by Jonathan Orbell
Allow me to begin with a confession. I often find myself envious of peers whose callings seem clearer than mine. They are budding doctors, lawyers, academics, architects, designers, ministers — the list goes on and on. I admire them; for the surety with which they pursue their vocations conveys a confidence that says, “this is what I was meant to do.” Not all of them believe God exists, but those who do appear confident they are fulfilling a divine purpose laid out long ago.
My path has proved slightly more muddled. Instead of feeling called to a particular vocation and pursuing it with comparable vigor, I bounce from one vision to the next. First I thought God had called me to a career in academe. When that didn’t pan out, I thought He might be beckoning me to a career in freelance writing and journalism. Now, while I enjoy and intend to continue writing, I tell people I’m striving for a career in ordained ministry.
Yet, my path is still not set in stone, and I regularly find myself asking God, once again, “to what are you calling me?” Perhaps you’ve pondered the same thing.
Being forced to ask this time and time again induces in me a deep-seated anxiety. In the depths of my subconscious the question evolves from, “what is my calling?” to a more urgent form: “do I even have a calling?” Subtly and imperceptibly, self-doubt creeps in, and I begin to wonder if I will ever realize the calling God has supposedly placed on my life.
When I picked up Thomas Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, I was caught in the storm of such self-doubt. The book possesses many admirable qualities. It is both rigorous and accessible and offers the most compelling answer to the problem of evil I’ve yet encountered. It takes substantive steps toward answering some of life’s most enduring questions.
Here, however, I want to focus on Oord’s particular definition of divine love, examining how this concept may change the way we think about our callings. For Oord, uncontrolling love is God’s essential attribute, and “because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures,” (95).
Oord’s understanding of divine love is rooted in the biblical concept of “kenosis.” This term, most often discussed in relation to the well-known passage from Phillipians 2, has been translated in a number of ways—self-emptying, self-limiting, self-withdrawing, among others. Oord lands on the term “self-giving,” (159). To him, kenotic love is that which gives of the self and empowers the other. Jesus’ life, ministry, and crucifixion put this kind of self-less love on full display; in doing so, he reveals something fundamental about God’s nature.
This is all well and good, but how does it help those of us whose callings and vocations seem unclear?
Most Protestants I know grow up inculcated with a notion of “calling” which draws from the thought of reformed theologian and pastor, John Calvin. “We are not our own,” the thinking goes. Ultimately, our lives belong to—and have been predestined by—the Creator of the universe. Because of this, we should attend not to our own wishes and desires, but to uncovering the destiny God laid out in eons past.
This sort of language is, in many ways, quite admirable. It echoes a statement reportedly made by John the Baptist to a curious Jew: “He must increase. But I must decrease,” (John 3:30).
This tidy theology, however, squares poorly with lived reality—I’ve always found that disentangling my own will from God’s is a trickier endeavor than Calvin makes it out to be.
I much prefer the way Thomas Merton, the 20th century Catholic mystic, thought about calling and vocation. Rather than treating the phenomenon as a one way street—a process in which God calls and we obey—Merton acknowledges the role played by individual will and personal desire. While we earnestly seek signs of God’s will for our lives, “the soul that loves [God] dares to make a choice of its own, knowing that its own choice will be acceptable to love.” In other words, discerning one’s call is often “the work of two wills, not one.”
Merton’s ideas mesh well with Oord’s concept of “uncontrolling love.” If God’s nature compels Him to impart freedom, agency, and self-organization to His creation, it makes sense that we would be afforded some element of self-determination in discerning our calls. After all, a God whose essence is self-giving, others-empowering love does not coerce His people into their vocations. The kenotic God gives of God’s self that we might be empowered to choose a path that both satisfies us and honors God. Again, it is “the work of two wills, not one.”
Merton and Oord have each helped me come to grips with my somewhat perplexing career path, and I no longer fret over realizing God’s predetermined purpose for my life. Rather, I have started to claim the freedom that comes in making “a choice of [my] own, knowing [my] choice will be acceptable to love.”
Now that’s some seriously good news.