Doctors, pastors, and writers alike weigh in on this heaven-sent sense of direction.
Posted in , Jan 25, 2021
Have you ever felt called to a purpose? I remember the exact moment I knew I was meant to be a writer. I was in my fifth-grade computer lab. A friend and I had finished our assignment early. “Let’s write a story,” my friend said. It was as if a light had switched on. Not over my head. In my heart. I just knew this was what I was meant to do with my life. For years, I sensed there was something special about this moment. It was an inflection point. Recently I wondered—could what I experienced have been the tug of a divine calling?
Examples abound in the Bible. Time and again, God calls upon people to take action. As when God called on Jonah to travel to Nineveh.
Or how David was destined to become king. Or Esther being called to save the Jewish people. We can even find divine challenges in our history books. Florence Nightingale felt called by God to become a nurse. Sojourner Truth claimed a holy vision inspired her fight for abolition and women’s rights. These callings are more than messages from God. They are profound moments in which God shows us what we were put on this earth to do.
But are divine callings reserved for people destined for greatness—biblical figures, historical movers and shakers, visionaries and prophets—or are they something that normal people, people like me, can experience? Experts on the topic insist that divine callings are accessible to all of us. Gregg Levoy, author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, says the first thing we need to understand is the difference between a calling and a job. “We often mix up these ideas,” he says. Though our job can be our calling—and is for many people—a calling can also be different. In his book, Levoy shares the story of a man who runs a coffee company but whose calling is abstract painting. The man continues his job and follows his calling simultaneously. For most of us, a career is a vital part of our life, but figuring out our divine calling is often different. “The big question we should be asking ourselves isn’t ‘What should I do?’” Levoy says. “We should be asking, ‘Who am I?’”
A divine calling can be experienced in many ways. It can come in the form of a sign, a dream, a vision, a message, a feeling or a combination of these things. The biggest indicator that you’ve experienced a divine calling is that it makes itself known. It is insistent, the way only God can be insistent, and will keep coming up if we ignore it. This is something that Levoy discovered in hundreds of interviews with people who had found their callings. “Callings will get our attention through different channels,” Levoy says. “They’ll pop up in our day-to-day, in a book we’re reading, in our conversations, even in our dreams. True callings won’t be ignored.” More than anything, though, Levoy’s interview subjects reported a feeling of certainty, of knowing. Their calling was something that felt right to them on a deep and intrinsic level.
Just as I felt that day in the computer lab. I couldn’t explain it. It was like an otherworldly awareness. This was also the case for Stephanie Wellington, a physician I spoke to, who works in the neonatal intensive care unit at North Central Bronx Hospital in New York, caring for premature and severely ill newborns. “It can be a hard place to work,” Dr. Wellington says, “but I simply couldn’t imagine being anything else. I just remembered a knowing.” In other words, her calling was a fact of her life.
However, just because a divine calling feels right doesn’t mean that heeding it comes without struggle. In fact, Levoy says, doubt and even fear are a natural part of the process. “If a call feels safe and easy, it might not be true,” Levoy says. “If it scares you, you might be getting close to something vital.” True callings can be overwhelming, inconvenient and difficult. They pull us out of our comfort zones and demand sacrifices. Levoy says a calling isn’t meant to lead you to your most comfortable and secure life. The process is meant to help you discover the deepest sense of who you are. “In following a calling, you must hold the tension between doubt and faith at the same time,” Levoy says. “Callings ask us to leave the familiar, but faith gives us the courage to do this.”
This balance between doubt and faith is a dynamic Dr. Wellington has experienced. Working in a hospital’s NICU can be draining, even to the point of emotional and spiritual exhaustion. Taking time to pray and meditate helps. “I will spend time to pray, to ask if this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. “And I’m able to tap back into that energy, that higher feeling of doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Spiritually checking in also helped me. Becoming a writer required me to quit a stable job, move to a new state and start my life over. There were many lonely nights I spent in a new city, lying in bed in a tiny apartment, wondering if I was really doing the right thing. In those moments, when things were hard and I wanted nothing more than to call it quits, I’d reflect on that day in fifth grade. That intense feeling of knowing. It still resonated with me. I knew I had to continue.
Faith in God’s plan is especially important when the path to achieving a divine calling is long and indirect. Or when the calling doesn’t seem to make sense in the moment. Take Adam Peacocke, a preacher from Santa Rosa, California. After 15 years of preaching to the same congregation, Adam sensed he was being called away from the pulpit. “I felt what I can only call a burning in my heart,” he says. “And then God gave me a succinct and direct message. ‘Adam, I have a change for you.’” It seemed crazy. How could he better serve God than preaching? The call was so strong, though, he could not ignore it. “I knew God was asking me to take a risk,” Adam says. “And over the years, I’ve tried to learn to discern God’s will.” He resigned and turned his energies toward founding a nonprofit intended to facilitate communication and connection between all the churches in Sonoma County. It was hard work, and many of the pastors involved weren’t sure it could be sustainable; Adam had doubts too. Then the Sonoma County wildfires broke out. Using his resources and contacts, Adam brought together local pastors. Out of this grew a massive project to help those who had been displaced. Because of the work Adam had done before the wildfires, the community was prepared. “The initial journey felt messy, but I understand what God was saying to me now,” he says.
The fullness of God’s plan took a while to unfold for another pastor I spoke with, Pastor Dion Todd of Conway, South Carolina. During his twenties, Dion felt called to a life in ministry. After he completed Bible college and became ordained, however, he couldn’t secure a job in the field. Disappointed, he went into computers. Not exactly a calling. Still, he enjoyed it. Seventeen years in, his computer business went bust. His desire to work in ministry had never gone away; it just hadn’t felt like the right time to pursue it—until that moment, as if God were tapping him on the shoulder. He began the job search and found a posting for a creative arts pastor right in his town. They needed someone ordained who also had experience with computers. Dion now runs an online ministry through the church that connects with people who are homebound or have disabilities. “There’s no way I could do what we do today without the time I spent working in technology,” Dion says.
Having the courage and the faith to say yes to a divine calling doesn’t just help us—it helps the people around us as well. Dion’s calling brought him to a place where he could spiritually connect people through technology. Adam’s calling helped him aid his community during and after a devastating fire. Dr. Wellington’s calling has led her to care for many patients and their families. And my calling led me here, to tell their stories.
“At the end of the day, all callings really are service calls,” Levoy says. “They will expand your whole frame of reference in the world.” That’s because heeding a divine calling brings us to our life’s purpose and shows us that we are all a part of a bigger plan.
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