Many will remember the old game show The $64,000 Question, an American television staple in the 1950’s.  As time passes, fewer may remember that the phrase predated the show.  The phrase “$64,000 question” indicated the question at the heart of the issue, often the question hardest to answer.  One can see the obvious appeal when naming a quiz show early in the television era.  Alas, inflation has taken its toll, and I often now hear this as the $64,000,000 question.  Much more impressive to modern ears!  The point remains – what is at the heart of the issue?  What is the hardest question to answer?  When it comes to vocational choice, many would say it is this: “What do I want to do?”  Young adult or late career, senior executive or entry-level worker, the most common statement I hear from those considering their vocational choice is, in fact, “But I don’t know what I want to do.  That’s the problem.”

If we turn the question, though, and ask it this way, “If I gave you $64,000,000 today, would you be at work tomorrow?” most everyone says, “NO!”  At a minimum, that answer tells us that, for most of us, our desires and our work do not match.  That much is probably an observable and empirical fact.  Is that what it must be, what it always will be?  To beg the question even more broadly, what role should what we want play in our vocational choices?  Are my wants good or bad things?  How should “I want to” factor into this important decision?

Initially, we must note that, biblically, desire is a good thing.  Essential to the equation of what I should do for my vocation is the question, “What do I want to do?”  This is, frankly, hard for many Christians to believe.  I remember as a pastor asking a young child in our church once about a decision he was going to make.  Down on one knee, looking into his eyes, I asked, “Well, what does God want you to do?”  His reply: “Whatever isn’t fun.”  Is that not tragic?  But are not so many of us that way?  We assume that if we want to do something, it must not be God’s way.  That could be true, but not always!

Desire can often be a very good thing.  Christians are not Buddhists, and we do not view our faith as emptying ourselves of desire.  I certainly hope you want to marry the person you marry someday. That is desire, and it is good.  We can prove this point several ways biblically.  First, God often delights to give us the desires of our hearts.  Psalm 37:4 states, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  In 2 Samuel 23 David states, “For does not my house stand so with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. For will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?”  Second, Paul regularly lets what he wants be part of his decision making, both for himself and others.  In Romans 1:11 he writes, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.”  In 1 Corinthians 10:27 he advises, “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.”  We could cite many more verses to prove this point if we wished.

That said, the Bible also talks regularly about the dangers of desire.  For example, Jeremiah 17:9 warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  In Matthew 15:18-19 Jesus teaches, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”  In other words, “Because I want to” is also biblically a very dangerous statement.  And we could cite many more verses here as well.

So, we have many verses on each side, that desires of our hearts are good and that they are dangerous, even evil. Is the Bible contradictory?  No – we are!  We are a strange brew, a combustible mix, people created good, even “very good,” then fallen, but then redeemed.  To borrow a phrase from my friend Bill Clark, we are a glorious mess.  This is important for many Christians to hear.  We are not a worm; we are not pond scum.  We are images of God, fallen, but then redeemed, yet waiting for the fulness of that redemption.  We each are a glorious mess.  And, as a fallen, but redeemed image of God, we – and our desires – are both.

This means that the key is neither to completely trust nor distrust our desires but to instead cultivate a Godly desire.  In the words of Saint Augustine: “Love God and do what you please.”[i]  The truism is obvious, but still helpful.  If we love God, really, then what we please will be what pleases him.  How would we cultivate that type of desire?  We cooperate with God in this endeavor, part of our sanctification, and there are many things we biblically can do.

First, we search the scriptures.  Proverbs 2:1-5 states:

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

A search of the Scriptures may give us answers, but even if it does not give specific answers, it builds in us the fear of the Lord and the knowledge of God.  It builds a wise way of living, independent of specific answers.  More than that, in fact, it forms who we are.  This is not the “google” way of getting answers, with 130,000 results provided in .035 seconds.  It is the long-term process of spiritual formation, and we beat up our bibles to get it, we wear the thing out!

Second, similarly, we pray for wisdom.  James 1:5 encourages, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”  Many Christians take this verse to mean “wisdom for a specific decision,” something like a special word from God to say what to do or not do.  Chapter 3 puts a different spin on the question.  James writes (3:13-17):

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

James, then, refers to wisdom as a way of life — a life in the light of God — something that changes who we are more than giving us a specific answer to a problem.  So, when James talks in chapter 1 about lacking wisdom, he means, “If any of you lack purity, peacefulness, gentleness, reason, mercy, or good fruits, ask God who loves to give generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

Third, we live in a context of prayer.  Prayer fundamentally measures whether we are doing life under our own power or God’s, and God loves to change his people when we humble ourselves and pray.

Finally, fourth, we know we are cultivating a Godly desire when we are willing to accept a “no” from God.  2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is in some ways one of my favorite – and one of the most daunting – passages in the Scriptures:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

We have got to love this.  Paul has been denied what he asks God, and in response he trusts God all the more.  There is nothing wrong with Paul’s request, yet God says “No,” and Paul is okay with that.  Are we?  If so, we are far down the road toward cultivating a Godly desire.

So, cultivate a godly desire, and then let that be part of your vocational choice.  Not all our wants are bad.  In fact, they are a primary means, when submitted to God and when sanctified, of his guiding us where he wants us to go.  In other words, if you are considering vocational changes within the context of God working in your life, do not make it too difficult – what job do you want to do?

But — and this is the key “but”— we must apply this thinking into the world of work which, just like our desires, is both fallen and redeemed.  We must realize that in this current life our work will never be 100% what we want.  One of my big concerns with the modern faith and work movement is that we have over-idealized people about the enjoyment of work. We have left Christians feeling that they have settled or been “inauthentic” if they do not love every moment of their job, creating an idealism that makes many good for little in the actual world of work.

Biblically, just as our desires are good, then fallen and corrupted, and then redeemed, so is work itself.  As TWI has noted many times before, work is a pre-fall gift from God, part of our very purpose.  The cultural mandate, Genesis 1:26-28, given to mankind before sin exists, is the basis for all vocation:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.  Fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

These were the two vocations at the beginning of humanity, raising children and bringing rulership, order, to the world.  Both were vocations, just as they are today.  The vocation of raising children is just as difficult and just as challenging — and just as godly.  And both are good, part of what God made us to be.  Further, it was in Genesis 2 that God put Adam in the Garden “to work it and take care of it,” again before there was such a thing as sin in the world.

In Genesis 3, then, the curse takes on greater meaning.  Eve is cursed in the activity of childbearing and Adam in agriculture.  Genesis 3:16-18:

To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.”

When men and women receive the curse in the areas of childbearing and farming, they are not simply cursed in the two areas of their kingly mission, the two areas of the cultural mandate; they are cursed in their vocations.  At this time in the Bible, these are the only vocations that exist.  Even today, all vocations in the marketplace can be considered subdivisions, specializations made possible by the efficiency of modern agriculture, but all trace back to the beginning.  Bringing order — through our vocation — is now under a curse.  And the curse is that it is difficult, painful.

Yet, Jesus promises that he is making all things new.  But where does he promise that?  That promise is in Revelation 21:5-6:

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”

These words come after Revelation 21:1, where John recounts, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”  Our work someday will be fully redeemed and good and right and even pleasurable, but that is a future promise.

Currently we live in what the theologians call the “overlap of the ages” or the “already/not yet,” when the new world to come is breaking in but the old age which is passing away has not yet given up its last breath.  And this basic biblical truth about the Christian life creates the right approach to understanding our work and our desires.  Our work, like all our lives, lives between our redemption and the consummation of history when Jesus returns.  The new age is breaking in but not fully here.  The old age is passing away but not fully gone.  And in that overlap, work can be what it should be, but it is not there yet, nor will it be until Jesus returns.  Work, like all the Christian life, is between the times, a mix of curse and redemption, because the restoration of our world is not yet complete, not consummated until Christ’s return.

Why drag that out?  Simply put, to say this: do not be over idealistic.  What we want matters deeply, even to God.  And work should be great; it even can be great.  But it will not be fully great until Jesus returns.  So, we must know now that our vocations in this life will not be fully what we want.  Such an admission is neither settling nor inauthentic; it is simply the way the world really is.  We recognize that we will not get all the way there in this life.

But some really good news about this – we do not have to in order to be happy!  One of the vocational tools I use with clients is the SIMA CAP, part of the broader SIMA family of tools and research.  SIMA produces a “desires MAP” (Motivated Abilities Profile), a comprehensive understanding of what someone wants out of his or her job.  SIMA consultants compare this MAP with a person’s actual job and talk about aiming for a “70% overlap.”  If someone’s actual job and their ideal job (as measured by their SIMA MAP) overlap by approximately 70% that person will be, honestly, pretty happy at work.  Every job has some drudge, some “have to do’s,” because all work still labors under the fall.  But we do not need a perfect job to be happy.  If we get a job that is a good match for our desires, a proximate match for what we want, we will find that we are not simply “okay with that,” but actually happy with what God has given us to do.

[i] Translated by H. Browne. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.)

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

Meet Bill