One of the essays we have our young children write about in school is: “What is your ambition in life?” Indeed, in asking this very important question, we are helping our young people to develop a clear direction in life. If not, many of them would be studying without a goal and therefore without any motivation. But ambition alone cannot make us happy or give us fulfillment because it tends to be inward-looking. It is mainly about self, about amassing honour, status and material gains. In the gospel, we read how the apostles of Jesus were fighting for positions to fulfill their ambition. Their motives for following Jesus were no better than ours. They wanted glory, power and honour.
Ambition is not only self-destructive but often leads us to jealousy, competition and even destruction of others. It may move some to resort to slander to destroy their opponents in order to achieve their ambition. It makes us see everyone as a threat and causes us to create enemies. It fills us with anger and revengefulness, consuming us with thoughts of how to destroy our opponents and winning at all costs. That was the way the other apostles reacted when James and John sought positions from Jesus. The evangelist noted, “When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John.”
Provoking jealousy does not help to bring peace and unity in our community. Such a competitive spirit divides people. Hence, ambition might not bring the desired outcomes of joy, love and unity for ourselves and those whom we work for. Look at the office politics, not just in secular and corporate offices but even within the Church and in voluntary organizations. There is so much infighting, politicking, scrambling and competition for power, authority, and recognition. So much so that much of our energy is expended on fending off our enemies, leaving us with not much energy left to employ our resources, skills and talents for the service of God and His people. So we can fulfill and achieve our ambition, but at the cost of the loss of joy, peace and love.
That is why we must seek for something more than ambition. We must be driven by higher and more sublime goals in life. This is called vocation. Only vocation can bring true happiness and fulfillment in life. This is because we no longer work for ourselves but for others. When our energy is no longer directed at ourselves, we have nothing to protect. Instead, our energy is now directed towards others with a certain sense of detachment, doing all we can for their good. When we expend all our energy in loving and serving, that energy is not only expansive but keeps on increasing from strength to strength. Love makes love grow! Indeed, this is what the Lord said about the Suffering Servant, “By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself.”
Vocation, unlike ambition, is a call to serve God and humanity, rather ourselves. Vocation is for the service of others before self. The interests of those whom we serve come before ours. Vocation is at the service of life and love. This entails sacrificing ourselves for others. Like the Suffering Servant who suffered for his people and for the Lord. “The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering.” Indeed, this is how Jesus saw Himself in His vocation and mission. He said, “For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Vocation is servanthood. Jesus instructed His disciples, “You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.” Vocation is humble service, and being a servant and a slave to all. Jesus said, “No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.” The greatness of a servant lies in the way he serves, humbly, selflessly and totally.
Vocation comes first and foremost as a call from God. God has put into our hearts a passion for something. Not only has He put this passion in our hearts, He also provides us the skills and the charisms for the vocation. It is a call that begins from within before it comes from without. Unless the Lord has already put that passion in us, regardless of what is without will not evoke in us. In other words, God has planted the seed of our vocation even before we were born. Hence, we know it is our vocation when what we are called to do is also matched by the skills and talents the Lord has blessed us with. In responding to that call in us, we find peace and fulfillment.
However, this voice in us most of the time remains latent until it is stimulated by a voice that comes from without; from our loved ones, from society and from the Church. Vocation comes from identification and solidarity with the suffering. Like the suffering servant, we are called to take upon the sufferings of others in our own bodies. We are called to identify ourselves with them in their pain and sufferings and make them as our own so that we can grow in compassion and sympathy. This is what we read of how Jesus identified Himself with us sinners. “For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.”
It often entails vicarious suffering for others. It is a great challenge. Vocation is not meant for the weak and the unenlightened. Many want to do great things for God and for people, but do not have the capacity to suffer. In moments of trials, they give up doing good. That is why Jesus warned the disciples to think through carefully the demands of a vocation. He said, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised? … ‘The cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptised you shall be baptized.” We will not be exempted from suffering when doing good. We will be misunderstood, ridiculed or even opposed by selfish people who are threatened by our good works.
Sacrificing for the greater good of the future and for humanity brings great blessings. This is what the Lord says, “If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.” Indeed, the true reward of humble service and love is not honour and glory but the growth in our capacity to love, the experience of joy and peace. This is what the Lord told His disciples, “but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.”
It is within this context that we look at our vocation in life and our profession. It is not enough to have a profession, but we must see our profession as our vocation. Once we see our profession as more of a vocation, then our orientation and motive become different. We feel empowered and our lives become very meaningful. It is no longer work or simply as a means to make money, but a means to give life to others, to share our love and joy. Regardless of whether we are priests, doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers, etc, we are called to give life to others.
When our profession is one with our vocation, we live a life of integrity, peace and unity. We become who we are and what we do. Our message and work become our identity as well, when doing and being are one. Only in this way, can we live an exemplary life in whatever profession we are in. Jesus was able to walk the talk by being exemplary because His work is the expression of Himself. The cause and the messenger are one. It is not enough to exercise our skills and be competent in our profession, but we need to walk the talk and be good examples of what we teach and preach.
In the final analysis, we need His grace to live out our calling. The author of Hebrews invites us, “Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.” On our own strength, we cannot live out this vocation of love because the demands on love are too overwhelming. But if we turn to Him for strength by basking in His love and mercy for us, filled with gratitude, we can then continue to serve humbly and selflessly.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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