Eric Liddell ruined the well-being of a whole generation of Christians.
If you know who Eric Liddell was, then I probably have your irate attention. In case you don’t (and you haven’t already used Wikipedia to find out), he was also known as “the flying Scotsman,” the gold medal winner of the 400 meter race at the 1924 Summer Olympics. He died while a missionary to China during the Second World War. There is much more to his story, and I would encourage you to read one of the several biographies available and to watch the wonderful 1981 movie entitled Chariots of Fire. Actually, it’s the script-writers of that movie who stole our peace, not Eric himself. In the movie, Eric is urged by his sister to give up his running career in order to leave for the mission field. He tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose [China], but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
Somehow, the first half of that line has gotten lost, and only the second half, the part about feeling God’s pleasure, has become the motto of Western Christians trying to find their calling in life. We now associate feelings of pleasure with God’s presence and ‘call.’ We want an assignment which will give us that sense of pleasure, achievement, blessing and satisfaction which Eric-the-actor was apparently talking about, and we have somehow assumed that it is out there for everyone if we can only find it.
The Bible uses the word ‘calling’ a bit differently. Primarily, it uses the word to mean our salvation (Rom. 11:26, 29; Eph. 4:1; Heb. 3:1; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Peter 1:10). Second, it uses ‘calling’ to indicate the good works which flow out of our salvation (Mark 6:7; 2 Thess. 1:11). Finally, the same word is used twice to indicate our unchosen situation in life (1 Cor. 7:20, Heb. 5:4). Our ‘call’ is that to which we have been called by a sovereign God – nothing more and nothing less. There is no promise that we will like those things. If you are married, then you have been called to love your spouse well. If you are a parent, then you have been called to raise your children in the instruction of the Lord. No matter your job, you have been called to do it as though you were working directly for God. You have been called to evangelism, to serve the church, to abide in God’s word, to pursue holiness, to be a good steward of the gifts and resources God has given you. These things ARE your calling, and they give God pleasure. Occasionally, they may coincide with something that gives you pleasure, but often, they will be difficult and burdensome.
We have redefined ‘calling’ to mean a mission for which we have a great desire. I think the modern word for that is ‘passion.’ Too many Christians have absorbed the idea that God will give them a mission and a passion which coincide, and until they find it, they have not found His calling for their lives; they have missed it. That’s miserable American idolatry.
It’s American because this country may be the first in history to give its citizens an absolute expectation of free choice in their vocation, their leisure and their relationships. Jesus was a carpenter because his father was a carpenter. Few women had any vocation outside the home. Jesus’ parents most likely had an arranged marriage. The number of children they had was out of their hands. Any leisure consisted of family gatherings and worship services. And that was for free men, to say nothing of the many slaves who came to Christ. In that era, it was only the Roman nobility, with their games and orgies, who had real choices about how they spent their time. And within this rigid framework, the Apostles told the faithful that they were called to follow God’s leading, to honor and serve Him in all things.
It’s idolatry because we are looking to find our fulfillment in a thing rather than a Person. God is pleased when we look more like Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, not when we look more like the fictional version of Eric Liddell who found an exceptional ability that he loved. I am not saying it’s wrong to pursue something we love. I am a counselor, and I help people discover the things that they love. We do have choices today, and if our passion happens to coincide with an exceptional ability or with a job which provides for our family, then that is an incredible blessing for which we should be eternally grateful. However, it is neither an entitlement nor even a common occurrence. In fact, even those things we name ‘passion’ have a way of succumbing to the Fall.
Finally, it’s miserable because so many people believe they have missed God’s direction for their lives. Either they have failed or God has failed because they don’t have a miraculous experience of God’s pleasure in their activities. If you do a Bible word-search on pleasure, you will find that God takes pleasure in His gospel and our obedience, and that the pleasure of man is often associated with sin (e.g., Prov. 21:17 or 2 Peter 2:13). Please don’t use the measure of pleasure – how can you know if it’s God’s or your own? – to decide whether you are on the right path. Do what is right and then pursue something that you love, but please don’t name that your ‘calling.’ It is only your passion.
Instead of trying to find a passion we can make into our calling, perhaps we should spend more mental energy and prayer time making our calling into our passion.