Thinking about Vocation
A few years ago I made a mid-afternoon pastoral visit to an unmarried couple living in our city. Sitting on the floor of their dark apartment, surrounded by ashtrays, prescription bottles, and piles of clothes, I learned that the couple’s daily routine revolved around smoking cigarettes and watching their one movie on their thirteen inch T.V. As the visit concluded, I gently asked this question: “Do you believe that God created you to live for a purpose?” After a long, thoughtful drag on her cigarette, the clearly bewildered and defeated woman responded honestly, “Sir, if we have a purpose, we have no idea what it is?”
Perhaps your life story sounds different from that of this couple. Nonetheless, many of us lack a clear sense of purpose. Some of us live to hear others laugh at our jokes. Others live for the weekend, or to pay off a mortgage, or to retire.
By contrast, all of us have a calling to live according to a grand design.
Vocation (Latin for “calling”) refers to the unique way in which God has chosen you to fit into His great plan. Prior to bending the knee to Christ, many people lack that sense of purpose which can only be found in vital union with God (Rom. 8:28). In other words, there is a connection between what is known as God’s effectual call and His call to a vocation. When God effectually calls a man or woman by changing their heart He also gives them a life-calling; He enlists them in His service. After conversion, for example, an accountant does his work with a different master and a different motive (Luke 3:10-14). He is now owned by God and works for His glory.
John Calvin was one of the first people to work out this concept. Calvin objected to the prevalent thinking that only “religious workers” had a calling. First, he asserted that all of life is religious. We are all religious workers because all of our actions are expressions of our incurably religious hearts. Second, Calvin taught that the gospel is for all of life. When Christ saves a man He saves his whole person. He cleanses his mind, renews his heart and activates his hands. Third, work itself has inherent dignity; it is not a necessary evil. After laying down a perfect pattern of work by forming and filling the world, God charged Adam to take his unique abilities and apply them to a particular plot of ground (Gen. 2:15).
Vocation is taking your skills and applying them to the plot of life God has given you. The plots of our lives vary but our purpose is the same: To bring the principles of God’s kingdom to bear in every area of life. If this is so, the next logical question is, “How do I find my vocation?”
Finding a Vocation
In finding our vocation we should consider three levels of questions.
Level One: Am I living for God’s glory?
Answering this question is like drafting a master plan for your life. Vocational living requires that all our choices flow from our chief desire to promote the honor of Christ. Sooner or later, most people face huge decisions including college, career, and family. Depending on the circumstances, choices in any of these areas could be legitimate provided they are made to promote God’s fame.
Level Two: What is the greatest thing I can do for God?
All legitimate work should be viewed as a calling. At the same time, Scripture encourages us to prioritize between many good options. We must “… earnestly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). Commenting on this passage, Calvin says Christians must “apply themselves the more diligently to those things which are most conducive to edification.” For Calvin, being a magistrate was “by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal man” (Institutes, 4.20.4). Calvin drew this conclusion because a magistrate has the potential to wield great influence for Jesus. When Jabez prayed that the Lord would enlarge his territory (I Chron. 4:10) he is at least praying for greater vocational opportunities to glorify God. Given the relative freedom most of us have in selecting a vocation, we should begin by setting a high bar.
Then there are a host of tertiary questions that should be asked when trying to find our own place to glorify God:
1. Where do my strengths lie? I cannot do all things equally well. As best I can, I should find a calling that exploits my strengths and tolerates my weaknesses.
2. Where are the great needs? Where are the problems worse? Where are the workers few?
3. How will this vocation affect my Christian walk? Is there a nearby church in which I could give and take nourishment? Are the temptations manageable? With whom would I work?
4. How useful is the work I’m considering? How necessary and healthy are the goods or services I would help provide? Will I be fairly compensated for my labors?
5. How smoothly will my proposed career gel with family? How will certain career choices affect my ability to marry, raise children, or care for aging parents?
Sadly, many people don’t ask difficult questions about decisions that will chart out much of the rest of their lives.
Living My Vocation
After understanding vocation and how to find our own, we need to begin living out the callings God gives us.
Focus on the Kingdom
Every vocation is really a sub-vocation. Our chief calling is to walk rightly before the face of God as citizens of His kingdom. The talents God has loaned each of us are meant to build up God’s kingdom, not our own (Col. 3:17).
Adam cultivated God’s garden and watched latent plant life flourish (Gen. 2:4-9). Likewise, Christians today should push back against the status quo that easily invades every arena of life.
It’s a sobering reality: For most of us, our work will have a far shorter legacy than the way we work. The process of our work is at least as important as the product. Fidelity to God in our work will adorn the doctrine of our Savior (Titus 2:9-10).
Regard the Community
In the Christian life occupations must serve the commonwealth. Or, as Paul put it, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good …” (Rom. 15:2; Cf. Eph. 4:28). If we are working only for ourselves (or even for our nuclear families) we are not thinking vocationally.
We must discharge our vocation as if God were a Savior of whole people, because He is. Our devotion to God’s cause should shine in worship, while transacting business, or engaging in political or social activities. Life as a whole must be God-directed; no sphere may be excluded.
Without vocational thought and activity Christians lose valuable influence in this world (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 86). If the church today is anemic it is not because of a lack of congregations, programs, or resources, but because Christians are not living according to divine purpose. Louis Berkhof has rightly said that, “… If all those who are now citizens of the Kingdom would actually obey its laws in every domain of life, the world would be so different that it would hardly be recognized.”
Begin thinking vocationally, not only to avoid ending up like the couple in my opening illustration, but to experience the fulfillment of seeing Christ’s lordship steadily applied to every area of your life.
Rev. William Boekestein is pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, Pa. He is author of a forthcoming biography of Ulrich Zwingli published by EP Books.