Appendix: Someone’s Calling You

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Careerism versus Calling

When most of us think about the “working week” we have been conditioned to think in terms of careers and occupations. Our work as doctors, teachers, mechanics, retail assistants, human resource managers and hairdressers are in the end what matters most. Everything else in our week is peripheral. These careers are the way our culture has taught us to think about ourselves. “What do you do?” is the immediate follow-up question as soon as someone has told us their name. We are defined and valued and given status according to our “jobs”. Consequently our vocation or calling is frequently wrapped up in our career.

But this is far from biblical. It’s also not helpful in thinking about the mission of the church, and how each of us fits into it. Thinking in such one-dimensional terms leaves us bereft of finding an integrated focus to the whole of our lives – a centre that can drive all we do.

A vision for the church

Ultimately, one of the issues that is really going to decide the future of the Christian movement is how effective are we in seeing everyone mobilised in Christian mission and ministry. Our ability to see everyone equipped and supported for ministry everyday.

The trouble is – many Christians don’t think the words mission and ministry apply to their everyday lives. And unfortunately the church reinforces that fact (often unwittingly). For example, many congregations embark on courses that are designed to help us discover our gifts and find our ministries. However, they only apply to finding where we fit within the church and its ministries – not through the partnership we live out with God through the whole of our lives in the world.

Our dream for us as individuals – and for the church, is that we might see it all counting for God. That we might gain a sense of God’s call that provides an integrating centre for all the work we do-at home, in the community, in the church and in our employment. That we might have a sense of being caught up in God’s purposes wherever we are.

But also with the different parts of our lives held together in a healthy balance, rather than aggressively competing with each other in a way that leaves us feeling torn apart.

Where do we fit in God’s jigsaw?

At the core of this issue is the question - Can we gain a sense of being called by God in a way that applies to the whole of our lives? Many of us, as Christians, seem to struggle with that. Especially in seeing how our lives outside of the church and its programmes are genuinely connected to God’s mission and ministry.

A brief historical survey may help us see why we might struggle in this regard. And give us some starting points to move beyond our frustrations.

Part of the problem starts way back even before New Testament times where we find two sharply contrasting views of everyday work among the Greeks and the Jews.

1. Greeks

In the Greek world daily work was considered to be a curse. Aristotle said that to be unemployed was good fortune because it allowed a person to participate in political life and philosophising. These matters were what “real life” was all about.

So for the Greeks, society was organised so that a few could enjoy the blessing of “leisure” while work was done by slaves. Everyday work was a demeaning occupation – one that a person should try to avoid. And certainly there was nothing spiritually meaningful or uplifting about everyday work.

2. Jews

However, the Jews had a very different worldview. Although the opportunity to think about political issues and engage in contemplation was also valued by them, other everyday pursuits were also part of living out one’s faith. So Jewish teachers didn’t live off the contributions of their disciples, but were expected to have a trade in order to support themselves.

In fact, far from being avoided, daily work was to be embraced as part of God's purposes for us. Consequently, theological reflection was done by people who were also engaged in everyday life in the world.

3. Early Christianity

So it wouldn’t have been surprising that Jesus who was known as a carpenter and the son of a carpenter, was also a spiritual teacher, although there is no example of him continuing his trade during the period of his public ministry. And though Jesus called some of his inner circle of disciples to leave their fishing nets to follow him, he certainly didn’t call all his followers to give up their everyday work.

Much of his teaching drew on themes from the world of everyday work without any self-consciousness or apologies.

And of course the apostle Paul emphasized a positive view of work, encouraging all Christians to continue in their work and to work well. This was emphasised in his own choice to continue his trade as a tentmaker during most of his church planting years.

So this kind of integration of Christian life and daily work seems to be the general Christian pattern for the first century after the Apostles.

4. Distorted Christianity!

However, some changes started to appear gradually from the third century on. The more positive (Jewish) view of work gave way to a much lower view, where “ordinary” work came to be viewed as inferior to the work of priests, monks and nuns.

It wasn’t long until this view dominated Christian thinking. Only those people pursuing the “contemplative” life or a priestly role in the church were said to have a true “calling”.

This view still persists today. And its message is easily apparent - if we want our lives to count for God we’d better get more involved in the church, because that’s what really matters to God. “Ministry” is where it’s at.

There is one qualification. If you can get a job as a doctor or nurse or social worker or maybe a teacher you might be able to turn it into something that feels a bit more like ‘ministry’ because of the more obvious ‘people-helping’ component in it.

So this “two-tiered” view of work is a distortion that began in the early church period. It’s Greek, not Christian.

5. Restoring the balance

In the late middle ages the church began to wake up to the inherent problems of this dualistic (sacred and secular) worldview. Initially it was through the work of Martin Luther and the other reformers, who began to teach that all of life, including daily work, can be understood as part of a “calling” from God.

According to Luther, the primary way we respond to God’s call to love our neighbour is by fulfilling the duties that are associated with our everyday work. Work is our call to serve. And this work includes domestic work at home and community involvement, alongside our employment.

In fact although he became a monk himself because he thought that that was the highest spiritual calling, Luther’s own view changed radically. Eventually he decided that we can only truly serve God in the midst of everyday circumstances. Attempts to elevate the significance of the contemplative life are doomed.

Faith that doesn’t confront real life is not real faith at all. Luther felt that everyday pursuits had become devalued and sidelined from God’s purposes. For him it was largely through the daily work of his people that God works to sustain life, continues his creative activity, and redeems those aspects of life where rottenness has set in.

God’s work and our work are intimately connected even when it’s not called “church work”. This was largely the result of the contribution of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Puritans (who followed them).

The difficulty is that like most people who seek to restore some truth to the church it tends to get pushed from one extreme to the other – from neglect to over emphasis. As a result, every day work – once devalued and treated as second-best in our discipleship, began to assume not just an important place in our discipleship, but even replace discipleship. This became even more extreme with the advent of capitalism and the industrial revolution.

6. A New Distortion!

With the passing of time the concept of “vocation” or “calling” became so closely associated with a person's occupation or career that these words became synonymous. People were encouraged to view their calling as being wrapped up in their paid employment or profession (so that someone might say, “My calling is to be a lawyer”).

And that’s how we tend to use it today. We talk about “vocational guidance” – but in a thoroughly secularised way – without any reference to the calling of God.

As a result, the pursuit of a vocation/calling became an end in itself. People were encouraged to look for personal fulfilment through the work of their own hands.

Whereas once people worked to make a living, now they began to live in order to work. Whereas once the medieval church threatened to divorce faith from work, now they became so closely fused that work was idolised. This was especially true of paid employment.

It’s this distortion that deprives the unemployed person, or the person engaged in unpaid domestic or voluntary work, of status, security and satisfaction – by emphasising that these are primarily associated with employment. The assumption is made that unless you are paid for your work, it has little or no value, recognition and fulfilment.

However, there are other consequences to this new distortion. Work once degraded, is now worshipped, and demands huge sacrifices. So we end up with the strange situation that seems to dominate now, where the majority of people feel stressed from overwork while a significant minority struggle with the fact that they can’t find satisfying work.

Ironically it’s because employment is demanding so much time and energy for so many, that we struggle to live out our calling as Christians in the other spheres of life – at home, in the community and in church life.

So What’s The Answer?

We need to find a path that will lead us between the twin heresies of divorcing faith from work on the one hand or on the other hand, marrying faith and work, which just means idolising work.

This is best done by emphasizing that our primary calling as Christians is to follow Jesus and nothing else must be allowed to dilute that or squeeze it out.

However, this doesn’t mean we live out some spiritual life separate from the rest of life. Our call embraces the whole of our lives – including our work – which itself refers not only to paid employment but also domestic duties, volunteerism in the community and tasks in the church. A broad definition of work is required to really understand our calling. None of these spheres should be devalued or overvalued.