Can You Help Someone Find Their Calling?

Sailor writes notes of encouragement with student.
A sailor helps a 1st grader write notes of encouragement.

Some of my favorite people are those who have helped me figure something about my life and vocation:

  • My friend and pastor David Monroe, always willing to listen to my ideas and give honest feedback and encouragement.
  • Career counselor Nancy Parsley, who knows exactly the right questions to ask.
  • My former supervisor Chuck Hohnbaum, who, during one of his first meetings with me, told me that his job was to help me prepare for rest of my career, wherever that might lead.

I could list many others. Whenever I’ve been faced with a vocational decision, I’ve sought out the advice of good and wise friends.

We need other people to help us find and fulfill our individual callings. Often, others can see our strengths (and weaknesses) more clearly than we can ourselves. They can also confirm our own opinion of our strengths, helping to protect us against self-deception, as well as reigning in our excesses. Other people can also let us know about opportunities that we aren’t aware of[1].

Featuring Barnabas in a Supporting Role

In keeping with the theme of this website, I’m fascinated with minor figures in history and the Bible who played pivotal roles in the lives of more famous people. Barnabas, one of the earliest members of the Christian church, was really named Joseph, but everyone called him “Barnabas,” which means “Son of Encouragement.”

Take a moment to reflect on what it would mean for someone to be nicknamed “Son of Encouragement.” Do you know anyone like this? In his first appearance in Acts (Acts 4:34–36), he sells a field he owns and gives the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. This must have been an incredibly encouraging and affirming act for the early church.

Several chapters later, Barnabas begins his long friendship with Paul. Soon after Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he had to flee the city out of fear for his life. He travels to Jerusalem, but the apostles don’t believe that his conversion is real. Remember – this is the man who, just shortly before, cheered on the death of the apostle James. The other apostles, justifiably, don’t want to give him access to the rest of the believers.

But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:27)

Notice that it is Barnabas who tells the story of Paul’s conversion. He hadn’t been there himself. He has listened to the young believer, and perhaps to others who had witnessed the new believer’s work in Damascus conversion. At Barnabas’s word, Paul is welcomed into the Jerusalem community. His primary calling – that of a follower of Jesus – is affirmed by Barnabas. Without this critical intervention, I doubt that the rest of Paul’s important work could ever have been accomplished. Paul is soon forced to leave Jerusalem and return to his native Tarsus because of his controversial preaching, but he has been accepted as a member of Jesus’ disciples.

Opportunism — For Others

Later, Barnabas plays another important role in helping Paul discover his calling. Reports have started to come in from Antioch that Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene have been sharing the good news with Gentiles — and that those Gentiles have “turned to the Lord.”

The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of the faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. (Acts 11:22–24)

In trusting him with this task, we see the trust given to Barnabas by the leadership of the church in Jerusalem. There’s also opportunity here: a fresh audience for the gospel, a church in need of leadership, a fruitful ministry – this seems like the perfect chance for Barnabas to prove himself as a leader and become a central character in the story of the early church.

How does he respond? He leaves.

So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul [Paul], and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:25–26)

Barnabas has continued to think of young Paul. When sees an opportunity right for his strengths, he seeks him out and recruits him. Thus begins Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, setting into motion the events that will lead to the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas, Paul’s maturation as a leader of the early church, and Christianity’s introduction to Europe.

World history would have been completely different if Barnabas had not seen the chance for Paul’s unique gifts to be put to good use in Antioch. Paul’s personal history would have been quite different, too. I have no idea what his life was like in Tarsus, but by coming to Antioch, he discovered his true calling as the apostle to the Gentiles.[2]

Becoming Barnabas

For many years, I wanted someone like Barnabas in my own life, someone who would arrive one day with the perfect opportunity for me. As I’m getting older, I’m beginning to understand that it doesn’t do much good to hope for that kind of intervention — but it can do a world of good to play that role in others’ lives.

What opportunities can you provide for someone to find her calling? Are there ways that you can affirm someone’s gifts or encourage him in a difficult moment? Can you be someone’s Barnabas?

  1. Even if we don’t know them very well. Mark Granovetter’s classic sociology article, The Strength of Weak Ties, demonstrated that new opportunities often come from people we don’t know very well.  ↩
  2. Seeking opportunities for others seems to have been a habit for Barnabas. Later, when Barnabas visits Jerusalem with Saul, he brings his cousin John Mark to Antioch with them. Mark later accompanies them on their first missionary journey and, much later, writes the earliest of the four gospels. Barnabas had an eye for potential in young leaders.  ↩

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