Chapter 8 - Work as Calling: An Invitation to Vocation
Because of our involvement with numerous Christian organizations and churches, we both have had occasion over the years to see their application forms – the detailed set of questions they hand to anyone who is considering joining their staff as a “fulltime Christian worker”. Filling in these documents is surely a marathon activity. As you labor with all sorts of probing questions, you begin to wonder, “Am I really good enough for this position?”
But no question is as difficult to pin down as the one that – in one form or another – asks: “What call do you feel to this work?
The Christian call
The “call” has certainly become part of the language of evangelicals. We hear it used in a number of different ways. “I feel called to the ministry.” “My work is my calling.” “I sense the call of God on my life.” “God has called me to Africa.”
You don’t have to be in the church too long to realize that if you aspire to leadership you’d better be prepared to explain what direct communication you’ve had from God. In some more legalistic circles this may even involve a request for specific Bible verses, prophetic words, or incidents that “prove” God has spoken to you.
The older word “vocation” used to have the same meaning. It comes from the Latin vocatio, a calling. In modern use it usually refers to a person’s career or profession. For example, “I’m thinking of taking up law as a vocation.” However, it is still used sometimes (especially in Catholic circles) to mean God’s call to a particular Christian role.
Biblical perspectives on “calling”
The idea of vocation or calling is very much present in the Bible, but in a surprisingly different way. There it doesn’t so much concern what we do, but who we belong to. Biblical calling is not about tasks. First and foremost, it concerns our identity. Or, to put it another way, a calling is to join someone – not to do something or go somewhere.
Neither is it exclusive. It’s not limited to pastors and ministers, cross cultural missionaries and “fulltime Christian workers”.
Here’s the startling point. All of us are called.
And what is it that we’re called to? The Biblical answer is: to be followers of Jesus – his disciples. Any roles we play or tasks we do are simply out-workings of our call to follow him.
Called to belong, be, and do
First and foremost, we are called to belong. In the Scriptures the word “calling” carries a sense of intimacy. God calls each of us by name, and invites us to belong to Him. For example, God states through his prophet Hosea in 11:1, “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Here is a call to relationship with God, and with it, to be a part of His family.
Matthew writes about Jesus, “Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John…Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” (Matt 4:21-22)
We are not called out of the world. We find our true identity as God’s people in the world that God made. This is expressed through living a life of transformation, and of service. For example:
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love (Gal 5:13).
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace (Col 3:15).
For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life (1 Thess 4:7).
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received (Eph 4:1).
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God… that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Os Guinness puts it this way: Calling means that our lives are so lived as a summons of Christ that the expression of our personalities and the exercise of our spiritual gifts and natural talents are given direction and power precisely because they are not done for themselves, or for our families, or our businesses or even humankind, but for the Lord, who will hold us accountable for them.
So … our calling or “vocation” is to belong to God. The daily work we do is an expression of our calling, but it is not itself that calling. However “spiritual” it may appear, our daily activity is not (biblically speaking) our “vocation” or our calling. It is simply the way we work out that calling, the way we express our love of God, the way we put into practice our service for him.
Whether we clean floors or preach sermons is, in God’s eyes, not the issue. Whatever our work may be, his concern is how faithfully we live his way.
So how did we develop such a “warped” view of calling and vocation?
The seeds of a corrupted view of calling were sown, as we noted in the previous chapter, early on in the history of the Church. Despite the best attempts of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul, it took only a century or so before the Christian church became heavily influenced by the dualism of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.
Soon only priests, monks and nuns were considered to have a “religious” vocation. They were called to the “contemplative life” of prayer – set apart from the active life of ordinary, everyday work.
Even Augustine, who praised the work of farmers, merchants and tradespeople, distinguished between the “active life” and the “contemplative life”. At times it might be necessary to follow the active life but, according to Augustine, one should choose the other wherever possible.
This type of thinking encouraged both monasticism and professional church leadership. People were supposed to be “called” to these more “spiritual” roles. In other words “calling” or vocation became almost exclusively defined by the roles of the clergy and religious orders.
When Martin Luther began teaching that all Christians are called and that daily work is part of our calling, his ideas were revolutionary. Monasticism, Luther said, was not a unique class or special order. The work of monks and nuns was no higher in God’s eyes than the normal work, performed in sincere faith, of a farmer or housewife.
John Calvin further developed this idea of daily work as Christian calling. However, it wasn’t long before particular jobs (like farming and law) became specially identified as Christian vocations. Soon the concept that our calling is primarily about belonging to Jesus began to drift into the background.
Consequently, while “calling” was once too narrowly defined, it now became so closely identified with particular occupations that the words “vocation”, “calling” and “profession” simply became synonyms for “job”. This was eventually followed by the idea of “career”, resulting in a person’s identity and status being defined by his or her paid job, without any reference to God at all.
At the same time, in spite of Martin Luther’s efforts, the church has never really freed itself from the clergy/laity distinction. The two-tiered value system of the medieval church has largely remained in place. In church circles a “real” calling is still thought to be one that involves a person in pastoral leadership or cross-cultural mission work. And because of our emphasis on being called to “do”, invariably a calling is seen as something that takes us out of our current situation (geographical or task) as God “leads” us into a new one.
Working out our calling where we are
It’s exactly this type of mentality that Paul spoke about in his first letter to the Corinthians. Certain people within the church had been teaching that it was more spiritual for them to be single, with the implication that if a married person really wanted to grow spiritually then she should leave her partner.
Paul took pains to dismiss this idea. In chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians he argues that we should not think that God’s call on our lives requires us to change our circumstances (i.e. relationships, location, social position, employment, etc.). On the contrary, the norm should be that we remain where we are already placed and allow God to transform us, our relationships, our tasks, and our whole perspectives within that context.
Paul is perfectly clear on the subject, in 1 Cor 7:20: “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called him.”
About this passage Gordon Fee says, “The call to Christ has created such a change in one’s essential relationship (with God) that one does not need to change in other relationships (with people). These latter are transformed and given new meaning by the former. Thus one is no better off in one condition than in the other.”
Paul was not advocating that we should never change our circumstances – simply that the call to follow Jesus means we can serve Christ wherever we are. Our context for serving may indeed change, but rather than seeking change in our situation, we should be working to discover ways that our calling (to follow Jesus) can be lived out through our current circumstances.
So, have you received a call? You certainly have, if you’ve set out to follow Jesus. For his call to you is a call to be in relationship with him and to be part of the family of God. Your vocation is to work with him in order to transform your whole life. As you do this you will increasingly find yourself able to serve him even further – by helping transform whatever part of the world you find yourself in.
Up Close and Personal
- Share any experiences you’ve personally had with either having to justify or provide “evidence” for being called to a particular role. How did you go about it?
- How do you feel about the tasks that you are involved in at present? To what extent do you feel that your church community affirms and supports you in these tasks?
- Have you ever considered changing jobs or location? On what basis do you think a person should consider changing jobs? What particular reasons that might cause Christians to change jobs do you consider would not be valid?
- Discuss Gordon Fee’s statement, “The call to Christ has created such a change in one’s essential relationship (with God) that one does not need to change in other relationships (with people). These latter are transformed and given new meaning by the former. Thus one is no better off in one condition than in the other.”
Refer back to your list of roles/tasks at the end of the Introduction. Spend some time pondering how each one fits into your calling to follow and serve Jesus.
Then use the following outline to write a statement of calling for yourself.
Jesus Christ has called me (name) to belong to and follow him. This calling is presently expressed in being committed to (church community), and specifically to (Christian family/friends/mission or other groups you belong to), as well as serving in the following roles and tasks: (List specific roles and tasks, such as husband/wife, father/mother, son/daughter, etc., friend; employee/employer/profession/paid employment, etc.; unpaid/voluntary roles; roles in church community; neighbor to, etc.).
Feel free to personalize your statement. For example:
Jesus Christ has called me, John Smith, to belong to, know and follow him.
This calling is presently expressed outwardly through:
- Being a member of Harrisville Christian Fellowship
And particularly by being committed to:
- Jeremy Ronaldson
- Frank and Margaret Jones
- Mark McCutcheon
- Mary and Jerry Cruz
My calling is also expressed through the following roles, tasks and relationships:
- As a husband to Marilyn
- A father to Samuel and Whitney
- An engineer with the Harrisville City Council
- A board member of Redwood Park School Board of Trustees
- Coach of the Harrisville boys’ Under 10 rugby team
- Friend to Bob, Jack, Tom F., Steve, Paul and Richard
- Neighbor to Kelvin and Sandra, Mrs. Grantham, Jenny and George
- Member of the church pastoral care team
- Helper at the Harrisville Refugee Centre
The listed roles are the main (but not the only) outward expressions of my calling to follow Jesus. As his co-worker, I will endeavor to use all opportunities to serve him and to build his kingdom. I also recognize that the roles, tasks and relationships I presently use to follow Jesus, may well change, as he directs and guides me.
O. Guinness, “The Recovery of Vocation for our Time” (unpublished audiotape).
While this emphasis began with the Puritans, it was mainly due to the influence of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution that “vocation” became identified with occupation or career, with no real spiritual connections. Hardly surprising then, that many people today speak of their vocation without any reference to a Christian calling. The wider culture has “wrestled” the word vocation off the Puritans and emptied it of its Christian meaning.
Gordon Fee I Corinthians (NICNT) (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1987), 307.