Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, and only late do we discover how obedient we were.” -Czeslaw Milosz

Vocation is about confessing what is true about God, not just about recognizing truths about yourself. The question of “Who am I?” and “What am I to do?” begins with the question of “Who is the God revealed in the person of Christ?” The one who is the way, the truth, and the life calls us into the truth about ourselves—the “who” of our identity finds itself in the answer to God’s voice. Who we are is found in our response to God. All of this is a way of saying that questions of vocation are also questions of identity.

Or said another way, vocation is about getting your name right. As Rowan Williams says:

“It’s very important, for instance, to remember that in the Old Testament, calling and creating are closely associated. Look at Isaiah 40:26—God creating the stars and calling them by name—and the echoes of that in the psalter. And think too of the image of God creating and recreating human beings by naming them. God, say the prophets and poets of Israel, has called you by name. As at first, when Jacob wrestled with the angel, God calls, consecrates his service, by giving a name.” [1]

God’s life-giving call involves our naming. In Scripture, God’s re-naming of people in the course of a call testifies how humans rarely name ourselves rightly.[2] So God’s naming and re-naming of us “is [not] a measure…of God’s whimsical and capricious despotism, but [a sign of] how far I have really been from myself.”[3] God knows my true name, the true self I was created to be. We may see through a glass darkly, but the Holy Spirit carries a bottle of Windex. So the answer to “Who is this God?” is that this is the God who rightly names us.

The Indiana Jones approach to finding your vocation—an obsession with the methods the techniques of “how” and “where” one discovers the lost artifact of vocation—are alien to what Scripture tells us is true about God and this world. We are misguided if we think that we just need a map to lead us, a set of known steps that will let us grasp the golden treasure of our identity. Discovering your vocation isn’t a one-time thing, a treasure that you find and have forever. God’s voice is something you follow, not something you possess. This is not saying that one will never know God’s call, but that it’s problematic when one begins to believe that you know exactly how you will know: I will know God’s call when “blank” happens. These are the times when our theology makes God’s voice into a pattern instead of a voice.[4]

As Czelaw Milosz expresses, so often it seems like we can hear God’s voice, but that we don’t know what it is saying. We know where the voice is coming from, but we are not sure the words it speaks. So we head towards it, stumbling, falling, scraping our shins on sharp pieces of status quo littering the path of life. With each step we struggle to know what obedience looks like, but knowing that it at least means moving towards the God who names. Every step we take is a response. And if there are times that we are more sinful than we know, I hope that means there are times that we are more obedient than we know.

[1] Rowan Williams, “Vocation (1),” in Open to Judgment, 173. This is part 1 of a series of talks that Rowan Williams gave on the topic of vocation. They are wonderful resources on this topic, and animate much of this reflection.

[2] Hopefully it has become clear that I’m not talking about your actual “name” here, but one’s self-understanding of “who” you are.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] This does not mean that there are no patterns to how God calls humanity. There are practices and traditions for how we attune our heart’s ears to hear God’s voice. Whether it is through silence, or friends, or prayer, or passions—both Scripture and the history of the God’s people provide a host of ways for us to listen well. And the voice is not something divorced from who you are: your place, your friends, your gifts, your hopes, your enemies, your loves. God’s voice calls us into the truth of who we are as particular people.