When faced with a large number of potential careers, young adults are often paralyzed by the choice. They so often want to “not get it wrong” that they can find it almost impossible to make any choice, often running to others to make the choices for them. The problem, of course, is that in the end no one else can – or at least should – do that for us. In the end we must make and own our own vocational decisions. I do a lot of career advising, using various assessments to help people think through which careers might fit them, and one of the regular things I hear is “Just tell me what to do.” Honestly, no career advisor worth his or her salt will do that – because we shouldn’t. We can help you figure it out, but you are the one who will have to live the results of the decision, which means the decision must be yours, not mine.
I recently contributed this article “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Career Choices” to the CS Lewis Institute’s journal Knowing and Doing. The main point was to caution against overreading the Joseph narratives in the Bible when it comes to faith and vocation. Joseph had a clear calling from God to do his work (Genesis 45:7-8), which was to work in government. This makes it clear that God calls people to vocations other than ministry. But we often overread that and start to think that Joseph’s decisions must have been easy to make, that he saw God’s plan clearly from the start. Quite the opposite. I argue that Joseph had to make difficult decisions without any clarity into how God was going to make things work out. He only knew God’s calling in hindsight.
Nehemiah helps us to consider a related theme – what if I’m not a young adult trying to discern what I want to be when I grow up (so to speak)? What if I’m doing well in my career, yet I suddenly find the opportunity to do something else? Or what if I suddenly get offered a job change? How do I know if I should take it? How do I understand God’s will in the specific decision in front of me? Of course the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible, but he often doesn’t speak with the specificity we wish. And in that situation the same paralysis that commonly hits young adults can hit the mid-career professional. As with any narrative of a specific person and decision, Nehemiah doesn’t give us a full theology of how to think this out – just another thing to consider:
1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” 4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5 And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Now I was cupbearer to the king. (Nehemiah 1, ESV)
Nehemiah lived in Persia, in the capital city of Susa, and one day he received some news that rocked his world and drove him to fervent prayer. Some visitors from Judah came. Deported Jews who had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem years before had intended to rebuild the city, but it hadn’t happened. Danger and opposition had quashed the effort, leaving the community that lived there vulnerable. An ancient city without a city wall could easily be raided, and life there would always be precarious. It was a far cry from human flourishing – vulnerable to crime and war, economically tenuous, and therefore culturally limited. And this city – Jerusalem – held Nehemiah’s heart. It was the capital of his people’s homeland, but it was a broken-down discarded wreck. Life there would be hard, risky, and stressful.
Okay, a grief for sure, but why the fervent prayer, day and night? This is a funny chapter when you first read it because it delays the punch line. It turns out that Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king. Ancient kings were always worried about being assassinated, and poison was one way to make the attempt, so to have access to the king’s food and wine was a high honor indeed, one given only to truly trusted advisors. In other words, Nehemiah was killing it at work; he was rocking along in his career – he’d been promoted to partner; he had made it to the C-suite; he was a rising star who would go far…pick your analogy. Now we see why Nehemiah prays – because he might just be in a position to do something about this.
Nehemiah came face-to-face with something that grabbed his heart, AND something that he realized he was uniquely positioned to address. And in that, he found the next step of his vocational calling. And note that it didn’t send him into the not-for-profit world, or to a social change organization (though the rest of the book bears out that both ended up being true of his life). He remained in government, but in a new role:
1 In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” 6 And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. 7 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me. (Nehemiah 2:1-8)
Nehemiah found his calling – his next step – by finding a piece of the world that was wrong and realizing his ability to use his post to fix that. He made a risky career move to pursue fixing that problem, and against all odds, God granted him success. There are many things that are wrong in the world. But sometimes you find one that both crushes your heart AND that you can do something about. That is surely a piece of discerning vocational calling.