HOW TO PICK A CAREER
Written by Doug Ponder on July 10, 2013
When I Grow Up
From a very early age I was told that I “should grow up to be a doctor.” Should be? As in, if I don’t become a doctor I will let everybody down? Squander my potential? Waste my life?
That’s a lot of pressure for a little guy to take, and as it turns out, I didn’t become a doctor. But for years I said I would. I told everyone, “I’m going to be a brain surgeon when I grow up.” I think I picked this career for myself because it filled three important criteria: (1) brain surgeons are doctors, (2) having the word “brain” in your career makes you sound smart, and (3) having the word “surgeon” in your career makes you a lot of money.
But I didn’t want to be a doctor. So what should I be instead? And how do you go about picking a career anyway? Our guidance counselors required us to take some rather silly tests, one of which told me that I should be a rabbi or a firefighter. I’m not Jewish, and I couldn’t lift a fraction of the weight a firefighter has to carry, even if my life depended on it. (And honestly, someone else’s life would have depended on it.) So much for those tests.
Where to go from there? I honestly didn’t know. Was it wrong to pick a career based on what I liked to do? Would God rather me do something really difficult that some people wouldn’t like to do? Does God want me to make a lot of money, or does he care more about other things? Should I wait for God to give me a sign showing me the job he “already had in store for me”?
I didn’t know, and after years of working closely with many people, I’ve found that lots of others don’t know either.
Two Important Truths
What I didn’t know then is that the gospel is more than just a message that only concerns how sinners can be forgiven. (It is at least that, but it’s also much more than that.) The gospel is the full message of Jesus, the king who came to set right what we put wrong. His reign brings healing, renewal, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation wherever he wills. Furthermore, his reign is not restricted to some cloudy paradise; Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth.
Because the kingdom of God impacts life in the “here and now,” our work matters to God, and God matters to our work. These two important truths should form the basis of every Christian’s understanding of career or vocation (the Latin word for “calling”).
God cares about our work, but not because he wants all of us to become pastors, nuns, or missionaries. God cares about our work because he works through our service to bless others. He uses mechanics, doctors, chefs, bankers, lawyers, business owners, cashiers, salesmen, politicians, nurses, managers, homemakers, engineers, accountants, policemen, firefighters, trash collectors, butchers, etc.—all these jobs (and more) are used by God to bless and provide for others.
God also matters to our work. The good news that Jesus is Lord should reshape how we approach our careers, regardless of what they are. For example, the gospel reshapes our goals, lining them up with the kind of realities that reflect God’s heart for the world. The gospel reshapes our motivation, giving us a better reason to work than just getting a paycheck to pay the bills. The gospel reshapes our conduct, exhorting us to obey God and humbling us to love other people and treat them well.
How Then Should I Pick a Career?
When we talk about careers, jobs, or work, we often talk about our “vocation.” The word “vocation” is derived from the Latin vocatio, and it simply means “calling.” Thus, the heart of vocation, the main idea of having a career, is that God has called you to do whatever is you are doing. This does not mean that God has given you a miraculous sign from heaven telling you to take a certain job, and not to take another. Rather, the sense of being called means thinking and praying about what you have been gifted and fitted by God to do well. All honest work is worth doing for the glory of God; therefore, we may find ourselves called to any form of honest work that we have been gifted/fitted to do.
Does that mean that we can pick any job that we want to? Yes and no. We are free to pursue almost any career you like, so long as your goals, motivations, and conduct is informed by the gospel. However, that doesn’t mean that you will flourish in every career. God has gifted and fitted us to do some jobs well, while there are other jobs that we might do poorly. Unless you have no other option and must provide for your family, it would be foolish for you to deliberately choose a career that you were not gifted or fitted to do well.
Practically, this means you ought to consider the gifts, desires, and opportunities that God has given you: Are you able to do this sort of work? Would you be better at something else?
Also consider the purpose of your whole life: Will you be able to love and serve others in God’s name? How will this career bless others?
Finally, consider the nature of the work itself: Is it honest work? Can God be glorified in what you do? God can be glorified in almost any job, so long as it’s not illegal or immoral.
We must not think that an “un-fun” job is worse than no job at all. That is a lie. Someone with no job should never say, “Well, I will not take a job until I find one that I am perfectly ‘gifted’ or ‘fitted’ to do.” Your callings to provide for yourself and for your family supersede your preferences in where you would like to work. For God has said that each of us must provide for ourselves so that we are not a burden to others (1 Thess. 4:11-12), and that we are to provide for our families so that we do not incur the judgment of God for our slothfulness (1 Tim. 5:8). This means you may need to get a job that is “not fun” for a season, realizing that God uses even difficult or monotonous work to bless others.
At the same time, it’s not sinful to look for another job. But it is sinful to complain (Phil. 2:14) or to be ungrateful (Col. 3:17) for the job that you have. So feel free to look for careers that you think you will be better suited for, but remember that whatever work you are doing, God has blessed you beyond what you deserve.
No matter where you work, pray that God will enable you to fulfill your vocation well and that he will use it to make the world a better place than it would be without your labor. After grasping a sense of value in the work that you do, continue fulfilling your vocation as you pursue it with conscious, deliberate prayer: “Lord, I offer you this work; use it for your glory. I am doing this the best way I can, to serve others and to honor you. Help me to do it as well as I am capable of doing it, and make it a blessing to other people.”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.