When we are introduced to people, the following three questions are generally asked: What is your name? Where are you from? What do you do? The third question is the one that concerns us in this chapter.
What do you do? is obviously about one’s occupation, career, or vocation. People want to know what task or service constitutes our livelihood or helps fulfill our personal aspirations.
We are all familiar with the aphorism “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” We understand that life is more than work. We devote periods of time to recreation, sleep, play, and other activities not directly part of our principal employment or labor. However, the element of our lives that is taken up by work is so encompassing and time-consuming that we tend to understand our personal identity in the light of our work.
Whatever else we are, we are creatures involved in labor. This was the design of creation--God himself is a working God. From the very moment of creation he conferred upon our original parents the responsibilities of work. Adam and Eve were called to dress, till, and keep the earth, to name the animals, and to have dominion by way of managerial responsibility over the earth. All of these activities involved the expenditure of time, energy, and resources--in short, work.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that work is a punishment that God gave us as a result of Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden. We must remember that work was given before the Fall. To be sure, our labor has added burdens attached to it. A mixture of thorns and thistles is found among the good plants we seek to cultivate. Our labor is accomplished by the sweat of our brow. These were the penalties of sinfulness, but work itself was part of the glorious privilege granted to men and women in creation. It is impossible to understand our own humanity without understanding the central importance of work.
Most of us spend the early years of our lives preparing and training for a lifelong activity of work. The sensitive Christian understands that in the labor of his occupation, he is responsible to make a contribution to the kingdom of God, to fulfill a divine mandate, to embark upon a holy calling as a servant of the living God. Such a Christian is keenly aware of the question, How can I best serve God with my labor?
Vocation and Calling
The idea of vocation is based on the theological premise of a divine call. The word vocation comes from the Latin word meaning “calling.” In our secular society the religious meaning of the term has lost its significance, having become merely a synonym for career. We will be using the term vocation in its original sense: a divine call, a holy summons to fulfill a task or a responsibility that God has laid upon us. The question we as Christians wrestle with is, Am I in the center of God’s will with respect to my vocation? In other words, Am I doing with my life what God wants me to do? Here the question of the will of God becomes eminently practical, for it touches on that dimension of my life that fills most of my waking hours and has the greatest impact upon the shaping of my personality.
If the Bible teaches anything, it teaches that God is a calling God. The world was created through the call of the omnipotent Creator: “ ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” God also calls his people to repentance, to conversion, and to membership in his family. In addition he calls us to serve him in his kingdom, making the best possible use of our gifts and talents. But still the question faces us: How do I know what my particular vocational calling is?
One of the great tragedies of modern society is that, although the job market is vast and complex with an infinite number of possible careers, the educational systems that train us tend to guide and direct us to a very small number of occupational choices. As a high school graduate embarking upon college, I remember that a great deal of discussion centered on one’s major and career aspirations. At that time it seemed as if everyone were setting out to become an engineer. The mechanized culture of the fifties was one that opened up literally thousands of lucrative positions in engineering. College campuses were flooded with young aspirants for degrees in the field of engineering.
I also remember the engineer glut on the market that occurred in the seventies. Stories circulated about Ph.D.’s in engineering who were collecting unemployment or washing dishes in the local diner because there simply were not enough engineering jobs available. The same could be said for education majors. Positions in education became fewer and fewer while the number of applicants became greater and greater. The problem was heightened by misguided publicity and counseling that steered people into occupational roles that society already had filled.
A hundred years ago the choices were much less difficult since the vast majority of American children spent their time preparing for a life in agricultural labor. Today roughly 3 percent of the population is now employed in farming—a radical decrease in one particular occupation that has opened the door for a vast number of other occupations.
Finding Your Vocation
The question of vocation becomes a crisis at two major points in life. The first is in late adolescence when a person is pressured into deciding what skills and knowledge he should acquire for future use. Some college freshmen feel pressured to declare a major in their first year, before knowing the available options and the limits of their ability.
The second period in life when vocation becomes critical is in mid-life when a person experiences a sense of frustration, failure, or a lack of fulfillment in his current position. He may ask, Have I wasted my life? Am I sentenced forever to a job that I’m finding meaningless, unfulfilling, and frustrating? Such questions highlight the fact that vocational counseling is a major part of pastoral counseling in America, second only to marital counseling.
We must also consider the fact that vocational frustration is a major contributing cause of marital disharmony and family upset. Thus, it is important to approach the matter of vocation with great care, both in the early stages of adolescent development and in the latter stages when the sense of frustration hits home.
The problem of discerning one’s calling focuses heavily on four important questions:
1. What can I do?
2. What do I like to do?
3. What would I like to be able to do?
4. What should I do?
The last question can plague the sensitive conscience. To begin to answer it, we need to take a look at the other three questions because they are closely linked to the ultimate question, What should I do?
What can I do? Reasonably assessing our abilities, skills, and aptitudes is a crucial and basic part of the decision-making process in choosing a vocation. What are my abilities? What am I equipped to do? We may ask and then protest, immediately saying, “Wait a minute. What about Moses? What about Jeremiah? Didn’t both of these men protest against God’s call by saying that they were not equipped for the task?” Moses protested that he had limited speaking ability, and Jeremiah reminded his Creator of his youthfulness. Both experienced God’s rebuke for seeking to evade a divine calling on the basis of the flimsy claim that they lacked the ability to do the job.
A couple of things need to be said about Moses and Jeremiah. Neither one had a full understanding of what was needed to carry out the summons God gave him. Moses protested that he lacked speaking skill, but God had already prepared Aaron to meet that part of the task. What God was looking for was obedient leadership from Moses. Public speaking could easily be delegated to another. God certainly took into consideration Moses’ gifts, ability, and aptitude before he called him.
We must remember that God is the perfect Manager. He is efficient in his selection, calling people according to the gifts and talents that he has given them. Satan’s strategy is to manipulate Christians into positions for which they have no ability or skill to perform well. Satan himself is very efficient in directing Christians to inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
What can I do? can be answered by proficiency examinations, analysis of our strengths and weaknesses, and a sober evaluation of our past performance. Abilities and performances can be, and are, measured in sophisticated ways in our society. We need to know what the parameters of our abilities are.
Often people apply for positions for which they have no skill. This is particularly and sadly true within the church and related Christian service. Some hunger and thirst to be in full-time Christian service, but lack the ability and the gifts required for the particular job. For example, they may have the academic training and credentials for the pastorate but lack the managerial skills or the people skills to help make them effective pastors.
Perhaps the most important principle in Scripture regarding abilities is found in the Apostle Paul’s injunction that we ought to make a sober analysis of ourselves, not thinking too highly of ourselves. Through sober analysis we can make a serious, honest, and clear evaluation of what we can and cannot do, and we should act accordingly.
The young person has a different question: What would I like to be able to do? Such a person may have developed very few skills or little educational background but realizes that he has enough time to acquire skills and talents through education or vocational training.
At this point the concept of aptitude is relevant. Aptitude involves a person’s latent abilities as well as his acquired abilities. A person may have a certain aptitude for mechanical things and have no aptitude whatsoever for abstract things. This person may desire to be a philosopher, but would make a far better investment of his time by learning to be an airplane mechanic. But preferences are still important. Here we tread into that critical and frightening area of human experience called the realm of motivation.
Research indicates that most people have more than one ability and that their abilities can be divided into two basic types: motivated abilities and non-motivated abilities. A non-motivated abililty is a skill or a strength that a person has but is not motivated to use. Some people are very good at doing certain things, but find no particular fulfillment or enjoyment in doing them. Performing them is sheer drudgery and pain. They may be proficient in what they do, but for one reason or another find the task odious.
I know of one young woman who in her early teenage years attracted national attention because of her proficiency at the game of golf. While still a teenager, she won a national tournament. Yet when the time came for girls her age to turn professional, she chose a different vocation, not out of a higher calling to seek a more spiritual enterprise than professional athletics, but because she had found the game of golf to be very unpleasant. Her displeasure came as the result of fierce pressure her father had placed upon her in pushing her to become a proficient golfer at a young age. When she became of age and was out from under parental authority, she decided to do something else. She had the ability to become a professional golfer, but lacked the motivation.
We might ask, “But how could she have become so proficient in the first place if she had not been motivated to perform well in golf?” We have to realize that she had been motivated to become proficient, but the motivation was largely based on fear of her father’s wrath. In order to please him, she disciplined herself to acquire a skill that she would never have pursued on her own. Once free from the driving force of his authority, she turned her vocational pursuits in another direction. The moral to the story is obvious. The person who gives his full measure of time and energy to a nonmotivated ability is a walking pressure cooker of frustration.
It is true that, as Christians, we don’t always have the luxury of doing the things we want to do. God does call us to sacrifice and to be willing to participate in the humiliation of Christ. To be sure, we live in the midst of warfare, and as Christians we have signed up for the duration. We should never neglect our awesome responsibility to the kingdom of God. Called to be servants, we are also called to obedience. Sometimes we are called to do things that we don’t particularly enjoy doing. Nevertheless, the overriding consideration is to bring both our motivation into conformity with our call and our call into conformity with our motivation.
All things being equal, Jesus did not want to go to the Cross as he expressed in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet at the same time, he had an overarching desire and motivation to do the will of his Father. That was his “meat and drink,” the focus of his zeal. When it was confirmed to him that it was the Father’s will that he lay down his life, Jesus was, in a very real and vital sense, motivated to do it.
Let us extend the concept of service and obedience to the analogy of human warfare. A crisis besets a nation, and people are summoned in the cause of national defense. Leaving the security and comfort of their homes and jobs, they make sacrifices by enlisting in the armed services. Are not Christians called to do the same? Certainly there is a sense in which we are. Yet within the context of the earthly military, there are a vast number of jobs, some for which we would be suited and others for which we would not. Some military tasks would be in line with our motivated skills and patterns of behavior while others would be completely at odds with our motivated skills and behavior. Even within the context of sacrificial service, consideration of motivation is a vital ingredient in determining our vocation.
Some rugged individualists in our society are self-employed and find it totally unnecessary to fit into an organizational working structure that involves supervisors, bosses, staff, and lines of authority. Most of us, however, carry out our working lives within the context of an organization. Here we face the problem of fitting. Does our job fit our gifts, talents, and aspirations? Do our motivated abilities fit our job? The degree to which our job requirements and our motivated abilities fit often determines the usefulness of our contribution and the extent of our personal satisfaction.
When personal motivations do not fit job descriptions, many people suffer. The first who suffers is the individual because he is laboring in a job that does not fit his motivated abilities. By being in a job for which he is unsuited, he tends to be less efficient and less productive. He also creates problems for others in the organization because his frustration spills over and has a negative effect on the group.
Some of us are “sanctified” enough to perform assigned tasks for which we lack motivation, doing them as proficiently as we do other tasks that are more enjoyable. However, the people who are so sanctified make up an infinitesimal minority within the work force. Research shows again and again that there is a strong tendency for people to do what they are motivated to do regardless of what their job description calls for. That is, they will spend the majority of their time and effort doing what they want to do rather than what the job, in fact, calls them to do. Such an investment of time and energy can be quite costly to a company or an organization.
The following simple diagrams show the relationships between motivated ability patterns and job description. They have been borrowed from People Management, a Connecticut-based organization. It helps people to discern their motivated ability patterns and helps organizations to coordinate people’s gifts and motivations with the needs and aims of their organization. This kind of guidance works not only in secular industry but also within the structures of the church and sacred vocations.
In this diagram the top left block represents the job description of the employee, including the tasks required for optimal organizational functioning.
The lower right block represents the motivated abilities of the employee. The shaded area represents the area of job fit. It is not in balance. A large portion of the employee’s motivated abilities are not being used. This produces frustration for the employee. A large portion of the organizational job description is either left unperformed or performed at a low degree of proficiency. The result is organizational frustration. This pattern spells problems for both the individual employee and the organization. Changes must be made.
In this ideal matchup between job description and motivated abilities, the result is fulfillment for both the employee and the organization.
Through the influence of the world-denying spirit of Manichaeism, Christians got the idea that the only way they could possibly serve God would be to live their lives on a bed of nails. It was assumed that to embark upon a pathway of service involved self-denial. Real virtue could be found only in being as miserable as possible in one’s job. However, if God indeed calls us to devote ourselves to the most unpleasant tasks possible, he would have to be the cosmic Chief of bad managers.
The Scriptures describe God’s management style differently. God manages by building us into a body according to our abilities and our desires. He gives gifts to each one of his people. Every Christian is gifted of the Lord to fulfill a divine vocation. Along with the gift, God gives us a desire or a motivation to make use of that gift.
What Should We Do?
This brings us to the final and paramount question, What should I do? The most practical advice I can give is for you to do what your motivated ability pattern indicates you can do with a high degree of motivation. If what you would like to do can be of service to God, then by all means you should be doing it.
One vital constraint is at work: the preceptive will of God. If a woman’s great ability and motivation were to be a prostitute and a man’s motivated ability were to be the world’s greatest bank robber, then obviously vocational goals would have to be adjusted. To fulfill such motivated abilities would bring individuals into direct conflict with the preceptive will of God.
If we carefully analyze the root causes for the motivated ability of the bank robber and the motivated ability of the prostitute, we would find root abilities and motivations of a sort that could profitably and productively be channeled into godly enterprises. We must not only bring our motivated abilities into conformity with the law of God, but also make sure that the vocation we choose has the blessing of God.
There is certainly nothing wrong, for example, with devoting one’s life to the practice of medicine, for we see the good that medicine can do in terms of alleviating suffering. We also understand that the world needs bread to eat and that the vocation of baker for someone who is motivated and able to bake is a godly enterprise. Jesus himself spent a vast number of his years not in preaching and teaching but in being a carpenter, a craftsman in a legitimate trade. During those years Jesus was in “the center of God’s will.”
Any vocation that meets the need of God’s world can be considered a divine calling. I underscore this because of the tendency in Christian circles to think that only those who go into “full-time Christian service” are being sensitive to divine vocation--as if preaching and teaching were the only legitimate tasks to which God calls us. A cursory reading of the Bible would reveal the flaw in such thinking. The temple was built in the Old Testament through not only the wise oversight of Solomon but also the craftsmanship of those who were divinely gifted in carving, sculpting, and so on.
David’s vocation as shepherd, Abraham’s vocation as a caravan trader, Paul’s vocation as tentmaker--all were seen as part of God’s plan to bring about the redemption of the world. When God made Adam and Eve, neither was called to be a full-time professional worker in the ecclesiastical structure; they were basically called to be farmers.
A vocation is something that we receive from God; he is the one who calls us. He may not call us in the way that he called Moses, by appearing in a burning bush and giving a specific set of marching orders. Instead, he usually calls us inwardly and by means of giving us the gifts and talents and aspirations that we have. His invisible sovereign will is certainly working in the background to prepare us for useful tasks in his vineyard.
The External Call from People
In addition to the inner call of God, we recognize that there is such a thing as an external call to labor, a call that comes from people who request our services for their particular mission or purpose. We may be called by the church to be preachers or by a company to be foremen or shippers. Every time an organization places a want ad in a newspaper, a human call is going out for able workers to come and match their gifts and talents to a presented need.
Some Christians have argued that the need always constitutes the call. They say that there is a need for evangelists in the world and therefore everyone should be an evangelist. I agree that we must consider the needs of the kingdom of God as we make vocational decisions. However, the very fact that the world needs evangelists does not necessarily imply that everyone in the world is called to be an evangelist. Again the New Testament makes it clear that not all are called to be preachers or administrators. The church is composed of people with a diversity of gifts, talents, and vocations. We must not make a simplistic, passive assumption that the need constitutes the call.
Certainly the presence of a need requires that the people of God strive to meet that need. However, it does not necessarily mean that people who are not equipped to meet the need are thereby forced into the gap. For example, it is every Christian’s responsibility to help carry out the mandate for evangelism. It is not every Christian’s responsibility to be an evangelist. I am not an evangelist, though I contribute to evangelism by teaching evangelists theology and by contributing money for the church’s task of evangelism. I do those things so that those who do have the gift and the motivation can be called out, trained, equipped and sent into the world as evangelists. I participate in the responsibility of the body of Christ to see that the task is met, but I myself am not the one who delivers the goods as the practicing evangelist. I could say the same regarding a host of other vocations.
How do others affect our vocational calling? We do need to listen to the community of believers and friends. Sometimes our gifts and abilities are more evident to those around us than they are to ourselves. The counsel of many and the evaluation of the group are important considerations in our search for our vocation. However, we must put up a red flag of warning. The group’s judgment is not always correct. The fact that a particular individual or group thinks we should be doing a certain task is not a guarantee that it is the will of God.
I went through a period in my life of being unemployed for six months. During that time I had five different job offers in five different cities in the United States. Five different friends came to me and said out of sincerity and urgent zeal that they were sure God wanted me to take each of the particular jobs. This meant that if all five of them had a direct pipeline to the will of God, God wanted me to hold five full-time positions and live in five different cities in the United States at the same time. I explained to my friends that I knew I was iniquitous (full of sin) but had not yet discovered the gift of being ubiquitous (being everywhere at the same time). I simply could not possibly do all five jobs. Somebody was wrong in his estimation of the will of God for my life.
I find it very difficult to resist the pressures that come from people who are sure they know what God wants me to do with my life. We all experience that kind of pressure, and so we must be careful to pay attention to those whose judgment we trust. We must be able to discern between sound judgment and the vested personal interests of other people.
As it turned out, I accepted a sixth position for which no one came to me in the middle of the night with a telegram from God. I was convinced that the sixth position was the one that matched my abilities with the job that needed to be done.
Considering Foreseeable Consequences
One last consideration that is often neglected but is of crucial importance is the foreseeable consequences of the job. To take a job simply for money or for geographical location is a tragic mistake. All things being equal, I would like to have a salary of a million dollars a year, to be a teacher of theology, and to live where the climate is mild twelve months of the year. At the present time I am a teacher of theology living in Florida, but I make far less than a million dollars a year. Somewhere along the way I had to make a decision about my priorities. Did I want to make a million dollars, or did I want to heed my vocational calling? My residence was determined by the locale of my vocation.
Job decisions have both short-range and long-range consequences. Consider the case of Abraham and his nephew Lot, who lived and worked together in the Promised Land. Conflict between their hired hands made it necessary for them to divide the territory they were occupying. Abraham gave Lot the first choice, offering any half that he chose. Lot gazed toward the barren area of Transjordan and then looked toward the fertile valley near the city. He thought for a moment, If I take the fertile valley, my cows can graze there and become fat. It’s a short distance to the city market. My profit will be great. In consideration of his business, Lot opted for the fertile areas around the city and left Abraham the barren land. Lot’s choice was brilliant--from the perspective of raising cattle. He didn’t ask questions like “Where will my family go to school? Where will my family go to church?” The city he chose was Sodom--a great place to raise cows. The short-term consequences were fine, but long-term living in Sodom turned out to be a disaster in many ways.
How will our job decisions be conducive to fulfilling our other responsibilities? The person who chooses a vocation purely on the basis of money or location or status is virtually guaranteeing his later frustration.
Much of the confusion we often experience in the job arena would be dispelled by asking ourselves one simple question: What would I most like to do if I didn’t have to please anyone in my family or my circle of friends? Another good question is, What would I like to be doing ten years from now? These questions are good to keep in mind even after one has settled into a particular job.
Another thing to remember is the promise of God’s Word that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. As his children, that includes the area of our work. God’s peace is also promised as we seek to do his will. While God’s decretive will may not necessarily always be clear to us even in our occupational pursuits, his preceptive will is more easily discerned. Wherever we are, in whatever work we find ourselves, his preceptive will must be done.
Finally, what does God expect of us in relation to our work? As Christians we have been called to be spiritual salt in a decaying world, to be spiritual light in the midst of darkness. We are to be wise stewards of God’s gifts and talents. That means striving to be the most honest, patient, hardworking, and committed workers we can be. It means settling for nothing less than excellence. God help us to live up to his high call for each of us.