Is Your Calling Causing an Identity Crisis?

When getting to know someone, it's common to ask: So what do you do? We’ve all been asked this question when being introduced to someone at a social gathering or when sitting next to a stranger on an airplane. Most often, it’s an implicit inquiry about your career or lifestyle. In response, you’re expected to say something like: "I'm a stay-at-home mom" or "I'm a marketing consultant." 

More than simple curiosity, though, this familiar question reveals that, for most of us, what we do tends to define our sense of who we are. To get to know a person, you must learn about what they do. Our career, lifestyle, ambitions, or relationships are our way of saying to the world, “I matter! I'm significant! I'm consequential!” And that's not entirely wrongheaded; after all, it’s not a bad thing to derive an appropriate level of meaning and fulfillment from the things we do. 

But without a strong sense of our true identity we are setting ourselves up for discouragement. For instance, the stay-at-home mom becomes disheartened when one of her kids enters a difficult stage. As her parenting attempts fall short, she begins to wonder, “Am I a total failure?” Her identity hangs in the balance of that question. Or what about when the marketing consultant is asked to resign because his firm is “taking things in a different direction?” What then becomes of his identity?

Such questions, though painful, have a way of leading us back to the knowledge of who we are in Christ. In Him, we find that being a marketing consultant or a stay-at-home mom are actually callings, not identities. A calling is something you fulfill through words and actions for a greater purpose. An identity, on the other hand, is strictly based on God's words and actions—what He says about you and what Hehas done to make you His beloved child. Your identity therefore is true of you all the way down to the deepest level of your being. If all else were stripped away—your career, your earthly relationships, your plans—your identity as a beloved child of God would still remain. Unlike our callings, which are temporary, our identity in Christ is eternally fixed and irrevocable.

And yet, our identity is nonetheless inextricably linked to our callings. Through our identity in Christ, God sources our callings with His love for the purpose of expressing that love to others. This is why Paul told the Ephesians that in the various areas of their lives they were to imitate God "as beloved children" (Eph. 5:1, quoted above). Notice that believers are not told to imitate God as parents, employees, or whatever calling they may receive. Paul will allow these aspects of life to come to the foreground later (Eph. 6:1-9), but not until he has first hammered home the reality of our identity. Why? Because we cannot fulfill our callings as God desires until our hearts are fully integrated under the reality of who are in Christ. 

So let's be clear: we are to imitate God throughour callings as beloved children. For this to occur, we must develop a functional understanding of what it means to be a “beloved child.” This type of knowledge operates “under the hood” of our life; it is subconscious and reflexive, requiring a “re-wiring” of our inner life. And developing it can take a lifetime. 

There is no magic formula or silver bullet to instantaneously transform our self-perception and our knowledge of God. Sure, there are encouraging moments along the way where things really “click” for us, but most of the time God transforms us gradually through the slow, ordinary, patient work of the Christian life: searching the Scriptures, abiding in prayer, silence and solitude, serving and giving, worshiping with our church family, and the like. To be clear, such work does not in any way secure our identity, for life in Christ is a free gift of God (Rom. 6:23). However, how our identity gets worked out in our day-to-day lives is, in many ways, a matter of us devoting ourselves to the right practices. This is critical for how we operate in our callings. 

Therapist Edwin Friedman says that, in order for people to thrive as parents or employees, they must “focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their presence rather than on techniques.”So often we seek to fulfill our callings by focusing almost exclusively on techniques. Parents comb through books to find the best techniques for motivating their children to behave; employees consult with industry experts to find ways to become indispensable in their field. And such things can certainly be useful. 

However, the key to thriving in our callings is ultimately found in our identity as beloved children of God, not in whatever life-hacks and techniques happen to be trending. When our hearts are integrated under the reality of who we are in Christ, when God’s love develops in us an “under the hood,” functional understanding of our identity, we won’t live and die by how our callings seem to be going at the moment. Every calling has its ups and downs, and people who have a deficient sense of their identity tend to be energized when things are up and discouraged when things are down. But what the world really needs is for us to be Christians who can remain stable through it all because “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us”(1 Jn. 4:16).

So, what do you do?

Next time you answer that question, remember that you are dearly loved by your Heavenly Father—not because of what you do, but because of what Christ has done.