Vocation

What is the role of self-denial in a Christian perspective on calling?

Self-denial is at the heart of Christian calling. How different this is from popular conceptions of calling! Such ideas of calling center on actualizing yourself, on doing something you love to do and deeply enjoy. Frederick Buechner’s famous description of calling as that “place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” can easily confirm popular conceptions. But are our callings essentially about self-fulfillment and finding our deepest gladness?

Many aspects of our callings involve suffering and sacrifice. Martin Luther said that anyone who really wants to experience self-sacrifice should get married and have children. John Calvin said Christians should “prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome” life. Beginning with Christ, God’s firstborn, God “follows this plan with all his children.” The call to follow is the call to take up the cross. The call to care for a severely ill spouse, parent, or child holds moments of profound joy. But it also carries a heavy load of pain and suffering. The more we love others, the more we open ourselves to suffering.

Many of the menial paid jobs to which some of us are called involve self-sacrifice in the service of fulfilling needs of the community and providing for one’s family. Even forms of paid work that are considered self-fulfilling involve denying one’s desires for the sake of larger goods. A stunning musical performance, for example, is preceded by hours and hours of often tedious preparation.

As we soon enter the season of Lent, let us reflect upon the role of self-denial and hope in Christian callings. Some, like Jesus and the martyrs, are called to sacrifice their lives in faithfulness to their calling. Most Christians carry the cross through denying themselves in service to others in their callings. In addition to experiences of deep self-fulfillment amid suffering love expressed in their callings, Christians have the assurance that “‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’” (Luke 9:24, NRSV).

About the Author

Douglas J. Schuurman is a professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.

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