Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Change Makers,” our recent CT special issue focused on some of the ways women are influencing the church, their communities, and the world. In this special issue, we’ve included articles that explore trends in women’s discipleship, examine research on women and workplace leadership, highlight women who are making a difference, and grapple with the unique challenges female leaders face. Click here to download your own free digital copy of “Change Makers.”
I thought I would grow up to become a psychologist. I had always wanted to help people, and counseling seemed like a great option. I left for college with a lot of certainty about my future. I would major in psychology and that was that. So I signed up for Developmental Psychology and began the work of fulfilling my destiny. I was ready to step into my calling.
What I didn’t realize until halfway through the semester is that psychology involves more than listening to people and helping them. If you want to major in psychology, you also have to do math.
As it turns out, I was not called to psychology.
Outside of class, I was becoming more involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes. My faith was growing like it never had before, and my passion for God was bursting at the seams. That season of my life was like a spiritual rebirth, and it was then that I discerned a call to ministry.
A subtle shift
Although my calling was clear, it took awhile to figure out the shape of my call. After college I spent a year working for Proverbs 31 Ministries and learning the ropes of women’s ministry. Then I went to seminary. Then I worked as a college minister. Then I went back to seminary. Somewhere in there I began blogging. Over time, I realized writing was my ministry.
In the beginning, I started writing because I felt called. Writing was my sweet spot, the place where my gifts and my passions met, which was satisfaction enough. But over time, something inside me shifted. Instead of simply enjoying my calling, I began to crave affirmation in it.
My calling had become about me. Ministry, a calling that is foundationally about God, had become a servant to my own success and my pride. If I can make ministry about me, then no calling is immune. Even the best, noblest, and humblest callings are vulnerable to self-focus. Whether you’re a CEO, a social worker, or a stay-at-home mom, your calling can become about you. And when it does, it will shrivel your soul like a flower scorched by the sun.
About three years ago, I reached a breaking point. I had been writing and teaching for nearly seven years, but I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I was a small fish in a sea of writers just like me, and the comparison was crushing me.
In the middle of that season, I attended a conference feeling desperate for a word from God. As luck would have it, I happened to sit with two women I looked up to. At the first chance I had, I unloaded my mess. I pleaded with them for some shred of advice.
Both women were silent for a number of seconds, and then one of them answered me plainly: “Your ministry, your writing, your calling—it can’t be about you.”
She was right. Exactly right.
I wanted to be known and celebrated. Affirmation was the only reward that mattered to me, and without that reward, I couldn’t be satisfied. I couldn’t enjoy my calling.
As much as it hurt, my dissatisfaction was a mercy. That’s because my pain and discontentment were a taste of the life I thought I wanted. God was letting me experience how miserable it is to make my calling about me, so that I would stop and turn back before I went any further.
Dissatisfaction is a torment, but it’s also a teacher. It reveals our false idols, and it forecasts our future. It’s a cautionary tale of the life we think we want, and in that sense, it’s a grace. God is beckoning us, oh so lovingly, away from false satisfaction and into satisfaction that is true.
At some point, a self-centered calling conflicts with God-centered callings, because God-centered callings always lead to a cross. God-centered callings involve suffering, sacrifice, and looking like a fool, because this is the path of the Savior we follow. If your calling is about your image or your reputation or your comfort and convenience, it will eventually diverge from the path of Christ. At some point, God will ask you to do something that isn’t about you or doesn’t feel good or requires you to suffer, and you will have to make a choice.
Of course, “calling” refers to more than a career. Throughout his letters, Paul describes the calling of every Christian “into fellowship with his Son” (1 Cor. 1:9), to “live in the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6), “to be free” (Gal. 5:13), and to live “a holy life” (2 Tim. 1:9). All believers everywhere are “called” to these things, which means “calling” also refers to the Christian life. Each of us is called to follow Jesus.
Yet even in this, we can make the Christian life about us. For many of us, we treat Jesus and the church as a means to a more comfortable and sheltered life. In the face of this self-serving form of discipleship, Jesus’s life stands in stark relief. His call is less comfortable, wholesome, and safe than it is risky and revolutionary. He promises sacrifice, not comfort.
The good news is that, while Jesus doesn’t promise us wholesome and safe, he does promise freedom, abundance, and peace. If we have the courage to follow him and trust him for that, then that’s our inheritance.
Consider what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11–12: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
Paul was content in all things because his calling was not about him. His job was not about him, and his life was not about him. It was all about Jesus. Paul was a living, breathing example of Jesus’s words that his “burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). When your self-worth is no longer on the line, the weight is infinitely less.
That’s why we fight to keep our focus on God. No matter how or where God calls us, our focus will drift inward and we’ve got to fight that pull. When we have nothing to prove and nothing at stake but Christ alone, we experience the lightness our souls crave.
Sharon Hodde Miller, PhD, is a writer, pastor’s wife, and mom of two. She is the author of Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not About You. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group © Sharon Hodde Miller. Used by permission. BakerPublishingGroup.com.