Calling Versus Passion

Ian Charleson (foreground) and Ben Cross (left...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.

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‘Les Miserables’: a Great Movie Which Is Not About Jesus

[Warning: the following article may contain spoilers for those five four three people who are not yet familiar with the plot of Les Miserables.]

Les Mis
There are more Christian talking-points in the recently released Les Miserables than are usually available to cinephiles in a year of movie-going.  For example, justice and mercy, both attributes of God, are personified by two of the main characters.  The danger of legalism is a major theme.  Any youth group, Bible study or Christian counselor looking for a working definition of grace need look no further. So it is not my point to discourage anyone from making use of a wonderful opportunity to talk about spiritual things.  However, the general feeling one can absorb among Christians on Facebook and Twitter is that this movie is about Jesus.  Brilliant talking points notwithstanding, this movie is not about Jesus.

Set during the student uprisings following the French Revolution, Victor Hugo’s classic novel describes the starvation and degradation of the poor in 19th century Paris.  In the movie version, Anne Hathaway delivers the finest acting performance of her career (or perhaps any other) as Fantine, a desperate single-mother who is driven to prostitution.  Hugh Jackman is nearly unrecognizable, and nearly as good, as Jean Valjean, the ex-con who agrees to raise Fantine’s daughter after her death.  Within that setting, the story contrasts the rule of law with the rule of love, and that is the emphasis wCosettehich has caused many Christians to claim the musical and the movie as their own.  In particular, an early scene features a bishop covering for Valjean who has stolen silver from the rectory.  In addition, the priest gives Valjean some even more valuable candlesticks.  This image is a beautiful picture of the grace of Christ who freely forgives our sins and then gives us the gift of His Spirit.  The silver allows Valjean to start a new life, just as Christ’s gifts make us new.

The difference between Les Mis and Christianity is not found so much in those first twenty minutes as it is in the next 2 1/2 hours.  Victor Hugo was a deist who believed that human love is the highest form of god that we can know.  (Read the first article referenced below for more on Hugo.)  The message of his story is that being good, being loving, is the pathway to heaven.  The Bishop who forgave Valjean set him on a new road, but with an old mission – earn your salvation.  Not by being law-abiding, but by being merciful.  The plot-line and the philosophy of Les Mis is confusing enough for Christians to believe we have seen Christ’s sufficient sacrifice portrayed when we haven’t.  It’s rather like those visual tricks where you read a sentence the way you expect to see it rather than the way it is actually written.

While Biblical Christianity teaches us to respond in gratitude for the love God has already given us, in a sense, it doesn’t matter what our lives look like going forward.  Our salvation is a done deal.  We know our lives will be more loving and graceful because that is God’s work in us, but we don’t earn anything by it.  In Hugo’s novel, as well as the play and the movie, Valjean spends his life attempting to justify the priest’s faith in him, to earn the second chance he has been given. In the end Valjean goes to heaven, not because God has loved him, but because he has loved others.  It is the same message  which transforms Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  And it’s the same message which echoes through the haunting movie, Saving Private Ryan.  As the protagonist, Captain Miller, lies dying, having sacrificed himself to save the eponymous private, he whispers his final words: “Earn this.”  Which is exactly what Jesus doesn’t say.

Related articles:

Sentiments Abstractly Christian – an extensive explanation of Hugo’s philosophy from Touchstone Journal
Les Miserables: Movie Review – serious and helpful review of the film from fervr
Best Les Mis Review – short, very funny review from a modern man’s perspective