God is not a Sadistic Poker Player. Yet this is the image that many young people unknowingly have of Him. He holds the cards of our lives in His hands. He knows the secret to our best life and true happiness, but He won’t tell. We don’t even know if He’s holding a good hand or a bad hand. Worse yet, He might be bluffing.
Those who don’t believe that they have a vocation (or that there is even a reality called vocation) still have to contend with Him. Their poker player simply deals in desire. Which desires lead to fulfillment, and which lead to emptiness? He’ll never tell.
A human being has thousands of conflicting and competing desires nearly every day. Without grace and virtue, and especially without a clear idea of where he’s going, he has no way to order them. Desires can deceive, and nobody is better at deception than a good poker player (especially a sadistic one). This mentality makes decision making tortuous—even when a choice is between good things.
When I go to a restaurant, I sometimes get menu anxiety. I don’t want to order the steak if the place is known for its fish. And how do I know whether the “special” seafood salad is delicious or just a clever way to get rid of old fish? If you hand me a wine list, things get even more complicated. I don’t like to make poor choices. How am I supposed to know whether the Lebanese Syrah is overpriced relative to Super Tuscan? After I choose, I want to hear the words, “Good choice.”
If I have this much anxiety over mundane choices, how much more anxiety do I have over the cards that the Sadistic Poker Player is holding? My life is in his hands. I fear hearing the words “Wrong Choice” come from his cold, grey lips before he lays down his hand and laughs.
But Jesus doesn’t greet people in heaven with “Good Choice.” In the Parable of the Good Steward, the Master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21).
The Lord is not out to trick us. He is the Good Shepherd who desires our good, and He will lead us to that good if only we would follow Him. Indeed, He is the Good. This is why Jesus tells His servant to enter into the joy of the master.
He tells the Samaritan woman at the well: “If you knew the gift of God” (John 4:10)! Vocation is a gift from God that brings joy to those who receive it. Today recognizing the gift requires a new kind of openness.
There’s evidence that our Western culture may not easily grasp what is given. In his book, The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist shows that there has been an increasing reliance on the left hemisphere of the brain over the past few hundred years (a result of Cartesian dualism, the industrial revolution, technology, and other factors). As a consequence, we live a more calculated life, relating to the world in a way that is suspicious of gifts. Calculated living prefers earning, not receiving. It’s the world of Moneyball and poker, not falling in love.
The two hemispheres of the brain see the world in radically different ways, but they have a partnership. The right brain gives us a way of seeing the world that is open to the dynamism of new experiences and the left brain gives us a way to find meaning and structure in those experiences. As the right brain takes in new aspects of reality, the left brain constantly revises its models in order to make sense of what it is receiving. There’s a feedback loop.
But what happens if the left brain becomes dominant? Then we live in a society where new, unexpected experiences can’t be fully received and we’re left trying to understand the world in bits and bytes of fragmented information without their full context. Donum (gift) becomes data.
The right brain likes to wonder more than calculate. And it’s only with this meditative habit of being that we can earnestly enter into another’s story—even our own.
Wonder is the attitude that people have in the presence of Jesus in the Gospels. The Greeks called the object of this wonder téras (τέρας), which means “something beyond all expectation.”
If people expected something from God in first-century Palestine, it certainly wasn’t Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation of the Son of God didn’t just surpass expectations—it shattered them. This is God’s style.
Grace is the gift beyond all expectation. God eludes our best efforts to wrap our minds around Him and grace breaks into our lives in unexpected ways. In Flannery O’Connor’s writing, grace is never a pious sentiment in a pew but something more like an unexpected punch in the face (sometimes literally).
The calculating mind simply can’t experience anything beyond all expectation. It can only manipulate what it is has already received, putting it into a box (or “category”) and calculating what to do next. But when we approach life with meditative thought (wonder), we find that each person— indeed, each thing—is truly beyond all expectation.
Luke Burgis is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at The Catholic University of America. Joshua Miller, PhD, is the co-founder of Inscape. He also helped build The Center for Leadership at Franciscan University of Steubenville where he currently serves as personal vocation mentor and mentor trainer for faculty and staff. Together, they wrote Unrepeatable: Cultivating the Unique Calling of Every Person.