Looking Back to Go Forward

By Rick Zomer

    As this spring semester draws to a close, a new group of students is preparing to leave our institutions and begin the next phase of their lives. While graduation ceremonies are designed to honor students’ accomplishments during their time on campus, the event itself tends to leave students, their families and friends, as well as faculty and staff thinking about the future. Questions about “what’s next?” often dominate the day as students are now free to focus exclusively on graduate school, employment options, or other opportunities.  This reality can bring excitement but it also can produce anxiety for students as they worry about whether or not they’ve made the “right” choices for their future.

                While commencement forces our students to think about next steps, the emphasis on the future confronts them before they enroll for their first class or move into the residence halls. As high school juniors and seniors visit campus, conversations are often focused around what careers are available if they select our institution. Upon enrollment students take classes and select a major to prepare for a specific career path or graduate school and complete internships to gain experience that will help them obtain future employment. If they struggle to find their way, we provide standardized tests to help students identify their strengths, gifts, and talents and counsel to help them determine how their gifts might align with one career path or another. These strategies are appropriate but students are short changed if we exclusively focus on employment and the future rather than providing them with an opportunity to explore the concept of vocation using a perspective that is informed by the past.

    An immediate danger to this “future focused” approach when it is applied to our students can be identified by examining current realities in the work world. In today’s economy few people stay in one specific career for their entire professional life. Rather it has been suggested by researchers that “jobs for life are becoming a thing of the past” (Gorard, 2007, p. 17).  If this is true, there is an inherent danger in allowing students to concentrate on one specific career that they believe they will occupy for their entire work life. Young people who focus exclusively on a specific career for their future may find themselves ill-equipped to navigate through unforeseen career changes caused by factors such as a challenging economy, downsizing, or changing life circumstances. Rather than placing primary emphasis on careers, our students may be better served if we equip them with a biblical perspective on work and offer what may at first glance appear to be an illogical approach to the future. 

    Jerry Sittser’s (2004) book The Will of God as a Way of Life provides a framework for building a biblical approach to vocational planning by providing a clear distinction between the concepts of career and calling. According to Sittser a career focuses on “a particular line of work one does to earn an income” while a calling is “a specific vision of how God wants us to use our time, energy, and abilities to serve Him in the world” (Sittser, 2004, p. 157).  We should pray that our students find themselves in careers where they can earn a living while simultaneously experiencing the satisfaction that comes from Kingdom service. However, students who experience college primarily as career preparation or the pathway to increased income generation may never develop a vision that goes beyond their employment. In order to gain the vocational perspective Sittser describes during the college years, students must be challenged to explore the gifts and talents they have been given without placing primary emphasis on how they’ll utilize them in the future. 

    In Here I Am. Now What on Earth Should I be Doing? Quentin Schultze (2005)
    examines the concept of calling with a similar approach to the one offered by Sittser. Rather than using the term “career” Schultze suggests that jobs be viewed as “stations” (Schultze, 2005, p. 15) which may change over time. Since a person may occupy several stations during their lifetime Schultze argues that it is important for individuals to identify “root gifts-those that are applicable across many different stations” such as “empathizing, analyzing, organizing, diagnosing, designing, encouraging, and persuading” (Schultze, 2005, p. 31). A focus on foundational gifts rather than specific job skills allows students to follow Sittser’s definition of vocation and prepare for the inevitable changes in career or station that they will face in the future.

    The inherent challenge to this approach however, is how to help students develop an awareness of their “root gifts” so they can utilize them.  There are standardized tests that can be administered to identify strengths and behavioral tendencies but oftentimes students dwell on these instruments exclusively, viewing the results as the dominant indicator of who they are or what they should be doing.  In addition, students can be left with the impression that these are the only tools available to them as they try to answer foundational questions. An alternative approach would be to turn students’ attention from the future and explore with them how God has gifted them within the context of the past.

    It is interesting to note that the emphasis we often place on the future finds minimal support when viewed in light of the Scriptures. Sittser writes that occupational decisions are important but secondary to larger decisions about who we are and suggests that “perhaps that is why the Bible says so little about God’s will for tomorrow” (Sittser, 2004, p. 25). His recognition that the Bible does not contain an individually explicit “how to guide” for the future may at first glance, appear troublesome. However, the Scriptures do provide a framework for a response in the midst of confusion about the future.

    Several individuals in the Old Testament like Abraham and Moses struggled to find peace with what appeared to be God’s inability to fulfill His promises for the future.  For instance, in Genesis 15, Abraham questions God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation after going several years without having a son. In response God doesn’t provide specific details about the future but rather directs Abraham to remember the past. God tells Abraham, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it” (Genesis 15:7). The message to Abraham is clear: trust God in the future based on what He’s done in the past. Moses experienced a similar response when he questioned why the Israelites would view him as the person God had chosen to lead them out of Egypt. Rather than give a detailed plan to address the issue Moses is instructed to “Say to the Israelites, the Lord the God of your fathers- the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob- has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:15).  Like Abraham, Moses is commanded to remember God’s faithfulness in the past rather than focus on specific details about the future. This theme is repeated throughout the Old Testament in the lives of individuals like Joshua, David, Elijah, Nehemiah and others.

    Our students are well served when we encourage them to remember the emphasis on the past that these examples from Scriptures contain rather than being allowed to develop tunnel vision about how things are going to work out. At various points in their lives concern about the future consumed the thoughts of Abraham, Moses, and others in the Old Testament to the point that God intervened. It shouldn’t be surprising that the same tendency can affect our students today. Rather than placing the emphasis on what the future might hold, we should follow the example of Scriptures and encourage our students to reflect on how God has already worked in their lives.

    This approach will allow students to consider their future career decisions as being part of the larger issue of calling described by Sittser, which they have been engaged in long before they set foot on our campuses. In addition, this process will give them the opportunity to discover their “root gifts” that are suggested by Schultze as being an essential part of an individual’s vocational journey. Finally, recognizing that the Scriptures contain multiple examples of how God uses the past to answer questions about the future provides a context for our students. They can be confident about their futures in light of what God has done in their past. For some this might include stories about how God provided a person or circumstance in their lives that enabled them to pursue a specific major or course of study. For others it might be an experience they had that gave them clarity or discernment during a significant point in their lives. As more experienced individuals, we may also be able to provide a part of our personal experience with God’s past faithfulness to provide encouragement for our students. Regardless of whatever fears and challenges students might see as graduation forces them to face the future, they should be reminded to look back to see the assurance and clarity that God provides for them.

    Rick Zomer serves as the Director of Campus Visits and Hospitality at Calvin College, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


    Gorard, S. (2007). Testing the vocation imperative. Adults Learning, 18(10), 16-19.

    Schultze, Q. J. (2005). Here I am. Now what on earth should I be doing? Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

    Sittser, G. L. (2004). The will of God as a way of life. How to make every decision with peace and confidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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