Formed, Not Found

A farmer looks over his field, the South Dakota soil freshly turned in the afternoon sun, the work of the day behind him, his son next to him. “Put your hand in the soil, son,” he says. The boy, confused, complies. He looks his son in the eye: “Son, this soil is part of your life—you take care of it and it will take care of you.”

At that moment, a theologian was born.

It’s hard to fathom how a professor of theology could spring from such ground. Indeed, the mystery of how a South Dakota farm boy would eventually end up in the halls of Edinburgh, Scotland, studying theology with Thomas Torrance and then teaching at a seminary in Greater Los Angeles is both the story of Ray Anderson’s life and the conundrum of vocation.

Christian vocation, or “calling,” is woven through the great biblical narrative. From the moment that God kissed the figures formed of the dust and charged them to “cultivate and keep” creation, to the final summons to the nations of the world to enter the New Jerusalem, the invitation of God became the call that becomes the charge that transforms us all. From the nomad Abram who left his country and kindred to follow a Voice; to the boy Samuel who was awakened by a Whisper in the night; to some fishermen who left their family business behind to follow an itinerant rabbi; to an angry Pharisee knocked blind from his horse; to the countless women and men through the ages who heard something, felt something—just knew that someone—was calling them by name and inviting them into a life they couldn’t imagine, the mystery has been not only that God calls us, but how.

For centuries this has been the question of the young entering adulthood. In a rapidly changing world, it is the question now being asked repeatedly throughout life. It can be as ordinary as a morning spent searching help-wanted ads or as aching as a prayer: “Lord, what am I to do?” The wish that seems promised in the biblical stories is that it will be a one-time, hopefully once-for-all announcement like a proposal for marriage. But more like marriage itself, one’s calling in life is not so much found as formed. Or to say it even more clearly, our vocation is not truly found until we are fit for it.

Discerning calling is the long, complicated combination of convictions and context, of passion and prayer, of knowledge and need that seems to tap us on the shoulder and call forth from us an invitation into a process of self-discovery and humility, of taking up and laying down, of embracing and letting go that over time forms a deep, confident conviction that, of all things there are to do in the world, “This is mine to do.”1 At Fuller we have embarked on an ambitious endeavor to recast the entire work of the seminary around this concept of formation for vocation. Our shared conviction is that the God who calls our names and offers us life and partnership in his own redemptive purposes fits us for the call. That calling is an expression of identity, and our ultimate calling is to express that identity in losing ourselves in something greater than us.2 And that requires us to grow, to be transformed—to become the people God intended us to be.

Historic photo of Dorothy SayersVOCATION AND WORK

Dorothy Sayers

“The great primary contrast between the artist and the ordinary worker is this: the worker works to make money, so that he may enjoy those in life which are not his work and which his work can purchase for him; but the artist makes money by his work in order that he may go on working. The artist does not say, ‘I must work in order to live’; but ‘I must contrive to make money so that I may live to work.’ For the artist there is no distinction between work and living. His work is his life, and the whole of his life—not merely the material world about him, or the colors and sounds and events that he perceives, but also all his own personality and emotions, the whole of his life—is the actual material of his work.”

—Dorothy L. Sayers, “Vocation in Work”

So, one will ask, if calling is not found but formed, then how is it formed?  How does a South Dakota farmer hear the call to write and teach systematic theology? How does a shepherd become a king; a fisherman and a Pharisee become apostles?

In the Scriptures and throughout the Christian tradition, this transformation does not happen in some individualistic or disembodied way. The formation of vocation is from start to finish a communal event that is both contextual and incarnational. The call of Abram was to produce a people, whose very purpose was to fulfill the call of God to bring tangible blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:1–4). The boy Samuel, who was already living in the temple, heard the Voice in the night, but needed Eli to believe his ears and embrace his future (1 Samuel 3). Simon, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing nets and followed Jesus (Matthew 4) as part of a community that would live, eat, and minister together, not only preaching, but healing. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on them at Pentecost (Acts 2), the early church established churches—witnessing communities—whose very purpose was to form people for their apostolic vocation.3  When Saul, the Christian-persecuting Pharisee, became the apostle to the Gentiles, it was not just the blinding light and the voice of Jesus, but the words of Ananias and later the friendship of Barnabas that formed him for his call (Acts 9).

This biblical pattern continues through the centuries. The vocation of God is a gift of grace mediated through the relationship and formation of the people of God.4 The call comes within and through the community. And if we, as a theological seminary, are going to continue that pattern into the next century, what kind of formation should this community offer? What characteristics should shape our seminary as we participate in the formation of kingdom vocations?

Our response is to draw on the rich tradition of our theological forebears who wrote vast treatises on Christian vocation that teach us that Christian calling is formed through communities of love and wisdom.

For Luther, Christian vocation is expressed primarily through one command: To love our neighbor (Mark 12:31).5 For him, God’s calling of Christians to love the neighbor is indeed the way God loves the neighbor. Our vocation then is to participate in God’s own ministry to the world that he loved so much that he sent his Son.6 Our responding to the call of Jesus to embody that love in the world is the way God himself works in the world—secretly.

Illustration of theologian Martin Luther“All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government—to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.”7

For those of us seeking to discern our callings, the Reformers insist that living out the call of God is indeed a source of great joy and gratification.8  At the same time, those significant satisfactions are the blessed by-products but never the point of vocation. Calling is formed through a commitment to fulfill the command to love the neighbor, not in the search for personal fulfillment.

To be sure, following the Reformers, we affirm that Christian vocation is an admonition to the entire people of God to respond to God and participate in God’s own ministry. The Reformers affirmed that God’s call was to the whole church in every part of life. Vocations are not just the domain of monasteries and priesthoods, but of marketplaces, homes, and professions. Since the call of Jesus is first and foremost to discipleship, none are excluded. Since disciples are instructed to the love of neighbor as the first priority, then to be called is to be a follower of Jesus, revealing God’s loving reign to the world.9 Since Jesus declared that the greatest commandment for all (and not some specialized class) is to love God and neighbor, then it is indeed the vocation for all.10

This means that the summons and demand of the gospel comes to people in every circumstance and station in life (1 Corinthians 7:20–24). Vocation is not so much a leaving of nets (though that certainly could be the case), but a learning to serve God and love neighbor in the very place where God called you. For the Reformers, Christian vocation was the assurance that you needn’t receive a special call to the monastery or the ministry to be called by God; you could do so right in your family, at your workbench, in your village. Vocation does not begin with a search, but in a heart of service. It does not begin in “discerning the will of God,” but loving the neighbor.11

“The Lord bids each of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. He has appointed duties for every [person] in his particular way of life . . . he has named these various kinds of livings ‘callings.’ Therefore, each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life.”12

If the formation of vocation begins in the response to God’s summons to love God and neighbor in the very context of which we are called, what does this offer us in our rapidly changing world today? It is one thing to admonish people to “stay at their posts” in a world where generations of people follow in the footsteps of their parents; it’s quite another to figure out what that means in a world where whole industries are being developed and going extinct every day. The world is changing exponentially, at a rate that our forebears couldn’t imagine. In the words of author Bob Johansen, after centuries of stability and slow, incremental change, in less than a generation our world has become VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.13 This VUCA world will only become more so in the days ahead and will mostly require wisdom to know how and when to adapt, and what should remain unchanging.

For Calvin, wisdom—“true and sound wisdom”—is indeed the very quality that should characterize the follower of Jesus. The faithful and fruitful life in every circumstance is the life of wisdom, and wisdom is the result of knowledge. The knowledge Calvin commends is not the speculative knowledge of theories and debates, but “knowledge of self” and “knowledge of God.”14  Knowledge of self and God leads both to proper perspective regarding ourselves and to the right worship of God.15 “Knowledge of self” teaches us that vocation is always an expression of identity, and “knowledge of God” reminds us that our true identity is found only in the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.”

For Wesley, this self-reflection helps us be mindful of both the gifts and graces that are required for our calling. Addressing clergy in 1756, Wesley exhorts them to consider the necessary “natural gifts” that ministry requires be both present and developed, as well as (and even more importantly!) the “graces” of God that cultivate those gifts into faithful action.16 What is notable is that the list of “gifts” is extensive! Even those called to the narrow confines of pastoral ministry are exhorted to cultivate knowledge in areas as broad as both the interpretation of Scripture and the understanding of science, psychology, and the various contexts and conditions in which people live.

For Calvin, knowledge of self and knowledge of God gives us eyes to see both ourselves and the world through the lens of God’s saving intention and to attune to the voice of God amidst the many voices of the world that beckon for our attention. For Wesley, this same self-reflection causes us to constantly consider our motives and even the possibility that our underlying desires can sabotage our best intentions.17

While Calvin’s contemporary, Ignatius of Loyola, would develop an entire system for discerning the wisdom of God in everyday life,18 the awareness that God is the one who shapes and works through our desires (Philippians 2:13) is evident in many “call stories,” perhaps most famously Augustine’s.

I panted for honors, for money, for marriage, and you were laughing at me. I found bitterness and difficulty in following these desires, and your graciousness to me was shown in the way you would not allow me to find anything sweet which was not you.19 

Ultimately, Augustine, so famous for reminding us that our “restlessness” will be sated only in God himself, also reminds us that God is intimately involved in each of our lives, as Paul wrote, “to will and to work” for his purposes. For the Reformers, this work of God forming us to fulfill his call on our lives is formed in the Christian community through the exhortation to love neighbor combined with the wisdom born of the knowledge of God and self. This love and wisdom is both an exhortation and grace. It comes to each of us in the very place—and within the community of believers—where we already reside, work, live, and love. It does not require that we necessarily “leave our kindred” (Genesis 12:1) or “leave our nets” (Mark 1:18), but it does require a life committed to ongoing formation (Galatians 4:19).


John Calvin

“Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God. The miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward. Thus, not only will we, in fasting and hungering, seek thence what we lack; but, in being aroused by fear, we shall learn humility. For, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of divine raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies. Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God. Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and—what is more—depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. For what man in all the world would not gladly remain as he is—what man does not remain as he is—so long as he does not know himself, that is, while content with his own gifts, and either ignorant or unmindful of his own misery? Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.”

—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

From Soil to Systematics: The Journey of Heart and Hand

Years after Ray Anderson told of his father’s life lesson passed down, the South Dakota farm-boy-turned-systematic-theologian made sense of a journey that took him into the pastorate and then to graduate school and finally to a seminary to teach (see below). We too must come full circle. Back to the farm, back to the place where God first called each of us. For the Christian, calling is formed—and thereby found—in the midst of the work of our hands, just as Jesus taught us that whatever we treasured enough to hold on to will eventually take hold of our hearts.20 We hear a voice, sense a nudge, and take a step of faith to follow, but we have really no idea where it will lead us. When the fishermen dropped the nets to follow the rabbi, they couldn’t have imagined preaching and dying in Rome or receiving a vision on Patmos. But they got to work following Jesus in his kingdom proclamation (something they didn’t even really understand at the time) and eventually found themselves sent as apostles with this good news.

Similarly, we too say “yes” in faith to the grace and calling of Jesus and—eventually—through communities of love and wisdom find ourselves being formed for that which we couldn’t fathom.


Ray Anderson

“It happened only once. There was no suggestion that it was planned or premeditated. We were sitting on the edge of the furrow, behind the plow, facing the freshly turned soil over which the seagulls swooped in search of frantic worms. It was the second cup of coffee time. The cigarette lightened the load and loosened his tongue.

‘Stick your hand down into the soil, son,’ he suddenly said without warning. Breaking the rules by looking into my face and talking directly to me. As I did, he said softly, ‘Son, this soil is part of your life–you take care of it and it will take care of you.’ . . .

What my father had long discovered, but left for me to find for myself, was that there was neither mystery nor magic in the soil. The mystery and the magic, if we dare to use such words, lie in the connection of the heart to the hand. There is no place or task on earth which can satisfy the restless hand which is not attached to the heart.

My father had not attached my hand to the soil on that day long ago, although that was how I had understood it. Rather, he had attached my heart to my hand. My inner self had become bound to my outer life. As a result, whatever task to which I put my hand was done with a sense of finality and completeness that brought joy rather than a feeling of fatalism, which can only produce melancholy and despair. Transplantation without transformation kills the roots as well as the plant. The once in a lifetime gift is one that continues to transform.”

—Ray Anderson [faculty 1976–2009], Dancing with Wolves, While Feeding the Sheep
See more from Ray

1. Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 83.
2. Philippians 2, Romans 12:1.
3. Darrell Guder, “Walking Worthily: Missional Leadership after Christendom,” Payton Lectures, Fuller Theological Seminary, May 2–3, 2007. “From the moment that Jesus appointed twelve disciples, it was clear that the ancient emphasis on God’s calling and separating apart a people for his service was finding its continuation in the strategy of Jesus.”
4. Paul Wesley Chilcote, Wesley Speaks on Christian Vocation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 2.
5. Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Evansville, IN: Ballast Press, 1994). “If you are a manual laborer, you find that the Bible has been put into your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor.” Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955), 21:237; cited in D. Michael Bennethum, Listen! God Is Calling! Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith, and Work (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), Kindle locations 861–62.
6. John 3:16.
7. Exposition of Psalm 147, quoted by Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 138.
8. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles, ed. J. T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 1:724–25. “It is enough if we know that the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing. . . . Accordingly, your life will then be best ordered when it is directed to this goal.”
9. Cf. Karl Barth: “In the New Testament klesis always means quite unambiguously the divine calling, i.e., the act of the call of God issued in Jesus Christ by which a man is transplanted into his new state as a Christian, is made a participant in the promise (Eph.1:18; 4:4) bound up with this new state, and assumes the duty (Eph. 4:1; II Pet. 1:10) corresponding to this state.” William C. Placher, ed., Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), Kindle locations 6444–46).
10. See Mark Labberton, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).
11. For a discussion of biblical discernment as the development of wisdom rather than an exploration in discovering the will of God, see Tod E. Bolsinger, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001), chap. 11.
12. Institutes 3.10.6 Cf. Luther’s Sermon from 1534: “See to it first of all that you believe in Christ and are baptized. Afterward, see to your vocation. I am called to be a preacher. Now when I preach I perform a holy work that is pleasing to God. If you are a father or mother, believe in Jesus Christ and so you will be a holy father and a holy mother. Pay attention to the early years of your children, let them pray, and discipline and spank them. Oversee the running of the household and the preparation of meals. These things are none other than holy works to which you have been called. That means they are your holy life and are a part of God’s Word and your vocation.” Cited in Bennethum, Listen! God Is Calling!, Kindle locations 400–404.
13. Bob Johansen, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), Kindle location 328.
14. Calvin, Institutes, 1:35. These two types of knowledge are always intertwined, yet distinct, a reality that leads Calvin to concede, “which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.” Nevertheless, we are encouraged to start with pursuing either type of knowledge confident that both will lead us to wisdom: “we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself.”
15. “The miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward.” Calvin, Institutes, 1:36.
16. See Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings, vol. 3: Pastoral Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 37.
17. “What was my intention in taking upon me this office and ministry? What was it, in taking charge of this parish, either as Minister or Curate? Was it always, and is it now, wholly and solely to glorify God, and save souls? Has my eye been singly fixed on this, from the beginning hitherto? Had I never, have I not now, any mixture in my intention; any alloy of baser metal? Had I, or have I, no thought of worldly gain; ‘filthy lucre,’ as the Apostle terms it? Had I at first, have I now, no secular view, no eye to honour or preferment to a plentiful income; or, at least, a competency, a warm and comfortable livelihood?” Wesley, “Address to the Clergy,” February 6, 1756.
18. Known as the “Prayer of examen,” a central practice in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius.
19. Quoted in Placher, Callings, Kindle locations 1364–67.
20. Matthew 6:21.