The deeply biblical idea of vocation presents a radical break from the privatization of our modern world and a revolutionary expansion of most Christian’s thinking about the nature of their lives. Our tendency is to compartmentalize, with our spiritual life over here and our jobs over there.
Yes, we struggle with how to live for Christ in the marketplace in terms of survival and sometimes ethics, but to see the job itself as a sacred act of worship is often beyond our spiritual vision.
As Henri Nouwen confessed at the beginning of his stay at a Trappist monastery, “Most people think that you go to the monastery to pray. Well, I prayed more this week than before but also discovered that I have not learned yet how to make the work of my hands into a prayer.” But this is precisely what the idea of vocation challenges us to pursue.
Why is this idea so alien, even to the Christian? Arguably, it is because we not only have tended to privatize our lives, but in the area of vocation we have secularized them. Think of how we use the term itself. We talk of “vocational education” and “vocational counseling,” which means little more than job training and job placement.
The heart of our calling, however, is not to something, but to Someone. The idea behind calling is that whatever our occupation may be, it is to be elevated to an expression of worship – that which could be pleasing to God – if performed with excellence and integrity and heartfelt devotion.
A real estate agent, then, as a committed servant is to represent his or her clients to the greater glory of God. A software developer’s labor is to be infused with a sense of piety.
But this is rare.
“Doctors practice medicine not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living,” noted Dorothy Sayers. “Lawyers accept briefs not because they have a passion for justice, but because the law is the profession that enables them to live.” More often than not, we have reduced being a Christian doctor or a Christian lawyer to what is done outside of office in some form of “official” ministry setting. The fallacy of this, notes Sayers, is that we view work not as the “expression of man’s creative energy in the service of society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure.”
It doesn’t help that when we first charted our vocational course in life, the notion of calling was seldom used as a compass. For many, the trek began with choosing a major in college. Rather than evaluating gifts and abilities, position or responsibility, submitting the matter to prayer and consideration, we were opportunistically pragmatic. What teachers did we like? Where could we get accepted? Where were the best job opportunities? What would pay the most? This is the map most of us follow our entire life.
It’s not that we tried to go against the natural grain of our life, much less dismiss the voice of God, we just didn’t think of God speaking to us about such things. Yet if the root of vocation is “calling,” then we must listen.
When I became a Christ follower at the age of 20, I was a pre-med major in college. I wanted to be a doctor because it paid well and seemed reasonably well-respected. There was no sense whatsoever of it being a life God had called me to pursue. But with my new life in Christ came a new sense of purpose. I wanted nothing more than to live the life that would make the most impact for Him. If it was in medicine, fine, but if not, all the better. As I evaluated medicine through the lens of my newfound faith, it became clear that there was little to commend it. I was competent in science but had scant passion for medical matters. And unlike what I had seen God give others who had been called to this field, nothing in my spirit sparked a vision for how it could play into the wider scheme of things.
But I knew what did. I knew what I could do; should do; was made to do.
Amazingly, this simple, basic understanding of who I was, and who God had made me to be, had never factored into my thinking about vocation.
The most profound vocational question is not, “What should I do with my life?” Instead, it is the more foundational (and demanding) question, “Who am I?”
Many years ago the film Chariots of Fire captured the public’s imagination and the year’s Oscar for best picture with its story of Eric Liddell, the 1920s Olympic runner from Scotland. In the film Liddell’s sister questions him about why he is going to run in the Olympics instead of pursuing another career. In reply, he turns to his sister and says, “Jenny, God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
God made each of us a certain way and when we run that course, we feel pleasure – God’s and ours.
Fredrick Buechner’s definition rings true: “[Vocation is] the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And make no mistake… the world’s deep hunger needs your deep gladness.
That’s why God gave it to you.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Genesee Diary.
Os Guinnness, The Call.
Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?” in The Whimsical Christian.
Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.