Wisdom and Vocation

by Father David Chandler Poling

My bookshelf holds a scrapbook my mother made me when I was seven years old. She made it for me when we moved from one small town in rural Pennsylvania to another. My mother wanted my new life after the move to be as happy as possible, so she preserved photographs, birthday cards, and other ephemera to help me preserve memories and friendships. The construction paper pages are slowly becoming brittle and faded, and the binding has nearly fallen apart.

One of the items inside is a booklet that I made in preschool. It contains on its pages a crayon drawing of a green and blue man, along with an outline of my hand. The caption reads, “When I grow up I want to be…. a policeman and help good people and put bad ones in jail.” This not only gives insight into the black-and-white moral universe of a five year old, it demonstrates how early we start tormenting kids with the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It seems like I was asked that question on a regular basis throughout my growing up. Never once did I answer, “When I grow up I’d like to be an Orthodox priest in a mission parish and be a stay-at-home dad during the week” which is my life right now. I thought I wanted to help good people and put bad people in jail. But now I’m not sure who is good and who is bad, and my job is to minister to everyone, good, bad, or mixed up.

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The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” may have no relationship to what actually happens, but we think about it all the time when we are children and young people. This question still seems to be on the mind of many recent college graduates, even throughout young adulthood. “Thirty is the new twenty,” I’ve often heard from young people who are still not sure of their career path.

However, I think that this question of deciding what “I want to do when I grow up” is different from the question of Christian vocation. What “I want to do” arises from the desire of my ego for career, money, and a comfortable life. On one hand, our personal interests can give us some indication of what God wants us to do. On the other hand, our ambition can be selfish, and can drive us away from God’s will for our lives.

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When we are baptized, we “die to our self.” We give up the ego with all of its striving and desires. Personal ambition takes a backseat to loving God and loving neighbor. Now that we strive to live according to the will of Jesus Christ, we are freed from the self-destructive demands of our ego. At any rate, that’s the idea. In reality, most of us struggle with selfishness every single day.

One story from scripture that can help us understand Christian vocation is the story of King Solomon, found in the first book of Kings, chapter two. When King David died, his son Solomon was  placed on the throne. We are told that Solomon worshipped the Lord of Israel even though many of his subjects worshipped various other idols. At the beginning of his reign, Solomon offered a sacrifice as prescribed by the Law of Moses. That night, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked him what he wanted. Solomon could have asked for anything at all, but he asked for wisdom so that he could worthily carry out his duties as King of Israel. He said, “O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am only a little child… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern these, your great people?” He admitted that he was inadequate for the task at hand, and he asked God for help. He showed humility and trusted in God to help him. This request pleased the Lord. God promised to give him “a wise and discerning mind,” as well as those other things he did not request: long life, victory in battle, riches, and honor. Even though Solomon did not claim to be wise, he began a great tradition of wisdom teachings which can be found in in writings such as Proverbs, Song of Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and other wisdom books of scripture. We can still greatly benefit from those teachings today.

We don’t learn our Christian vocation by agonizing over the question of “what I want.” We learn our Christian vocation by asking our Lord what He would have us do. We many never settle on a single stable lifelong vocation. But we can follow the example of Solomon, who did not presume he was strong enough for the task set before him. We can ask for guidance each day and throughout the day from our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than simply rely upon our own limited judgment.

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Each day, as we pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” we learn to live more open to His will for our life. Our own haywire desires are no longer the guiding force in our lives. Rather, we learn to live by following His commands. Following our own desires often lands us in trouble, while following His guidance always leads us to peace and light.

Christian vocation is not figuring out ”˜what I want and how to achieve it.’ Christian vocation is letting ourselves be guided by Jesus Christ daily. Whatever we do, at home, at work, in the Church, or in the community, we ask God for guidance as Solomon did. Our own ambitions can lead us to frustration if we fail or to arrogance if we succeed. But when we allow Jesus Christ to lead us each day, we learn how to have joy no matter whether we succeed or fail. The vocation of every Christian is the life of joy that does not depend upon achieving our ambitions.