Saturday, June 14, 2008

Career Discernment: A Christian Perspective

What will we do?
Photo courtesy Jay Hiatt.
Po Bronson was not the first person to ask, "What Should I Do with My Life?" Nor shall he be the last. After interviewing hundreds of people from many walks of life, Bronson's basic conclusion was, "Do what you love."

Dakota Pippins, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, offers a more nuanced view for Christians. Dakota might say, "Find a purpose-driven career at the intersection of your creative and your redemptive passions."

What does all of that mean? Let's unpack it slowly.

First, let's talk about the purpose-driven career, as opposed to the career-driven purpose. Note that in the former, the purpose comes first, while in the latter, career comes first. In the latter, a well-meaning person chooses a career and then seeks to shoehorn that career into service for the Kingdom of God.

Many of us have heard that it's possible to be an investment banker, or a janitor, or a lawyer, or a professional football player - just about anything - and still devote one's career wholly to the Lord. That's true, but Dakota would say Christians often run into problems when this career goal is given primacy - in other words, when one's career choice drives one's purpose.

The problem with this situation is that a person's ability to take godly risk is minimized. If a career choice is taken as a fundamental presupposition, then when a person is faced with a choice between maintaining security in that career or risking it for the Kingdom, he or she will have a much harder time putting the career on the line. On the other hand, if his or her career is merely one expression of God-given talents and passions, then he or she will have a much easier time making the right choice. This idea is what is meant by a purpose-driven* career.

Dakota also says that those with career-driven purposes can face issues of guilt for having based their decision on their own desires, rather than on a process surrendered to the Lord.

So career-driven purposes have the potential to become idols, while purpose-driven careers are part of a life wholly surrendered.

What, then, is meant by finding a career at the intersection of creative and redemptive passions? To illustrate this concept, Dakota turns to that pillar of set theory used most by second graders, the Venn diagram:

Try not to get distracted by all of the colors.

Granted, this Venn diagram is a three-fer and thus more complicated than we normally encounter, but try to keep up.

According to Dakota, three forces govern Christians' career decisions. They are creative passions, sinful motivations, and redemptive passions.

Creative passions are basically things that you are good at. The concept of these comes out of Genesis 1:28, when God blessed Adam and Eve and commissioned them to, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

Creative passions are what work was before the Fall. They are described perfectly in a famous statement from Chariots of Fire: "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." Maybe you have a love for accounting. Maybe knitting. I love computer programming. These are all creative passions.

Likewise, we are all familiar with sinful motivations. Desire for human approval; love of money; desire to build an earthly legacy. These motivations came in the picture at the Fall. Sinful motivations are static in the airwaves of communication between a person and God. It is harder to hear and understand his voice when they are present.

Third, redemptive passions are desires to join Jesus in his work of restoring this fallen world according to the vision of the Gospel. By very nature, these passions are developed after one already has a saving relationship with Christ. These might include wanting to share the Good News with people in the Middle East, or wanting to bring together children of different socio-economic backgrounds in the equality that only the Cross offers. One of my own redemptive passions is to see all of God's peoples live together in one body, retaining distinct identities yet being one in the Spirit of the Lord.

Most people, Dakota says, choose a career that lies in the orange zone of the diagram, combining both creative passions and sinful motivations. Maybe you wield logic like a fencer wields a sword and you want to make a lot of money. So you become a lawyer. This kind of path is most natural to follow, but it feeds appetites which should be starved and misses the mark of following Christ's voice in all facets of life.

Adding redemptive passions to the mix focuses our creative passions toward ushering in the Kingdom of God. However, if sinful motivations are still present, we attempt to serve two masters, which as we learned is impossible (Luke 16:13). You cannot try to build orphanages in Jamaica while trying to make a name for yourself; if you do, you are a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). So the center of the Venn diagram is not an acceptable final destination.

Truly godly career discernment occurs in the purple region intersecting creative and redemptive passions. Take what you're good at. Take what you want to do for Jesus. Put them together. Voila! Purpose-driven career.

Many look at career discernment as trying to find the one job to which God has called them. That idea does not flow from the picture presented here. God will take and use mightily anything from that magic purple zone, and the choice is really up to us. "Opening doors and closing doors isn't the primary way God helps in discernment," says Dakota.

In this choice there is freedom. Rather than struggling to remain on some sort of career tightrope, the theoretical One Right Path, God invites us to join him in discovering how to redeem the world. Yeah God!

There you have it. Examine your motivations. Be wary of career-driven purposes. Ask God to show you your redemptive passions, and to adjust the size of the three circles. Go for the purple. Anywhere in the purple.

And the world better watch out, because you bout to catch fire.

Ben finds the intersection of his creative and redemptive passions.
Photo courtesy Ellen Williams.

Wise and miscellaneous points from Dakota's presentation:
  • Creative-redemptive overlap isn't always direct. Professors who share the Gospel in closed countries are an example - here the creative passion is the gateway to the redemptive one.
  • Filling in the three circles of the Venn diagram is a helpful and discerning exercise. Try it. Examine yourself. Ask God. Ask others.
  • Don't be the kind of person who says in college, "I'm not going to give now, but I will when I have money." It's not going to happen.
  • To that end, get started managing your money now. If you don't know how, read Getting a Grip On Your Money by William C. Wood. I can lend it to you.
  • There's nothing wrong in principle with having lots of income. Says Dakota, "I'm a big fan of income." But he says it's very rare to meet people who both make a lot and give a lot.
  • "Wherever you are in life, spend a lot of time interacting with people who have a lot less than you."
  • Shadowing people in a career you're thinking about is a great idea. Why not get an idea of what it's like before spending three years in grad school, only to discover that animal husbandry, at times, stinks?
  • Not everything we are good at will end up in our careers. It's okay. I don't have to chug milk for a living.**
  • The Settlers of Catan is a worthy and enjoyable game for men and women alike.
Thanks, Dakota!
Photo courtesy Ben Hanna.

*Not to be mistaken for The Purpose Driven Life.

**But I could.

[Note: This essay was adapted from a talk given by Dakota Pippins to Penn InterVarsity on May 16
, 2008. Dakota has graciously allowed me to attempt this distillation.]


Ian Webb said...

Thank you so much, Nick, for writing this summary of Dakota Pippins’ talk. I found it deeply insightful and profoundly inspiring. The wisdom offered here is immensely relevant to my life and, no doubt, to many others. Moreover, the piece is beautifully written. You are a very talented author.

I hope you are having a wonderful summer! Thanks again for writing this, my friend.

nyii said...

Thanks Nicholas! I had to leave early and had missed Dakota's talk on choosing careers. This helped immensely :)

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing - POWERFUL! I want to honour God and build my riches up in heaven and not only on earth & have a fancy career. Ronelle Steenekamp from Cape Town