Vocation and Life Purpose Discovery

By: Diane Chandler
Monday, July 9th, 2012

This past May, 2012, another group of divinity graduates received their diplomas from Regent University. Some currently hold fulfilling jobs, while others who are employed dream of moving into more satisfying employment.  Others are in transition or may be unemployed.  Times of transition are often wrought with anxiety which raises several questions:

-what is my life calling?

-what are my unique gifts and talents, and how can I steward them for God’s glory?

-how can I serve God in what I’d like to do, yet still make a living?

-what job would be most fulfilling to me?

-is what I am doing significant, and even more probing, am I significant?

These questions take time, experience, discernment, reflection, prayer, and input from others to address. No matter what our life season, we occasionally circle back to these basic questions.  However, we must remember that vocation is not to be equated with a job. Vocation first begins as a general call to follow Christ, followed by a specific call that is unique to each individual in contributing to Christ’s mission in the world, followed by an immediate call involving the duties at hand, such as family responsibilities. All three coalesce into our discipleship journey and reflect loving and serving God and others. God promises to guide us and does so each step along our journey. How God guided Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), German Lutheran theologian, musician, and medical doctor, offers some key principles!

In his riveting autobiography, Schweitzer wrote about a developing sense of call in the chapter entitled “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor.”[1]

He chronicled how his sense of calling morphed from theology and music to include becoming a medical doctor. Although few will be called by God to serve as a medical doctor in Africa, the path that Schweitzer followed is equally as compelling today as it was during his lifetime. Notice the progression that carried him along in life purpose discovery and subsequent decision making.

While focused in academic studies and music, Schweitzer developed a growing empathy for others “struggling with sorrow and suffering.”[2]

Identification of one’s calling often begins with a burden of compassion to assist others. Then at age 21, Schweitzer realized that he could not accept his good fortune relative to university study, scholarship, and organ proficiency as “a matter of course” but determined to “give something in return.”[3]

Schweitzer’s calling clarity was furthered by a sense of conviction about what he was currently undertaking, albeit noble. Then determining that he “was justified” in giving himself to scholarship and the arts until age thirty, he fully committed himself “directly to serving humanity” after that time. Commitment in decision making, although non-specific, positions one for the faithful next step. Then impacted by Matthew 16:25, Schweitzer understood that by saving his life, he would lose it, but by losing his life for the gospel he would save it. The Holy Spirit often anoints the Word of God to speak directly to our life situation in order to shape life calling.

Uncertain as to his next place of service and only generally committed to serve humanity, Schweitzer stepped out in assisting others, in what he called “the experiment.” First, he desired to educate neglected children, but the organizations he entertained were closed to volunteers. Next, he considered devoting himself to the homeless and to ex-convicts by assisting a local church pastor but changed his mind because of his discomfort in soliciting finances for the work. Perceiving natural preferences through experience and trial-and-error learning provides further direction regarding life calling and purpose discovery.

Then at the age of 29, Schweitzer providentially read an article entitled “The Needs of the Congo Mission” published in the Paris Missionary Society’s Journal des Missions Évangélique.[4]

After reading the appeal for workers to carry on the work in what was then the northern province of the Congo, Schweitzer committed to serve there as a medical doctor after completing medical school. This decision resulted in intense opposition from friends, relatives, and co-workers who questioned his decision to leave the prestige of being the principal of a seminary, a theologian, a music scholar, and an accomplished organist. Appealing to his obedience to God, Schweitzer was amazed at this resistance. Responding to a sense of life calling and purpose may be riddled with criticism and resistance by family members and close associates. Fortunately, Schweitzer confided in one trusted and supportive friend. In the process of discernment, it is important to secure the prayer support of a few trusted others.

The way Schweitzer responded to this opposition reveals his stellar character. He continued his own self-assessment, concluding that his “good health, sound nerves, energy, practical common sense, toughness, prudence, [and] very few wants . . . ”[5] equipped him for the path ahead.

Taking an inventory of how personal passions, giftings, abilities, talents, skills, and strengths align with future plans is a worthwhile endeavor. At the same time, Schweitzer humbly recognized that certain circumstances preclude capable and deserving people from pursuing their desired calling and dreams. Further emphasizing that strong determination must be tempered by patience and humility, Schweitzer commented, “One can save one’s life as a human being, along with one’s professional existence, if one seizes every opportunity, however unassuming, to act humanly toward those who need another human being. In this way we serve both the spiritual and the good.”[6]

Exercising humility in one’s chosen path (and all of life) reflects the character of Christ and glorifies God.

We can glean principles for navigating our vocational journey from Albert Schweitzer’s life. What is your experience related to vocation/calling discovery?

[1] Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Be a Jungle Doctor,” in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, eds., Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 29-36. This excerpt is taken from Schweitzer’s full autobiography, first published in 1933, entitled Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Schweitzer pursued medical studies for seven years.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 36. As a humanitarian protesting colonialism and nuclear proliferation, Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 and lived out his credo that he entitled “A Reverence for Life.”

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Diane Chandler
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