What is Vocation?

what is vocation Stephen J. Nichols offers a concise (31 pages) and lucid biblical explanation of vocation in the “Basics of the Faith” booklet, What is Vocation? (2010, P&R Publishing).

Nichols briefly explains the history of the notion of vocation (from the Latin word vocare, “calling”). In the Middle Ages, the idea of “calling” moved away from how God calls each person made in His image to participate in work for His glory and toward a very particular thing: exclusively church work. “Priests, nuns, monks—they each had a calling. Everyone else in medieval culture, from merchants to peasants, from nobles to knights, simply worked.”

But the Reformers recaptured the idea of calling for the everyman. “To Luther, all work and all the roles that we play were potentially holy callings, which could be fulfilled for the glory of God alone.” Johann Sebastian Bach would sign his musical compositions with two sets of initials – JSB and SDG (“Soli Deo Gloria”). Bach knew that “all work—all types of work, not just the work done in the service of the church—was a calling.”

That means that a doctor, a lawyer, a businessperson, a homemaker, a student, a janitor, a landscaper, a millworker, a mechanic, an engineer, a teacher, a (fill in the blank here!) are all participating in God’s calling on their lives if they do their work for the glory of God.

But there is a problem that we see in twenty-first century evangelicalism: More often than not, evangelicals still define “calling” or “God-glorifying work” as only that which is church-related and/or evangelistic. Sure, we can talk about Christians in the marketplace glorifying God with their work, but what we really mean is that they are “called” to use their secular work as a means for evangelism or (worse) for financing the work of those in “full time ministry,” like pastors and missionaries.

I heard this attitude the other day as I shared with a couple of my ministry peers a passage from 1 Corinthians 15. This magnificent chapter talking about the importance of the resurrection ends with a wonderful affirmation of our work in this present life and how it matters, lasting into the next age after Christians are resurrected.

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58)

I said to my two ministry friends that this affirms that what Christians do in this life, whether it be composing a song, writing a novel, designing a building (or whatever!, as long as it is the “work of the Lord”) is not labor done “in vain.” God will take these things into the next age of resurrection life.

They looked at me sideways. No, they insisted, “the work of the Lord” is evangelism – sharing the good news of the resurrection with people. This work is what we should “give ourselves fully to.”

I appreciate their focus on evangelism. Yes, I affirm that everything that we do is a witness to the Kingdom of God and to the King who is ruling in our lives, and that we are to give ourselves fully to the work of proclaiming that Jesus is the Lord of all things.

But without knowing it, these friends (who I deeply respect) had disparaged work in and of itself as a legitimate means for bringing the Kingdom of God to bear in this world. Certainly proclaiming the Kingdom through articulating the gospel to people is something we are all called to do. But doing "Kingdom work" is more than that. It includes everything that we do to bring God's will on earth as it is in heaven. Everything. Certainly included as a subset of this everything is the actual articulation of the atonement found in Christ. But another subset of this is working to bring justice in the world. Or reconciling people who are in conflict. Or giving a cup of cold water in the name of the Lord. Or creating a cultural artifact, like a painting or a song. Or simply serving others through doing our work with excellence.

Upon reflecting on that conversation, I wondered if my friends were reversing the Reformation’s teaching, heading back to the age that said that only church work is the “work of the Lord,” that the only work that really counts for the Kingdom of God is evangelism. As they disciple Christians, are they teaching in subtle yet harmful ways that the only “real” work for a Christian is evangelism, that a person’s pursuit of a career calling outside of vocational ministry was (in the words of Stephen J. Nichols) “settling for something lesser,” that any other work is not as important as a pastor’s or missionary’s work? Were they not sending signals that if people pursue a career outside vocational ministry that the only real reason to do so is to use that career as a platform for evangelism? Were they not implicitly stating that work, in and of itself, is not important?

Nichols does a great job of explaining the biblical teaching on vocation within the story of “Creation-Fall-Redemption.” The “creation mandate” or “cultural mandate” was established when God placed Adam and Eve as his vice-regents on earth, to “have dominion over” the creation and to “work” or “cultivate” it. Nichols says, “This theological framework raises work to a whole new horizon of understanding. As we think it through, we begin to see that in our work we are in service of the King, making work both a duty and a wonderful privilege.”

But the Fall warps the purpose of work and the way we work. Because sin runs through everything like a cancer, it damages our calling. We work not in service to and glory of the King, but in service to our own desires and for our own glory (Why is it that we seek the promotion or the recognition award at work? Why is it that we buy the latest technological gadget, drive the slickest car, or dress in the clothes that we do? Why is it that, as Nichols points out, “in our consumer culture we have come to attach greater value to those who produce and consume more than those who produce or consume less”?).

The Redemption found in Christ is the key to re-establishing work as God intended it. In the Incarnation of God in Christ, Nichols writes, “we see Christ as fully and truly human, as well as fully and truly divine.” Jesus was a son, a brother, a person living under the Roman Empire, and a carpenter. “Christ demonstrates the value and integrity of the roles for us, and the value and integrity of work. But more than this, Christ through his redemptive work undoes what Adam did in the fall. And he restores to us the ability and the capacity to be image-bearers as God intended us to be.”

We evangelicals appropriately focus on how we are made in the image of Christ the Redeemer – thus our emphasis on evangelism and mission. But before Redemption there was Creation. While being a Christian is no less than participating in the work of evangelism and mission, it is also so much more. We are created in the image of the Creator and Redeemer God, which means that the Gospel of the Kingdom has as much to say about our work as creators and culture-makers as it does about our work as missionaries and evangelists.

Since Christians are agents of Redemption in the world, Nichols offers us helpful practical guidelines for “how not to work” and “how to work.” He walks the reader through Ephesians 6:5-9, where we are commanded to “serve wholeheartedly, as serving the Lord, not men.” He also helps us reconcile the fact that we get our paychecks from our work. “Culturally, we have by and large attached work to a paycheck…But paychecks are not the sole factor in legitimizing work. And work done for a paycheck is not the only type of work there is.”

Can we establish in our minds the idea that God calls us to work? Can we begin to read our Bibles without medieval notions that the only “work for the Lord” is ministry-related (church, missions, evangelism)?

If so, we can hear God’s calling to his people in a whole new, breathtaking way. Verses like Psalm 90:17 take on incredible significance:

“May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;

establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands!”

Technorati Tags:

Blogger Labels: Vocation


Michael Kruse said...

Thanks for the heads up on the book. I look forward to reading it.

Red Letter Believers said...

Well, vocation is God at work in our work. And part of our High Calling is living out our faith and impacting our schools, our neighborhoods and our workplaces. That's where the real change occurs. And this focus on 'vocation' pushes us in the secular workplace to step it up! Good post