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On Vocation Blog

Posted March 19, 2018 by Center for Faith and Innovation
Tags: Vocation and Calling

From "The Call" to "On Call"

Person Walking Down Path

One of the most misleading and damaging modern pious uses of the historical Christian language of “calling” and “vocation” is the rendering of “Call” (or, synonymously, “Vocation”) as if it were a single, lifelong Job God has for each of us to do – that one big thing – usually thought of as a career – that is preordained, inflexible, and (sorry folks!) completely and impenetrably mysterious to most young people . . . thus an endless source of stress for them.

Against this distorted understanding of calling stand the testimonies of the New Testament and of such seminal Protestant thinkers as Martin Luther and John Calvin, who understood the concept of vocation or calling in much fuller and more nuanced ways. Also against it stand two kinds of empirical evidence: first, the fact that our working lives and even our careers take many winding and changing pathways; and second, the fact that we find ourselves embedded in a growing lifelong network of responsible human relationships. Quite simply, Scripture, tradition, and experience all tell us that we are to honor God and love our neighbors in all these relationships—through roles and responsibilities Luther (for example) named as our many, simultaneous vocations.

So for example, while the modern distorted view might say “My vocation is to be a doctor,” the historic Christian view would say, “I have as many vocations as I have responsible relationships; I am called to be a doctor to my patients, a colleague to my fellow doctors, an employee to my hospital, a mother to my children, a daughter to my parents, a neighbor to my neighbors in need, a citizen of my city, state, country, and world . . . and many other vocations, too.”

Instead of leaving our young people to spin and stress, trapped by the “churchy”—but modern and unbiblical—pressure to find and excel in their supposed One, Big, Preordained, Inflexible, Mysterious Call, we should be helping them to think about their whole lives as a continuous, seamless experience of being “On Call.”

I mean this in just the way we speak of a doctor or emergency/rescue worker being on call: we should help our students see that Christian discipleship calls for them to be ready to respond and help at any time, to any situation that seems within their sphere of responsibility. Of course, they should understand at the same time that Sabbath rest is part of God’s scriptural mandate for all of us! We must help them fight the evangelical temptation to be “always on” – always doing – never relaxed or resting. To do that is also to be disobedient. It may even be spiritual hubris – a kind of “savior complex”!

Our best service to our students is to give them perspectives and tools through which they can live into the ordinary Christian discipleship to which they are always “called”: their ordinary vocations to love God and neighbor in everything they do—working “as unto the Lord,” and praying for his wisdom to do so better and better in every job, relationship, and situation.

That may not sound like vocation as we’re used to thinking about it.

But it is a healthier, more biblical, and more traditionally grounded usage of the Christian concepts of “call” and “vocation” than many of our young people are getting today.