By Amber Riggs
A huge chunk of your life revolves around your work. It isn’t just clocking in, clocking out, and everything between. You plan your entire day around your work. It determines when you wake up, when you go to sleep, when you eat, and when you play.
When it comes to being a Christian who works, we find ourselves asking questions about how our job fits in with God’s plan for our lives. My job doesn’t give me any sense of purpose; does God care? Am I doing what God wants me to do? or maybe How can I serve God more when I retire?
The concept of vocation is central to answering each of these questions. In fact, we find it so helpful that we use this word a LOT in Christian circles.
However, vocation is also one of those words that has taken on contradictory meanings over time.
SEGMENTED AND MISLABELED
Picture yourself on a ship. A ship has a bow, a stern, a starboard side, and a port side. Walk your imaginary self over to the front of the ship – the bow. Is the bow the ship? No, but its part of the ship. However, if we were to start calling the bow the “ship”, it would create confusion and be extremely misleading. Is the stern no longer part of the ship?
It sounds ridiculous, but in many ways, this is what has happened to the concept of vocation, and it has wreaked havoc with how we understand our work.
Therefore, when we discuss work and vocation it also helps to be clear about what we aren’t talking about.
MYTH #1: VOCATION IS WORK YOU DO WITH YOUR HANDS.
Thanks in part to “vocational schools”, many people now associate the word vocation with physical jobs which require training in technical skills.
There are even reputable websites which will tell you that a vocation is a job in which you primarily use your hands, and a profession is a job in which you primarily use your mind. In their line of thought, plumbing, welding, and cooking are vocations, while engineering, accounting, and teaching are professions. Unless, of course, you are a chef who has a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts, because in this contorted understanding of vocation, if you have more than two years of academic training in an area, it shifts the job from a vocation to a profession.
However, this misconception is just a narrowing of another popular understanding of the word vocation.
MYTH #2: YOUR JOB IS YOUR VOCATION.
“So. what’s your vocation?” The language seems a little antiquated now, but in decades past, this was a way of asking “What do you do for a living?”
This culturally flattened understanding of vocation still lives on in dictionary entries. In his contemporary classic book The Call, Os Guinness refers to this myth as the “Protestant Distortion”. This notion has definite ties to the “Protestant work ethic” which emphasizes doing everything as though we are doing it for God. Hard work was seen as a sign of taking one’s faith in Christ very seriously.
However, selfish ambition can so easily fuel work. We see this in definitions and measures of success which built clout with work-related accolades, accomplishments, and authority. When this happens, work takes on a life of its own, apart from Christ, and ceases to be an expression of worship.
When a job is equated with a vocation, and everyone who has a job, regardless of how devoted to Christ they are, is said to have a vocation, it masks a critical spiritual component inherent within the concept of vocation.
However, this misconception is a reaction against an over-spiritualization of vocation embodied in our next myth.
MYTH #3: “VOCATIONAL MINISTRY” IS WORK IN THE SPIRITUAL REALM.
This myth combines the previous myth with the influence of Greek philosophy.
“Vocational Ministry” can also be understood as “ministry is my job”. However, ministry isn’t used here in the New Testament understanding of ministry. Rather, ministry is seen as specializing in the “spiritual”, particularly the teaching of Scripture.
“Vocational Ministry” is most popularly understood to mean “pastoral ministry”, but it can also include other “spiritual” church-related jobs for which someone receives a paycheck. For example, a traveling evangelist or missionary would be considered to be in “vocational ministry”. However a church secretary’s job would probably not be considered “spiritual enough” for vocational ministry.
WHERE DID THIS IDEA COME FROM?
In the early centuries of Christianity, the influence of Greek philosophy fostered a notion that there are “spiritual” (or “sacred”) things and “secular” things. This same influence caused significant pockets of the church to embrace a Platonic view of “heaven”. In this view, Jesus had come to enable our spirits to escape the evil material world and enjoy an afterlife in an ethereal spirit world called “heaven”.
This snowballed to shape a Middle Age church culture in which only priests, monks, and nuns were considered to have a vocation. In the church’s eye, they had chosen what was spiritual, and this “spiritual life” was most pleasing to God. Because of its prevalence prior to the Protestant Reformation, Os Guinness refers to this as the “Catholic Distortion”.
This myth very subtly makes appearances in how we talk about calling and ministry. For example, many pastors teach that everyone is called to ministry, and yet still refer to pastoral ministry as “the ministry.” This inherited language, in turn, perpetuates a myth that that only pastoral ministry is ministry. Therefore, to be “called to ministry” is to be “called to be a pastor.”
But if vocation isn’t any of these things, what is it?
THE ROOT OF VOCATION
The truth is that vocation can be work you do with your hands, you can receive payment for your vocation, and vocational ministry is very spiritual.
But none of these understandings of vocation paints a full picture of what this word embodies.
The word “vocation” comes from the root word vocare, which means “to call”. It is an accurate reflection of a deeply embedded human longing to be engaged in a vocation – in a work. Not just any work, but in one that “speaks” to us, that “calls us” to something that transcends our individual existence.
PARTNERING WITH GOD.
In The Day the Revolution Began, NT Wright explains that humanity’s call is to partner with God to bless the entire earth. The action – the vocation – associated with this call is to interact with the world as God does.
This action of imaging God is what N. T. Wright refers to in The Day the Revolution Began as the covenant of vocation:
“The vocation . . . is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for [His] world. The main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker.”
This understanding of vocation is very earthy. It doesn’t divide out some work as being spiritual but recognizes a spirituality in all work which honors God.
Os Guinness also elaborates on the understanding of vocation as calling. Guinness recommends that we encounter calling in two parts:
- He invites us to first embrace a call reverberating throughout the world that is “by [Christ], to [Christ], and for [Christ]”. 1 He refers to this as our primary call. It is this call by, to, and for Christ that puts the rest of our lives in context.
- The primary call then gives context to a “secondary call”. That is, in whatever position of life we find ourselves, “everyone, everywhere and in everything should think speak and live and act entirely for Him”. 2 It is within the context of this secondary call that we muse about the concept of vocation and the specifics of the call that are unique to our individual lives.
WHEN WE UNDERSTAND VOCATION THROUGH THIS LENS, YOU CAN BE SURE OF SEVERAL THINGS:
- God has called you to Christ! If you have accepted that call, you have a vocation.
- God is re-creating you in the image of Christ. This means that your vocation is to reflect God’s character and ways in everything you do, from clocking into work to folding the laundry. Yes, even if you feel like your job is menial, it can be infused with God-given meaning and purpose.
- When you approach your jobs with the intent of reflecting God’s character and ways into your spheres of influence, that job becomes a means by which you live out your vocation, and it becomes part of how God expands His Kingdom.
- God may invite you to shift your time, energy and focus to a job which uses your gifts and talents in new ways. This doesn’t mark a shift in vocation but rather a shift in how you are living out your “secondary call”. Be open to these shifts!
Think about each of the spheres of life you work in: your home, your workplace, your church, your community, etc. How is God asking you to reflect character and ways into each of these spheres? The more concretely you can answer this question, the clearer you’ll be able to understand your God-given vocation.