Though many of us seem to have forgotten it in our post-Christian age, “vocation” is a Christian word. And by “vocation,” the historic church — especially the Protestant tradition — has meant something like this: Meaningful work that fulfills both the Genesis mandate to cultivate and keep the earth and the great commandment to love God and love and serve our neighbors. Taking this definition, vocation finds its roots in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.
From the Genesis account of creation, it’s reasonable to say that work is an essential part of what it means to live on earth as an image bearer of God. Work is a mandate, not a curse. Related, the reformer Martin Luther’s teachings on vocation and the Reformation concept of “common grace” show us that God uses people’s work, whether they name the name of Christ or not, to provide for the needs of other people.
The Protestant tradition has taught that we have not only particular vocations — particular kinds of work that we are called to in the world, to serve bosses, or customers, or spouses, or children, or our city — within the structures of God’s common grace. We also have general callings or vocations, which we may fulfill only by God’s saving grace through Christ, and as empowered by his Holy Spirit. And in fact, in both Scripture and the early church, where we encounter the language of “calling,” or vocation, it is almost always in connection with these general vocations.
Included in these general callings is the creation mandate, as well as the Law — as expressed, for example, in the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount — and the summing up of the Law in what we might call the “love calling” or “love vocation” expressed in the great commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
When Luther talked about the particular callings in which we serve others by our particular gifts, he spoke of them as multiple and relational. In other words, according to Luther, we have vocations not only to paid work in the marketplace and public square, but also to the relational work of being a sister, mother, neighbor, citizen, volunteer, and more.
Thus the Protestant evangelical tendency to think of vocation as the “one big mysterious job God has for you on earth,” which he holds in his mind and which you must search out and discern through prayer, is quite simply inconsistent with Reformation teaching on vocation.
We could summarize at this point with a quick, one-sentence, Christian definition of vocation. Psychologist Bryan Dik defines vocation as “a summons to meaningful work in service to others.”
Note that this definition doesn’t mention personal strengths. It leaves room for callings to things we’re good at and to things we’re bad at.
In the few biblical stories where someone received a direct call from God to some work, what was the first thing they typically said in response? “God, you’ve got the wrong person. I don’t have the gifts for that work. I could never do it.” But God doesn’t make mistakes. So if we find ourselves in a difficult and challenging relationship that we would not have chosen for ourselves — say with a disabled child or a parent with dementia — then this is just as truly a vocation as our chosen (paying) jobs.
You may be familiar with the kind of “hierarchy of jobs” that has long marred churches’ treatment of work. You know, pastors and missionaries at the top, business people and politicians at the bottom — with the value judgment being based on the perceived “spirituality” of the work, or even with how much God is presumed to care about the work or how much the work is presumed to serve his purposes on earth. Many jobs are quite simply assumed to be “secular” — detached from God and his purposes.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons for this secularization of vocation in the churches. But one of the biggest is how we relate to creation.
Bluntly put, since around the 17th century, the faith of modern Western Christians has become steadily both more privatized and more spiritualized, that is, detached from the world. And at the same time, the world around us has become “scientized,” understood only in objective, empirical, material categories, and thus detached from the church. And since our work takes place in this material, despiritualized world, we have fallen into the habit of treating most kinds of ordinary work, which typically serve very earthly, material, and social human needs, as if by their very “earthiness,” they intrinsically have very little to do with our faith.
Ironically, this detachment sometimes looks like worldliness or materialism: the typical modern Western mode of effectively living for material pleasures and material accumulation. Though Christians are unlikely to profess that wry modern creed, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” we are quite capable of sacrificing a great deal to the idols of career success, in order to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, all the latest iDevices, regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. And these habits, too, separate the material world of jobs and careers from the spiritual world of the church. Because, as Augustine of Hippo taught, when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we decouple or disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.
During the medieval millennium, whose many generations of scholars built slowly on Augustine’s foundation, Christians did indeed (as we moderns have not) find ways to keep the spiritual and the material together. And at least one very prominent modern Christian thinker followed that age’s integrative lead. So let’s enter that age through that modern figure.
Born in 1898 in Belfast, the son of a lawyer and a cultured, linguistically gifted mother who died when he was nine, this man read voraciously and omnivorously from his earliest years. By the age of eight, he was writing stories about “dressed animals” with his brother. In his teen years, learning classics under an Irish schoolmaster, he learned to appreciate the quest for truth not as an idle intellectual exercise, but rather as a search for the truth about what is real and true in the world — and for the wisdom necessary to live the good life. And that quest led him first to a lifelong concern for moral philosophy, and then, eventually, to a vocation as a professor of medieval literature.
In his short testimonial memoir Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis described early experiences of deep longing and yearning for something beyond the bounds of this world. This longing he called simply “joy.” Paradoxically, although these experiences pointed to something transcendent and immaterial, they always came through the most vivid, material, sensory images — distant green hills, a toy garden in a biscuit-tin lid, powerful images of “Northernness” from Norse myths. These pointers to the metaphysical were thus simultaneously profoundly physical. And when such experiences finally led him to God, he called himself an “empirical theist” who “arrived at God by induction.”