I have a two and a half year old son who is constantly playing in the sandbox in our backyard. He could spend hours playing with the sand, simply enjoying burying his hands into the gritty texture of it. As I watch him, there is a sense that he and the sand are created for each other. That who he is at this stage in his life– a little boy – is connected to what he is doing – playing joyfully in the sand. It’s a beautiful act for a father to watch his child engage in.

And yet, as I think about my son and the sandbox, I am reminded that you and I were created to live life in a similar fashion. In my new book, What it Means to be a Man, I talk about this idea in God’s creation of Adam. Out of the dark chaos God made man (Hebrew ‘adam’) in his image, forming him from the ground (Hebrew ‘adamah) and naming him Adam. God then commanded Adam to work and care for the land from which he’d been taken (Gen. 2:15) and to care for his creatures by naming them (Gen. 2:19). In the words used and the commands given, we see a deep connection between who we are and the work we do.

That is to say there is a very intimate connection between our identity and vocation.

Vocation that Flows Out of Identity

It’s worth noting the word vocation comes from the Latin word vocatio, meaning ‘summons.’ In other words, our vocation is a calling out to us. When our identity and vocation are connected we are literally engaged in the work that we have heard God our Creator call us towards. One of the most powerful images of this is found in gospels of Matthew (3:16-17), Luke (3:21-22) and Mark (1:9-11). In Mark we read the following:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

Before Jesus performs any miracles, heals the sick, walks on water, or is engaged in his Father’s work, he is reminded that he is God’s Son, and that the Father not only loves him, but is well pleased with him. In other words, Jesus’ identity is rooted in his relationship with his Father, rather than an identity rooted in his ministry and the tasks he performs.

Let that sink in for a few moments—before Jesus does any of the work of his Father, he is secure in his identity that he is God’s Son and that God is already well pleased with him.

His identity is not emanating from the work he does on behalf of the Father, but from the relationship he has with the Father. I wonder how many of us can say that about ourselves?

I wonder how many of us have an identity that is rooted in our relationship with God our Father? I wonder how many of us know that God loves us and is well pleased with us?

My experience as a pastor and therapist tells me that most of us struggle with knowing this. We can intellectualize it in our heads, but believing it in our hearts is another challenge.

So why is this so important?

Because an identity that is rooted in anything other than our relationship with God the Father leads us away from vocation, as we are tempted to continually try to perform tasks and achieve goals in order to earn God’s approval. Rather than starting with a rooted identity and allowing vocation to flow out of that, we try to find identity in the work we do.

Struggling with Temptation

One of the dangers for all of us, especially those engaged in ministry, is that we find ourselves continually tempted to seek our identity in things other than our relationship with God. As I noted in this post last year, Henri Nouwen in his wonderful book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership writes that this relational identity enabled Jesus to resist the three temptations “to be powerful”, “to be relevant”, “to be spectacular” in the desert (Luke 4).

And how many of us haven’t found ourselves tempted by these very things? Because for many of us in leadership positions, our sense of self – our identity – is often built and affirmed on the continual accolades and praises that we receive as leaders.

So for the majority of leaders that I have worked with in ministry and therapy (and in my own experience), leadership can be a very dangerous place. Without that praise and affirmation, many leaders become lost, which only creates the urgency to seek it out more diligently.

In retelling the myth of Narcissus, writer and therapist Terence Real points out Narcissus was immobilized because he was dependent on his own image. In other words, he had to manage how others saw him out of fear he would fail or disappoint them if they really knew him. How many of us in leadership roles are dependent upon our own image and the identity that we are crafting for ourselves, rather than from the image and identity that flows out of our relationship with God?

How many of us live in fear that if we were really known by others, than we might not be loved or respected?

RELATED: 3 Big Myths About Calling

Deepest Calling

There is no shortcut to intimately reconnecting our identity to our vocation. It is a long and arduous process of rediscovering the truth of who we were created to be. Primarily that we are God’s sons and daughters, and that not only does he love us, but he is well pleased with us. As we reconnect to that truth, then we are able to live out the strengths that God created in us.

The more that I have connected to the truth that I am God’s son and that he loves me, the more that I am able to live out the gifts he has given me to be a better pastor, therapist and writer.

And more importantly a better friend, father, husband, and disciple.

As you connect your identity to the truth of who God created you to be, what do you hear God saying? You are loved? You are not alone? You are worthy? You are my son? You are my daughter?

And as you connect to that identity, what natural vocation flows out of you? Painter? Pastor? Writer? Musician? Nurse? Accountant? Manager?

As you move through this journey to connect identity and vocation, I encourage you to engage more actively in God’s word, prayer, and the community of people that he has surrounded you with. As you do this, I pray that you quietly listen and hear God’s voice speak truth into your life in a powerful way. For when you connect identity and vocation our Father joyfully watches.

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer, pp. 15-16)

This post was originally featured in Catalyst. 

Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Plano, TX. He specializes in helping people struggling with anxiety find new opportunities for growth, as well as spending a majority of his week with couples as they navigate relational issues. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and What It Means to Be a Man: God’s Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. Rhett lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two children. You can discover more about Rhett’s work through his writing and podcast at www.rhettsmith.com