What do you do when there’s no single “right answer”? Like many 20-somethings, I’ve spent the last few years wondering about my how my future career might turn out, constantly finding myself asking the question I’ve been hearing my whole life: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I finished college with no real career plans, was encouraged to participate in a leadership development program (in my case called the Falls Church Fellows) focused on work and faith, and despite my hopes that I would leave the program with a step-by-step plan for what kind of career I wanted to embark on, I ended up in another temporary position. I continued biding my time, trying to learn everything I could about what people’s work was actually like in hopes of encountering something I could see myself doing. I thought this mindset would lead me to one right answer, but it actually led me to a handful of right answers. As it turned out, I could see myself doing a lot of things.
I found many different career fields interesting, and with a little bit of thought and a conversation with someone working in each field, I could pretty easily envision myself doing their job. The only consistent thing I found in this hunt was that I had a lot of different interests, and that if my job didn’t have too much do with math or science – not my top skill set! – I could envision myself succeeding. I began to identify some of the big picture skills I had, but those didn’t help me decide between one job or another. I wanted to do something important, and I knew that church was important, so I found myself where I still find myself today—working in a church because I like reading, writing, and thinking about theology and why it matters in our lives.
As I continued to work, though, the questions about where I ultimately wanted to end up continued to bubble up in my own mind and in conversations with others. I was fortunate enough to have older mentors come alongside me and ask what God might have for me in the working world.
Accompanying all of this was a restlessness, an anxiety, a persistent trickling of doubt that would warn me that if I didn’t “figure it out,” I’d end up full of regret, forever wishing that I could go back and do things over again. During that time, making a choice about my career felt like a treasure hunt. Given a series of cryptic clues left by God, it was my job to interpret them through hours of journaling, prayer, writing, and conversations to reach a clear conclusion—a perfect, risk-free choice that would unmistakably be what I was supposed to do.
While this was happening, I began to recognize that this idea didn’t match up with what I believed about God. I remember my pastor telling me that God didn’t want me to be confused about what I was supposed to do. There wasn’t anything he was gaining from my paralysis. Slowly, this notion that God wanted me to experience freedom in making this choice began to erode the entrenched ideas I had about the “career treasure hunt.” And I began to see two things that were contributing to me thinking about my career in this way.
First, I saw that my obsession with finding a perfect career that would seamlessly weave together my interests, my desire for meaningful work, and my need for an adequate income was more related to seeking self-actualization through work than it was worshiping God with my whole life. In the Western world, work has taken on paramount significance in the constellation of things that give people meaning, or some kind of sense of transcendence, in their lives. Many of our great grandparents didn’t work on the farm or take that job at the factory because they thought it would give their lives meaning. They did it because there were no other options available to them and they needed to provide for their families. In the past, the rich have worked less than the poor because they could afford to. Today, at least in the United States, the richest work the most—the greater financial rewards of high-paying jobs have begotten more work.
Wanting meaningful work isn’t a bad thing. Work predates the fall, and only after the fall did work, like everything else, become corrupted, either elevated to a place of worship or denied its central place in a person’s life. Work as god, or work as incidental and not integral to life—are two sides of the same coin: our propensity to misunderstand our relationship with work. Young Christians finding their footing in this world must find their way between these extremes like everyone else. If work is the primary lens by which we seek to make our lives more meaningful, then the choice of what our work is inevitably becomes all the more loaded. And if work is viewed merely as an unfortunate necessity, then we risk being cut off from a powerful way in which God can work through us.
Acknowledging work’s centrality to life is much different than seeking self-actualization through work. The former is clearly biblical, while the latter is a product of our culture. But the two can easily be mistaken for one another, and I found that I had, in fact, equated them. What helped me to clarify the difference was forcing myself to articulate all the reasons I wanted to make a choice—both “good” and “bad” reasons—and laying those before God in prayer and before friends and mentors in conversation. It helped me to be able to see and discern between what might represent a genuine interest God had given me and what was more indicative of a false belief about work I had picked up unknowingly.
Second, I saw that my “treasure hunt” understanding of career was a poor application of good theology. The perpetual theological battle between free will and predestination, while ostensibly not much more than fodder for academic theologians, matters significantly for how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. It is good theology to affirm God’s control over the world and over all the details over our lives—but emphasizing God’s sovereignty to the extent that we diminish the importance of real individuals making choices that matter is a poor application of that theology.
No parable captures this idea more incisively than the parable Jesus shares in Matthew 25. The parable of the talents, just like the parable of the persistent widow, forces us to confront what we really think about God by presenting a caricature of him in the character of the master. What is wrong with the third servant, the one who does not receive his reward? Is it not his very view of the master? Do we really imagine God like this hard man in the parable, one who reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he has scattered no seed? For most of my 20s, I have felt like that final servant entrusted with one talent, and out of fear of making a mistake, burying it to keep it safe. But if we do have real responsibility, and we can effect change in the world, and if we don’t serve a God anything like the master in the parable (and we don’t!)—then what is there to be afraid of, ultimately? The parable doesn’t mention other servants who may have lost their investment—much to my personal dismay—but the point of the parable seems to be that the only real mistake we can make is not investing that talent out of fear, fear that our loving God is a harsh master, just waiting for us to make a mistake.
We must hold a complex and nuanced theology, one that holds two truths together: God is in control of everything and our actions as his creatures matter a great deal . Our failure to do so results in an impractical theology that leads us to imagine our lives as an unending search for the right path. But that kind of outlook is bound to result in disappointment and disaffection, because the “right path” is not something we can discern with absolute certainty, which was the very standard I was seeking. As finite creatures, we lack the perspective necessary to make those kinds of decisions.
None of this means we don’t need to have good reasons behind the choices we make, nor does it mean that God cannot speak to us and even choose to lead us to certain choices more clearly than others. Nor does it mean we shouldn’t ask hard questions of ourselves and others; nor does it mean we can’t be confident in the choices that we make. Shedding the responsibility of discerning the right path is instead a simple acceptance of our human limitations and a renewed declaration of trust in God. The only right path we know is the one that follows closely with Jesus, and it is a feature of God’s unique and particular love for each of us that the path following Jesus looks different for everyone.
While my agonizing over my career choices has been difficult, I don’t regret it. Having a bit of distance from it, I think I see it now for what it was, and what it will continue to be—the formation in me not of a singular skillset to set me up for ultimate career success but of something more important and more valuable: the courage to make a choice. Through years of inarticulate reasons for wanting to follow this or that career path, I find myself now able to articulate reasons for my choices, the risks that I am accepting with said choices, and a peace borne not of self-confidence or hopeless idealism but of trust that God’s control over everything in my life will not fail, even if I fail in making the “right” choice.
What I had really wanted was to get out of making a hard choice and trusting God through it. If I could just see what God wanted for me, if I could just succeed in my treasure hunt, then I would escape the business of choosing—the right choice would be clear. But God has not been leading me, or anyone else, on some kind of convoluted treasure hunt. He has been forming in me a willingness that I didn’t have before to say “no” to the idea that the perfect choice exists in the first place. He wants me to have the courage to choose, to exercise that creative capacity to make choices which is God’s image at work in us.
I can’t say now that I am on the “right” path—just that I have done what I can with the information available to me to make the best choices that I can, and that I believe God will be there to help me get where I need to be when I need to be there. We all must be willing to accept this not only about our work but also about all the choices we make, living as we do between promises made and promises realized. This realization doesn’t bludgeon our desire for a more perfect world; instead, it helps us to anticipate the day when the curse will be broken and we will all find ourselves doing exactly what we’re supposed to do.
For now, though, we must make choices with the limited information we have. Once we stop looking for the perfect choice right now, we are free to explore, to make mistakes, and to experience God’s provision and grace in the best and worst of our choices. I had to stop trying to make perfect choices to be free to make real ones. The antidote to my paralysis was perfect grace, not a perfect choice.