The Character of a Foretaste Bringer
[Editorial Note: This article draws from Dr. Sherman’s presentation to the Boston Fellows on April 23, 2016]
In my book, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, I urge Christ-followers to imitate Jesus in his “kingdom-foretaste-bringing” work. Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, offering through his teaching and miracles foretastes of the fully consummated Kingdom that will arrive “like a bride adorned for her bridegroom” upon his return. Today, through our various vocations, we can bring foretastes of the justice, economic flourishing, beauty, peace, joy, intimacy with God, and wholeness that will characterize our life in the New Heavens and New Earth.
In speeches around the country, I tell stories of Christians who are doing just that: architects promoting creation care; businesswomen helping single moms to flourish; research scientists offering a foretaste of wholeness to children with rare genetic diseases; and artists doing their part to advance justice in the fight against sex trafficking.
But before we can do the work of Kingdom-foretaste-bringing effectively, we need to be certain kinds of people. Without the right character, our work to promote the common good may actually bring harm. It may become an exercise of privilege and paternalism; something faddish rather than enduring and prideful instead of faithful.
Keeping Focused on the Caller
At the heart of the character of a Kingdom-foretaste-bringer is a diligent focus on the Caller. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means call. And a call assumes a Caller.
God is our Caller and he has invited us to join him in his great work of renewing all things. This call is fundamental; we need to see that “vocation is integral not incidental to the mission of God in the world” (as my friend Steve Garber likes to say).
But keeping focused on the Caller can be difficult in our contemporary culture. We swim in deep cultural waters filled with implicit assumptions, and we can easily fail to recognize the ways that culture, rather than Caller, shapes how we think about our work.
When we remain focused on the Caller, we find resources to push back against three powerful, ubiquitious cultural narratives that shape contemporary work: the narrative of aggressive personal initiative, of hyper-individualism, and of radical personal freedom.
Starting with the notion of the Caller focuses us on responsiveness. While the culture chants “Craft your own destiny!” and “You are your own Chief Life Officer” (the latter from Lincoln Financial’s TV ad), scripture tells of Jesus who would not do anything or say anything apart from His Father. Jesus models radical dependency, not aggressive initiative. The scriptures call us repeatedly not to trust in our own way or lean on our own understanding, but in all our ways to acknowledge Him.
For our work, this means asking the Caller: How do you want me to respond to your work in the world? How can I, through my work, participate in your ongoing provision for the creation; in your active restraint of evil and corruption; in your work of advancing justice and shalom? This is a different approach than starting with what we want to do or what we can “make happen.” And this cultivates within us humility and patience—traits critical for actually advancing the common good.
Starting with the Caller also draws our attention to the biblical theme of community. That helps us push back against the cultural narrative of hyper-individualism.
Scripture repeatedly emphasizes our communal identity. We are part of the Body of Christ, part of the Lord’s Temple, each of us a living stone added to other living stones. This has practical implications for vocational discernment. In short, our decision-making grid has to take into account other people. Contemporary culture assumes personal decision-making is exclusively that—personal. It is shaped by the highly consumeristic shape of our society. It’s all about what I want, what I need, what I’m passionate about, what I’m gifted in.
Staying focused on the Caller expands our grid for vocational decision-making beyond such questions alone. For example, it helps us to ask: Who will benefit from the deployment of my talents, skills, and education if I take this versus that job? Americans possess more vocational choice than literally millions of human beings, and we need to steward it well. How might we best serve the underserved?
Finally, starting with the Caller reminds us that we belong to Christ. This equips us to resist the cultural narrative of radical personal freedom. It reminds us, “I am no longer my own, I’ve been bought with a price.” And precisely because we belong to Jesus, there are limitations placed on our freedom. We belong to Another; we belong to the Caller! We are not free to simply make our choices without consultation with him.
This truth also brings us comfort. Because we belong to Christ, we can trust him to “have our back,” to meet our needs, to see our contributions. We don’t have to conform to a dog-eat-dog competitiveness at work, or to self-protectionism or self-promotion. We can enjoy resting in him.
Being Before Doing
Being formed as faithful, effective foretaste-bringers is a lifelong process. It’s fully dependent on the Holy Spirit working within us. But we are responsible to make real effort; to strive to become these kinds of humble, responsive, patience, kind, other-centered, radically generous people. As Dallas Willard once put it, “The Gospel is opposed to earning, not to effort.” Our part is to strive for an active, daily, functional reliance on Jesus every hour at work. Our part is to join with fellow disciples to support one other and hold one another accountable as we practice counter-cultural habits in the workplace.
I’ve spent most of my career focused on Christian community development and “what works” in advancing flourishing and the common good. But we won’t do well in promoting “what works” if we’re not seeking to be the kind of workers God can actually use.Topics: Christian Character, Vocation