Fictitious Billy grew up in Pakistan. He loved Pakistan with all his heart. He loved riding the trains and looking out dirty train windows at the passing scenery. The train would go from dry desert to lush, fertile areas in those long train rides. He loved going hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountain range and the feel of wind coming from pine trees far above him.
Fictitious Billy loved the taste of curry, the spices making his nose run and eyes water. He savored the taste of corn roasted over an open fire, rubbed with lemon juice and hot red pepper. He loved game nights with his family and playing with his Pakistani and Western friends.
Billy also loved school. He got good marks, especially in science and math. In fact, he loved math.
Billy’s dad always told him “Son, when you grow up, you can be whatever you want, but remember, God’s best job is being a missionary.”
Billy sure thought that was true, because he loved living in Pakistan, and he loved his dad, so in his happy, fictitious life, he knew that the best thing he could be was a missionary.
As Billy got older the language changed. God’s “best” job became God’s “highest calling” and Billy fervently prayed that he would respond to that highest calling. On home assignments, Billy was popular. He was smart, good-looking, and fun to be around. You couldn’t not love Fictitious Billy, double negative and all. He was just that kind of kid. His youth pastor took him under his wing, and everyone knew that Billy was Chosen – with a capital ‘C’.
And then he went to college. Suddenly, he realized how much he loved school. He began to dream of being a professor, began dreaming of going on for higher education.
But he pushed that thought aside. After all, the “higher calling” was his destiny! Being a professor might be many things, but it was NOT a higher calling.
And then he met Fictitious Suzie. Suzie was darling and pretty in a nerdy sort of way. She loved chemistry and math and she wanted to go to grad school too. They began spending more and more time together – late night talks in the early fall, studying together in the library, and sneaking holy kisses behind large text books.
It was Suzie who convinced Billy to go on for a PhD. Fictitious Suzie was wise beyond her years. She loved this boy man who had grown up in Pakistan. She loved hearing stories of his childhood, looking up things online about her beloved’s adopted country. She also knew that Billy had an incredible mind and teaching ability.
The summer between his junior and senior year, Billy went back to Pakistan for a month. He felt the deep connection to his adopted country as soon as he stepped onto the hot tarmac at Islamabad International Airport.
The visit began well. He visited his school, saw friends, and ate curry to his heart’s content. He told his family about Suzie, how he wanted to marry her. And then he took a deep breath and told his parents he wanted to go to graduate school. His dad enthusiastically replied “You mean seminary?”
“No Dad. I mean a PhD program. I want to be a professor.”
Silence. The disappointment was all over his dad’s face.
“That’s ridiculous! Anyone can be a professor, but it takes someone really special to be a missionary” Billy’s Mom sat quietly in the background.
The rest of the visit was miserable. Billy counted the seconds before he could get back to college and talk to Suzie, back to his friends and studies. He felt deep shame coupled with a massive barrier between himself and his parents.
Billy was a failure. He was choosing second best, and for many years of his life, this would haunt him.
What is God’s highest calling?
Fictitious Billy isn’t actually fictitious. There are a number of young and older adults who are walking with a burden on their shoulders. A burden that says “You’re not quite enough. You failed in the high calling category. It doesn’t matter how good of a physicist, surgeon, math professor or any other vocation or occupation. You’re not a missionary – and that’s the highest, best thing you can be.”
“God’s highest calling” – those are loaded words. They are loaded with pressure and erroneous theology and we need to be incredibly careful how we use them with children, teenagers, and young adults. The words paint a mystical picture of perfection and an unattainable, elusive something.
In the book of Philippians, chapter 3, verse 14 Paul says these words: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” But it’s important to look back at what he says a couple of verses before this. Paul says this in the verses that precede the high calling: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings.” The high calling Paul talks about is knowing God and the power of the resurrection. The high calling is sharing in his sufferings, no matter where they happen to be. It is not about being something or going somewhere. . Not once does the passage give any career advice; never is there anything mentioned about vocation. Because if there was, many would be disqualified. Instead, the writer pens these words in a way that gives us incredible hope that anyone can know him. The one who finds himself paralyzed, his hopes and dreams seemingly lost through an accident where a drunk driver walks away unscathed; the one who ends up unable to function effectively as a result of mental trauma; the one who has breast cancer and has to stop work to get treatment; the one who gets kicked out of a country they thought they would live in for a lifetime.
God is infinitely creative in the ways he reveals himself to people and in the ways he directs people. This is his world – all of it – and we can glorify and know God in a myriad of ways. The highly trained physicist who studies particles and matter can know and glorify God. The people who mapped the human genome can know and glorify God. The hospice nurse at the bedside of the dying can know and glorify God. The communicator, the kitchen worker, the barista, and the taxi driver – they all have the ability and opportunity to know and glorify God.
We hurt people and we misunderstand scripture when we elevate place and occupation over the truth of scripture.
Because this is truth: our high calling is to know him and glorify him forever. In the words of the Apostle Paul, this is truth: “that we may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.”