Lately on the podcast we’ve covered a lot of ground on work-related questions: advice for Christians who work Sunday mornings, how to avoid idolizing a career — things like that. Today’s question is about workplace competence. If I consistently fail at work, is God calling me to quit? It’s a good, honest question from a young woman stuck inside a vocational dilemma. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for this podcast. I’m simply not good at my job. That’s the truth of it. I have met with bosses to figure out what to improve. I have implemented those things. Nothing seems to work. I’m a teacher and my students’ academic success is being affected. I’m tempted to resign for their sake. However, I did feel like the Lord called me here. Now I wonder if I heard wrong. Can you give me any advice? What role does success play in discerning my vocational calling?”
Let’s begin with two biblical guidelines about our sense of calling in life, and then give a couple of illustrations from my own life — and maybe even from my wife, Noël — that might be helpful.
Ability Matches Aspiration
First guideline: the subjective sense of our calling should be confirmed by our objective fitness for the calling. That’s the guideline. Or here’s another way to put it: our personal sense of calling should be informed by objective criteria that might include biblical truth, or might include personal competencies, or both.
“We can seriously misread our sense of calling, and we can find ourselves in jobs for which we are not suited.”
We see the guidelines when we turn to the New Testament and consider the calling, for example, to eldership or pastoring in the church. I think it’s going to apply in general, and so I’m drawing out a guideline from what the New Testament says, what Paul says, about the qualification for the calling of an elder in 1 Timothy 3. He says this: “If anyone aspires . . .” Now, there’s a subjective experience that a man is having. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer [or elder or pastor], he desires” — and there’s another subjective expression — “a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). So, there’s this aspiration. There’s this desire. He senses that this would be a gratifying, fruitful way to spend his life.
Then Paul adds this: “Therefore an overseer must be . . .” and then he gives fifteen measurable qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2–7). You kind of say, “Whoa, I thought his desire and his aspiration is the key thing.” Of course, it is key; nobody’s going to be an elder if he doesn’t have the God-given passion for it.
One of those fifteen qualifications is “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). So, I think this would mean that if time and experience prove that a man’s teaching ministry is unhelpful, or even harmful — and I don’t mean to communicate that you need to be a great teacher to be a good pastor; you just need to be competent, just helpful. People get help when you open the Bible. But if he proved to be unhelpful or harmful, it would probably mean that either a mistake was made in discerning his calling, and he should seek another kind of ministry, or maybe he just lost his ability. That does happen. A man can lose capacities that he had fifty years ago, and he might no longer be apt to teach, and therefore, no longer qualified to be an elder.
So the first guideline is this: in general, the subjective sense of our calling from God should be informed and confirmed by the objective fitness for the calling.
Identify Your Strengths
Here’s the second guideline for our sense of calling: God intends each of his children — and I would say each of his creatures, even unbelievers in general — to be good at some things and not good at other things. He intends every human being to be good at some things and not good at other things, so that they fit together (I’m thinking about Christians now) like a diverse body, body parts, not like links in a chain. Links in a chain are all the same, and the chain works precisely because each link does the same thing: it holds. If a link doesn’t hold like all the other links are holding, the whole chain doesn’t work.
Paul’s picture of the church, and I think it’s a good guideline for life in general, is this:
The body does not consist of one member but of many. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. . . . As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14, 17–18, 20)
So, an ear is not good at being an eye. An eye is not good at being an ear. So, to not be good at something is not a condemnation. Goodness gracious, how many things I’m not good at! I would just die if I had to feel bad about all of those.
“The subjective sense of our calling should be confirmed by our objective fitness for the calling.”
It’s not even a loss, Paul says. If you find what you are made for, and you know how you fit in the world, this is just a glorious plus, even if you can’t do many other things. It does require some humility, because you can ruin your life with envy of others’ competencies. A finger can make his life totally miserable by wishing every day he were an elbow. I’ve had to work hard, because there are certain things that, as a scholar, I’m supposed to be better at, supposedly, and I’ve just had to preach to myself over the years: “Piper, you’re never going to be like this, so get over it. You have to just do what you can do and stop trying to be an elbow.”
So, I would say these two guidelines suggest that if we find ourselves in a position that does not fit with our competencies, and it becomes evident to others that our efforts are not effective in accomplishing the goals of the position, then God is probably leading us to another kind of work.
So, let me give two illustrations from my life and Noël’s life together that might be encouraging. I hope they are. I hope that it won’t be too disconcerting that a job change might be fitting.
In the spring of 1966, finishing my sophomore year in college, I was overwhelmed with a sweet confidence that finally God had made it plain that I should pursue a premed course and aim at the vocation of medical doctor. Ah, what a relief it was to finally know after two years in college of just being a literature major, not knowing what I was going to do. It was so clear to me that I changed my summer plans and took chemistry to catch up with the premed sequence. But as you know, things did not go the way I planned.
I did not like chemistry, and that is an understatement. At the end of that summer I got mononucleosis, spent three weeks in the health center, and during that time I heard a kind of preaching on the radio that lit a fire in me for biblical studies, and teaching, and preaching, and writing that to this day, 53 years later, has never died. I’m as thrilled about being a Bible guy today as I was when I was 20 years old in that health center and so excited. So, I would say I misread God’s calling in the spring of ’66. I heard truly God’s call in the fall of ’66, because experience has validated that sense of hearing and call.
“An eye is not good at being an ear. So, to not be good at something is not a condemnation.”
Here’s a little lesson in providence. If you were to ask me today why God would permit such a detour, such a misreading of his will for my life, my answer would probably be so that I would meet Noël Henry in the summer of 1966, while taking chemistry, and marry the woman who was the perfect fit for my calling as a Bible guy all these years. I met her on my detour. I would not have met Noël had I gone straight to the ministry in May of ’66, instead of September of ’66. I love the providence of God.
No Shame in a Change
So, one more story that may be helpful: A few months into our marriage, in 1968, in Pasadena, California, Noël had taken a job at Caltech, a big, high-powered educational institution, where the expectations had not been made clear to her or me. She was drowning in duties for which she had not been prepared. So, I came home one afternoon and found her sitting on the side of the bed, crying. I was shocked and scared. I said, “What happened?” Through her tears, she said, “I’ve been fired.” That was a really low point in our little, brand-new, two-month-old marriage.
Within a month, she had found a new job, and three years later, when we were leaving Pasadena for grad school, she was so loved, so needed, so admired in that job that they didn’t want to let us go. So, all of that to say: We can seriously misread our sense of calling, and we can find ourselves in jobs for which we are not suited. To adjust our sense of calling and to find a new job is nothing to be ashamed of, if we are humble enough to admit that we’re fallible and that we’re not omnicompetent.