Finding our calling while unemployed

Learning contentment is a work in progress for Alan Stanley

For many of us, this COVID-19 season is the first time we have struggled to either find enough paid work to do, or to be paid for the work we do. However, for others like myself, the pandemic has been a cruel twist in an already long road to finding sufficient employment.

I am a New Zealand theological lecturer who spent 15 years pastoring and lecturing in Australia. Most recently, I was lecturer in New Testament and Theology and Director of Postgraduate Studies at Brisbane School of Theology.

I felt invisible, isolated, like a nobody.

In late 2017, for family reasons, my wife and I decided to return to New Zealand, knowing of at least one teaching position available for me. However, things did not pan out as I had hoped. For the past two years, I have applied for jobs, including one back in Australia, but so far have been unsuccessful.

In 2018, I spiralled down emotionally and my mental health suffered. I felt invisible, isolated, like a nobody.

But I also have been able to keep myself busy. I preach regularly, am involved in theological education in Asia, am writing, and have sought to follow the lead of my good friend Mike Raiter (Director for the Centre of Biblical Preaching) in training preachers. But the demand in New Zealand is small, certainly not enough to provide an income.

With regard to trusting God and giving thanks in all things, 2018 felt like one step forward, and three steps back. But it was in the spring of 2019 that my interior attitude did start to turn. My circumstances hadn’t changed – I had 15 hours a week of work in a church-based College in Auckland, was preaching, and had made a couple of trips to Asia. Financially we were barely afloat, thanks to some generous friends. But I lacked desire and longed to be back in the classroom training men and women for ministry.

Still, I was often confronted with a niggling voice in my mind that went something like this: “If I cannot trust God now in what is the hardest season of my life, when times are better I will always wonder if my faith is in God or in the better circumstances.”

Faith began to rise toward the end of 2019 and I felt like I was turning a corner. But then came a series of unexpected setbacks. My 15 hours a week came to an abrupt and unforeseen end in December. Discouraged but not down, I made Matthew 6:33-34 my focus for 2020 – “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and do not worry about tomorrow.” But then another setback. On the last day of February, I was away preaching and was out running with the pastor I was staying with. I tripped and fell. Badly! The result? Eight stitches in my knee, broken ribs and shoulder. Still, I could preach, do a couple of preaching workshops I had booked, write, and give weekly devotions for young boys at church.

Then came COVID-19. I was supposed to be heading off for some preaching workshops in Queensland and then on to a couple of teaching intensives in South East Asia followed by some preacher training with pastors. Instead I am now into my third week of lockdown in New Zealand with no work in sight for who knows how long.

One of the reasons I think the book of Job is so long (42 chapters) is because learning to be content in the midst of trials can be a drawn-out journey. I wish it had been quicker, but I am learning to embrace this season. There have been a few things that have helped:

First, thinking of the cross. The cross is the darkest and most enigmatic moment in history – if you are one of the 12 disciples seeing it play out, that is. And yet we know that, in spite of appearances, God was at work. While despair and hopelessness seemed to reign, God was bringing about his plan. For over two years I have recalled that “God does his best work in cross-like situations.”

Second, thinking of Christ. We all know that the Christian life is about trust and dependence, being brought low, becoming like a child and dropping to the bottom of the social ladder. I have been teaching and preaching that for years. And yet, I don’t like feeling these things. I don’t like the feeling of going backwards. I’m quite happy to sing it, confess it, preach and teach it. But if I don’t like feeling it, do I believe it? I now see that I must go backwards if I am to move forwards. That’s how God’s kingdom works. It’s the path that Jesus took (Philippians 2:5-11), and it’s the path we all must walk. I can honestly say that there is joy in that.

Third, thinking of my calling. I want to contribute, to make a difference; I want to feel valued, to be active. But what I want is not always God’s highest priority. Don’t get me wrong – God is interested in our work and our activities, but not always in the way we are. This was brought home to me a couple of months ago.

I was lamenting with my wife that I felt frustrated at not being able to do what I felt called to do. An hour later I was reading 1 Corinthians 1 in my daily Bible reading plan. Verse 2 says: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people …” It was as though God was saying, “Alan, this is your calling, to be holy; and what an ideal situation for you to learn that – no job, no income, no overseas travel. Perfect!”

It was a timely word, and one that I knew in my head but had lost sight of where it mattered. For me, this recalled teaching that students had come to know me for, Genesis 1:26. Our original calling starts here: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The first section of the Bible begins with God creating people for his image and ends with humanity creating a tower for their image.

Image is about how we want to be identified. We may want to be identified as hard-working, intelligent, wealthy, educated, successful, and so on. But Genesis 1 tells us that God created us so that we might be identified with him! I had lost sight of this, again, not in my mind, but somewhere at a deep level.

It’s significant that the first major section of Genesis ends with “the whole world” usurping God’s place and plan.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves …” (Genesis 11:4)

So, the first section of the Bible begins with God creating people for his image and ends with humanity creating a tower for their image. We were created so that we might be identified with God, but deep within us we feel the pull to be identified with our work and accomplishments.

God created us so that we, his children, might be his billboard for all to see.

A few years ago, I was a passenger in a car in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Suddenly the driver proudly asked me to look up at a giant billboard displaying a pretty young girl, his daughter. God created us so that we, his children, might be his billboard for all to see. God is so serious about this that he became a billboard himself. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son … has made him known” (John 1:18; see also 14:9; Colossians 1:15). Since no other individual had been able to perfectly image God, God did it himself; and he went to extreme lengths to do it. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus ultimately revealed the Father on the cross (see John 7:39; 12:16; 13:31; 17:1). The cross is the pinnacle of what God has been seeking to do from creation, reveal the true image of God and glorify his “name” (John 12:28; 17:4).

But how does the cross glorify God? In short, as N.T. Wright says, at the cross “We are seeing, in particular, what God’s own love looks like.” This explains why Jesus told his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus did not say “By your accomplishments or your job or your ministry everyone will know that you are my disciples.” He said love! By loving one another, we image Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to image Jesus. But I also want a job!

So, you see imaging God has always been God’s intention, which explains why as Christians we “have been called according to his purpose,” namely, “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28–29). Notice how the apostle Paul explains what it looks like to be “renewed … in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Now, “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” He concludes, “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12­–14).

But here’s my problem, and I suspect I might not be alone: my greatest desire is not always to image Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, I want to image Jesus. But I also want a job! I want to contribute, to make a difference, to feel useful; to have an identity, to feel worth something, to accomplish.

Of course, I know that my identity and worth is in Jesus! But now I am in prime position to actually experience it. And here’s the thing: when our worth is in Jesus, we become less driven by our egos and more focused on people; to love others as we love ourselves, as Jesus put it (Matthew 22:39).

Alan Stanley

Alan Stanley

Here is how I am trying to work this out in my own life. I ask myself, “What is in front of me right now?” It might be my wife, my kids, dishes to wash, a friend on the phone, an article to write, a devotion or sermon to prepare. In each one of these situations God is calling me to image Jesus.

We struggle, to put it bluntly, to image Jesus because our minds often run ahead to those things that consume our hearts – business, work, the appointment later on. We are so prone to getting caught up with our own perceptions of greatness (Matthew 18:1–4). But whatever is right in front of us now is where God’s heart is. If it is a conversation, to listen well; to give the person our undivided attention, to be Christ to that person. If it is a task or activity, to be conscious of who the task is for and perform it with an attitude that basically says, “I am helping someone by doing this.”

To image Jesus in every situation is to love the people in front of us, to show them mercy and act justly towards them (Matthew 23:23); to love them as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:36); to carry their burdens (Galatians 6:2); to be concerned for them as a whole person. Jesus modelled this better than anyone (Matthew 4:23–24; 9:35) and the early church followed his lead (Acts 2:42–47; Romans 12:9–21).

So, it starts right here, right now, with the people right in front of us, in ordinary actions … and spreads around the world.

Alan lives in New Zealand with his wife and three teenage boys. In addition to preaching most Sundays, he regularly teaches at theological colleges in Asia and is trains pastors to preach. He has a PhD in New Testament and is the author and editor of three books, currently working on a fourth on the Sermon on the Mount.