, What To Do? Moving From “Being” to “Doing”

Our personalities, gifts, and experiences allow us to understand the ways in which we see the world, and in turn will help us figure out how we can take those things that we are and translate them into what we will do. What we do, then, should not create our identity, but serve to reflect that identity. Our vocation functions to marry our universal identity with our particular being. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, acknowledges this individual component when he says that each person should “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” (12) We are not all called to be pastors or missionaries, or doctors or lawyers. You have a special niche in which God will use you.

But how do you translate your identity into action? The link between the two was best expressed by a man who himself vacillated between several so-called “careers.” After graduating from Princeton, Frederick Buechner taught English at a boarding school in New Jersey, then left to be a full-time novelist. While living in New York City writing books, he converted to Christianity, went to divinity school (in his thirties), and then became the preacher at Exeter. While his definition of vocation is a bit long, it is full of insight:

“Vocation … means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to call kinds of different work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you most need to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are that you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either…The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.(13)

Accepting Mr. Beuchner’s advice is one thing, but figuring out exactly how our gladness intersects with the world’s hunger is a bit more difficult. Gladness can mean many things. But, gladness is not synonymous with talent, and this is a crucial lesson for very gifted people to learn. All people have many talents. Your “gladness” likely will employ one or more of your stronger talents, but we must remember that simply being good at something will not necessarily make us joyful.

Gladness is fulfillment. This, however, is not to say that our true callings will offer us complete peace. It does not mean that we will always go to work with silly grins on our faces. Challenges will come, they will help us grow, and ultimately, they will teach us more about our characters and about the character of God. The gladness that Mr. Beuchner speaks of is the place where we feel whole; where our sorrows and our happinesses are fused together and synthesized into a feeling of completeness within ourselves, with the world, and with God. While this may not be fully attainable, we must strive towards it and rejoice at every fleeting glimpse of it.

Some would dispute the notion that personal gladness should be one of the primary components in understanding God’s call for our lives. A number of people who write about vocation, particularly those who write about being called to the ordained ministry, a religious order, or the international mission field, speak as though we should only be concerned with what we perceive is God’s will, not what we feel. I disagree. We are not called to carry Christ’s cross, but wear his yoke, and He tells us that his “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light.” (14) Life will bring suffering, yes, but it is not wimping out to use what the Lord has given us to spread love and happiness in the world while still being personally joyful. As Thomas Merton puts it, “Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly.” (15)

Additionally, since few of us will ever see a burning bush like Moses or hear the voice of God like Paul, I believe that the primary means by which God will speak to us is though our hearts. This, of course, does not mean that if we feel like the ideal life would consist of lounging by the pool drinking margaritas, we should then assume that this is God’s call for our lives. We must always be careful to filter our feelings and emotions in order to know if they are from God. If a feeling is from God, it will be in line with the person we know Jesus Christ to be, as revealed through the Bible and through our understanding of theology. Moreover, our feelings are likely inspired by God if their fulfillment would bring to us and to others what Paul called the “fruits of the spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (16)

These “fruits of the spirit” can help us discern whether or not our potential vocations tap into the “world’s great hunger.” If in our work we help to bring about a world in which there is more love, more joy, and more peace, then we are in line with Mr. Beuchner’s definition. This can be on a personal level, in a small group, or on a local, national, or global level. Some needs of the world are obvious; workers that directly aid the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the victimized surely fill deep needs. But those who offer companionship, hospitality, comfort and hope to the emotionally broken and the spiritually needy also bring much needed wholeness into an often-empty world.

I am inspired by the story of Warren Brown. (17) A George Washington University graduate with multiple degrees, including a master’s in public health and a J.D., Mr. Brown did what most anyone would consider important work: he prosecuted medical fraud and malpractice cases for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. He was good at his job, but he wasn’t happy. After years of suffering through a job he hated, he realized that he could bring more joy to people in his life though his baking. It might not have had the gravitas of being a lawyer at HHS, but he made people smile. He inspired them. He helped them express their love for others. He saw that there was a “society-wide hunger for anything genuine and authentic,” and he helped to fill that gap. While baking cakes might, by some definitions, not seem important, Mr. Brown’s shop (which he named “Cakelove”) enlivened a D.C. neighborhood and brought a sliver of kindness to a slice of society. When asked how he justifies his career choice, Mr. Brown says that he thinks “the world would be a better place if more people let themselves be energized by their natural enthusiasms.” (18) Mr. Brown is more right than he perhaps knew: the word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek words “en theos,” meaning “God in us.” (19)

But When? Just a Little Patience

As Mr. Brown discovered, vocation is a life-long process. It is not something that we figure out when we graduate from college for the rest of our lives. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined that the average person will have more than ten different jobs during their prime working years. (20) People change, industries change, circumstances change, and needs change. What does not change is God and His sustained and permanent call on our lives to follow him, serve him, and spread love in the world.

Encouraging or not, the Bible is full of delayed vocational gratification: the most obvious story is probably that of Joseph. (21) If you don’t know the story (think Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, people), let me refresh your memory. Joseph was the spoiled kid of Jacob (aka Israel) and Sarah. Joseph’s ten older brothers resented him for many reasons: not only did he get great presents from Dad (like the aforementioned Technicolor dreamcoat), he also had the audacity to tell them that he had a dream in which he was their king and they his lowly subjects, who would one day bow before him. As brothers are wont to do, they ganged up on Joseph and decided to kill him. (Isn’t the Bible great?) But, when they realized that they could make some quick cash by selling the little punk into slavery, they decided to do that instead.

While he was a slave in Egypt, Joseph was imprisoned after being falsely accused of trying to rape his boss’s wife. In jail, Joseph became known for his ability to interpret dreams, so when Pharaoh had a bad dream, he asked him to come to the palace and figure out what it meant. As it turned out, Pharaoh’s dream predicted a seven-year period of plentiful harvests, followed by a seven-year famine. Pharaoh was able to save grain during the fat years to make it through the lean years, and thus saves Egypt from ruin. So impressed was Pharaoh that he made Joseph his second-in-command.

The famine came, and Joseph’s family, back home in Israel, were desperate for food. They heard that Pharaoh had planned ahead and was selling his extra grain, and so they made the trek down to Egypt. Joseph, after testing his brothers to see if they felt bad about selling him into slavery all those years ago (they did), tearfully revealed to his family that he was their long-lost brother. They all (you guessed it) bowed at his feet, just like his seemingly arrogant dream of decades ago had revealed. Of course, his brothers were all horribly apologetic, but Joseph said to them, “Don’t be angry with yourselves that you did this to me, for God did it. He sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives… to keep you and your families alive so that you will become a great nation.” (22)

Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery, the age most of us were when we were beginning the application process to Harvard. We were concerned with football games, prom dates, and, yes, getting good grades. I’m sure most of us had hopes and dreams about what we were going to be when we grew up. I bet Joseph had similar plans—he probably planned on having a wife and kids, of owning his own parcel of land, and about having his own herds of cattle. He didn’t plan on spending the next decade or so in prison. But God had a plan, and God used the horrible experiences in Joseph’s life to bless him, save his family, and ultimately, glorify God.

Like Joseph, we need to let ourselves live our lives as God allows them to unfold. We must operate according to God’s time, not the world’s time. No other generation has been so simultaneously blessed and cursed by instantaneity—we can download virtually any song, buy any product, find any fact, or communicate with anyone with a just a click of the mouse. In our world, patience is not regarded as a virtue, but as a weakness. And, when patience is encouraged, we are told to wait, at the most, a few hours for an e-mail reply, a few days for a response from a job interview, or maybe a few months for a grad school admissions response. Waiting decades for an answer from God? Forget it.

Fortunately, patience is more than just waiting. It is painful for ourselves and disrespectful to God to behave as though a portion of our life is a “holding pattern” until God reveals his glorious plan to us. As the late Catholic spiritual leader Henri Nouwen explained:

Active waiting means to be present full to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it… Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the movement, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her. (23)

Joseph didn’t sit idle in prison. While he could have simply given up, he used his God-given gift for dream interpretation to aid his fellow prisoners. The Bible also tells us that the Lord “granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden,” which led the warden to place Joseph “in charge of all those held in the prison.” (24) His willingness to accept his circumstances, while still employing his talents and passions, allowed the next phase of God’s plan to come into effect. Like Joseph, we need to trust in God, follow our hearts, use our gifts, and seek our bliss, all while making the best of our circumstances. That is true patience. You might graduate from Harvard without a clear sense of your vocation, as I certainly did. But my heart told me that I loved to wait tables, and I am grateful that I followed that call.

Enjoy the journey

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I will leave you with a list of things I pray for, which you in turn can use as you too embark on your vocational journey. First, don’t fall into the trap of taking a job only because your parents want you to. Even worse, don’t take a job because your parents once aspired to it themselves—never live someone else’s deferred dream. (25) Don’t take a job just because you admire someone who has it. Don’t take a job just because you “always” planned to do it. Don’t take a job just because you “want to try it,” even though you can’t stomach the idea of actually doing the work. Don’t take a job just because you will make a lot of money, so that you can “do what you want in your free time.” Don’t take a job just because it will make you feel important, famous, or useful. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Never become complacent. If you find, in your current job, that you dread waking up in the morning because you know that it means going to work, start looking for a new job. We will all have bad days at work, but if the misery persists, leave. Life is too short and too precious to hate what you do all day long.

Yes, I am a waitress, but I am confident that what I am doing now is working towards fulfilling God’s plan for my life—my vocation. I am, most definitely, still accepting and understanding my identity. While the four steps I have developed in this article are not necessarily sequential, it is imperative that you accept God’s love and your identity before you will be able to succeed in any career. I am working on my relationship with my God and myself in ways that are essential if I am to become the woman He wants me to be. Waiting tables gives me flexibility in my schedule to be involved in my church, travel, spend lots of time with friends, read lots of books, and take care of myself.

Beyond the ways in which time outside of my job makes me happy, the job itself brings me much joy. I love serving others, literally. I thrive on the smiles I receive from a table when I make their special occasion just a tiny bit better by suggesting just the right wine or by offering a unique dessert. Serving God means serving others, sometimes literally. Besides, the hospitality industry is a wonderful place to connect with people about the big questions in life. I have found that, in an office setting, it is nearly impossible to talk about love, faith, and meaning in a substantive way. But after a long night on your feet, over a chilled glass of pinot grigio, chatting with your co-workers about what matters in life is effortless. The social component of my job feeds me, even though I don’t have as much money as I’d like, and even though I miss the intellectual banter of Harvard sections and dining halls. I don’t think, at this point, that God is calling me to be a waitress for the rest of my life. I do, however, know that right here, right now, at my church, at my restaurant, with my friends, and in my struggles, I am where God wants me to be. More importantly, I am who God wants me to be, and I look forward to hearing from him about the next step in my journey.

1. Translation of Luke 12:48 from the New Living Bible.

2. Bronson, Po, What Should I Do With My Life: The true story of people who answered the ultimate question (2002, New York: Random House, rpt. 2003), 25. (emphasis original)

3. The source of this revelation is difficult to pinpoint, as many Christian authors agree with this assertion. I did however, find much clarity and wisdom about this point in Richard Nelson Bolles’ career workbook What Color is Your Parachute? (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2003 ed.), 308-327.

4. Bronson, 7-8.

5. Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1983), 126.

6. Augustine, 127.

7. Warren, 8.

8. Warren, 236.

9. Romans 12:6-8 (New International Version)

10. Jones, p. 43.

11. Smith, p. 41.

12. 1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)

13. Beuchner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. 1973, New York:Harper Collins, rpt. 1993), 118-19.

14. Matthew 11:29

15. Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961, London: Burns and Oates), 16. Qtd. In Smith, Gordon, Courage and Calling (1999, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press), 83.

16. Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

17. Bronson, 39-45.

18. Warren Brown, qtd. in Bronson, 45.

19. Bolles, 310.

20. No author given, “Frequently Asked Questions” U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. [online-web] Retrieved October 26, 2004 at

21. The story of Joseph can be found in the Bible in Genesis, Chapters 37-45.

22. Genesis 45:5-7 (NIV)

23. Nouwen, Henri J.M. “Waiting for God.” From The Weavings Reader, Ed. John S. Mogabgab. 1993, (Nashville: The Upper Room Books), no page given. Retreived electronically at

24. Genesis 39:21-22 (NIV)

25. Adopted from Jones, p. 34-38.

Mattie Germer ’03 is a graduate in Government from Kirkland House.