Key vocation ideas: A guide for the perplexed
February 16, 2018
A unique challenge for an institution like Wheaton College is that there are almost as many ideas about vocation, and paths to and through vocation, as there are people. God does make us so that no two people fill the same roles in this world. And each of us does find our own unique path into those roles, and our own ways to love God and our neighbor as we operate in them. However, since “it takes a college” to form a student vocationally, it helps if we work from a common language and narrative about vocation. This is just what Opus does in our programs and activities with faculty, staff, and students. For a peek into this common language, look at this handy table and brief narrative.
Summary of ideas
The following summary provides context for the words briefly defined above. Each underlined word below appears in the left column of the chart above.
I. Vocational Discernment
Some of our students have been taken in by a secularist, self-oriented, individualistic narrative of vocation that says “Follow your passion and you’ll find work that perfectly fits you, and enjoy a lifetime of fulfilment.”
While we can desire those good things, they don’t tell the story of vocation as the Christian faith has:
Vocation is a Christian term that refers to God’s call on us to serve others and glorify him. “Vocation” and “calling” are thus interchangeable terms.
The Christian story of vocation starts with the general calling to faith in Christ and obedience to God’s mandates (such as the “creation mandate” or “cultural mandate” of Genesis – to keep, cultivate, and have dominion – and the “Great Commission” of the Gospels to evangelize and make disciples), as well as his laws (such as the Ten Commandments of Genesis and the “Great Commandment” of the Gospels).
Our particular callings are the specific roles and responsibilities God calls us to, in which we serve others and glorify him. We are to fulfil these in light of (and service to) our general calling. Vocation in this sense (which is the usual sense today) is not limited to work and career, but also includes family and civic life. And, note again, we arrive at this kind of vocation not by our “passion,” but by God’s calling.
Others of our students have been taken in by a very different narrative – the pious Christian belief that there is one big mysterious vocation in God’s mind for them, and they must hear directly from God what that is. They may be genuinely paralyzed by the lack of this direction, or they may use this pious Christian cultural expectation as a cover for inaction motivated by fear, laziness, or confusion.
But fewer than 100 figures in the Bible were called directly to their work. Instead, experience tells us that vocations are revealed through more ordinary means: personal awareness our gifts and deepest desires, the words of those who know us best, the pressing awareness of certain needs in the world.
Luther can be helpful to us here: he insisted we find vocations everywhere we find ourselves in significant relationship with others, entailing some service to them.
Yes, we can choose some vocations. But contrary to the secular narrative driven by passion, fit, and fulfilment, some vocations are not chosen, but given, even against our wills. Some examples of this are having a special needs child, or having to work in a hard and unfulfilling job to feed our family, or needing to serve an aging parent with dementia.
II. Theology of Work
However we arrive at them and experience them, it is through all our particular vocations that God by his common grace makes provision for the common good of all people.
This frames the purpose of our work very differently than secular culture does. We may helpfully see work through the lens of a “four-chapter Gospel”:
Creation: God is a Creator God who creates us as workers in his image, who alternate our work with rest and who work as stewards charged to cultivate and exercise dominion over the material world – but not to exploit it to our own ends or aggrandizement, as did the builders of the Tower of Babel. We work as co-creators with God, applying reason and creativity to make helpful things out of the raw materials God provides.
Fall: Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the consequent curse on all our working introduced many kinds of frustration (thorns & thistles) and relational brokenness (with Him, with each other, with the earth) into our work. We must therefore also have a theology of suffering in work.
Redemption: Christ provided, through his atoning work, for the healing of our relationships – including those of our work. He also enables his redeemed, through the continuing work of his Holy Spirit, to bring healing and help to the broken places of the world. This redemptive influence is most often exercised not through romantic, heroic, extraordinary efforts, but through ordinary work, faithfully done in a “long obedience in the same direction.”
New Creation: The story ends not with harps and clouds in a passive and purely spiritual heaven, but in a New Heaven and New Earth; and the best of our work on earth will be taken up into that new reality. It’s not “all gonna burn.”
III. Preparation for Christian impact
Having shown our students what the Christian tradition has meant by vocation, and steered them away from limited and paralyzing formulae for discernment, we want to help them achieve Christian impact in their working lives, whether their workplaces turn out to be dedicated explicitly to a Christian mission or not.
To achieve such impact, they will need to live into full integration between their faith and their work. Such integration requires that they not see jobs merely as platforms for evangelism or arenas of discipleship – though work can provide opportunities for both of these things. Older “marketplace ministry” approaches to helping prepare Christians for impact at work mostly limited themselves to these two foci, but we cannot.
Our students will also need to get beyond the pious impulse to focus purely on the how of their work – that is, to consider their faith relevant to their work merely, or primarily, in how nice they are to others, or how honest they are, or how encouraging, or how compassionate – though again, these are of course good things!
Beyond these approaches, our students will need to begin to see the many ways that, as we work, God works (again, by his common grace, for the common good) through the intrinsic nature of their work itself – that is, through the goods or services that their organizations and sectors exist to create. This will help them to find true Christian purpose in the daily tasks of their work itself.
We recognize, however, two limits on purpose in work: First, the fallen working world is still marked by frustration and brokenness—which requires us sometimes to seek the help of the Holy Spirit in discerning Christian purpose and vocation in our work. Second, some are tempted to make work (especially paying work) their whole purpose – and their whole identity. This is unhealthy and idolatrous. Our primary identity (our general calling) is in Christ – our various particular vocations are always subordinate.
However, this discovery of Christian purpose in the work itself can release our students to bring their full selves, including their faith, into their future work. This is the psychological meaning of the word integrity: not just being of good character, but also having an undivided self – being the same Christian person at work as in church and at home.
The Gallup organization, Michael Lindsay, James Davison Hunter, and other observers show us that many Christians—like many of their secular co-workers—fail to find this purpose and this integrity. If we can help our students begin to find them even now, they will be well-positioned to bring Christian influence to their work—both positive, creative influence supporting their organizations’ missions, and redemptive, humanizing influence where brokenness impedes those missions. This influence and impact will not come to our students all at once, at the beginning of their working lives. It will develop and mature slowly, requiring the resilience and patience born of confidence in God’s providence and prayerful reliance on the help of his Spirit in all their dealings.
Opus teaches a Christian vision of vocation that sees civic, marketplace, and workplace realities in light of a coherent theology of work. This theology frames vocation in terms of image-bearing and communal responsibility as well as discernment of individual gifts; work in terms of common good as well as individual action; the mission of the Christian in terms of the Love Commandment as well as the Great Commission; and the kingdom of God in terms of God’s gracious care for all people materially and socially as well as spiritually.