January 11, 2019

Even secularists today are talking about the importance of having a sense of “calling”; that is, a sense of vocation (a Latinate word that means, simply, “calling”).  Many secularist treatments seem to be oblivious to the fact that this is a theological concept and that, strictly speaking, you cannot have a “calling” apart from Someone who “calls” you.  Nevertheless, this interest in vocation is a good sign, demonstrating that churches would do well to recover and to teach the doctrine of vocation, which is a subject of urgent interest to people today, both inside and outside the church.

Furthermore, the doctrine of vocation teaches that while non-believers do not know the Caller–so that their work is not the fruit of their faith, as it can be for Christians–God nevertheless does work through non-believers as well.

I have written quite a bit about vocation.  To review, vocation is not just about how we make a living.  Rather, we have multiple vocations in the “estates” that God has designed for human life:  the family, the society, and the church.  Also the workplace, which might be an aspect of any of those estates.  God providentially works through human beings in their vocations to give His gifts:  He provides daily bread through farmers, bakers, and shopkeepers; He creates new life by means of fathers and mothers; He protects us by means of lawful authorities; He proclaims His Word by means of pastors, etc., etc.  And the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbors.

I stumbled across an article in Aeon that summarizes psychological research on “finding your true calling.”  This is not the theological understanding of calling.  For one thing, it restricts the discussion to the workplace.  And instead of focusing on loving and serving the neighbors whom your calling brings to you to love and to serve, it is more about self-fulfillment, which is NOT what Christian vocation is all about.  So though it misses the main points about “calling,” I found it interesting nonetheless.  It can help us see some other misconceptions about vocation.  And it illuminates, from a secular point of view, some other aspects of our callings and how we should think about them.

I’ll give the five points it raises and comment about each one.  (Go to the link, which tells about the research in each of these areas.)  From Christian Jarrett, Psychology’s five revelations for finding your true calling:

(1) “First, there’s a difference between having a harmonious passion and an obsessive passion.”

The article uses the language of having a “passion” for your work.  “Passion” used to be a negative word, evoking strong emotions that need to be curbed.  But in this sense it refers to a certain zeal or enthusiasm (which used to be another bad word) for your work. But we hear this a lot, as in, “you need to  have a passion for what you are doing.”

The research has found two different kinds of passion in this sense.  An “obsessive passion” is an all-consuming pre-occupation with your work or what you are trying to accomplish.  That kind of passion leads mainly to stress, lack of control, and burn-out.  “Harmonious passion,” though, involves a sense of control and harmony with other facets of your life.  This kind does result in better work performance and over-all vitality.

(2) “Secondly, having an unanswered calling in life is worse than having no calling at all.”

This says that if you have a sense of calling to do something, but it is “unanswered”–that is, you aren’t doing it–this creates dissatisfaction with what you are doing, as well as other kinds of frustration and unhappiness.  This is in contrast to the Christian understanding that vocation is in the here and now, that God has called you to this moment and this task where He has placed you.  (See #4 below.)

(3) “The third finding to bear in mind is that, without passion, grit is ‘merely a grind’. “

Experts have been referring to “grit”; that is, perseverance and toughness.  Such “grit” is important to effectiveness at any kind of work.  The psychological research cited here has found that you need “grit” along with “passion.”  If you just have grit, but no passion for what you are doing, you will only experience drudgery.  While if you have passion but no grit, you will get little done.

The doctrine of vocation does include “bearing the cross” in vocation, the trials and tribulations that your vocation will bring upon you, the difficulties and failures involved in loving and serving your neighbor.  Yes, indeed, we must persevere in our callings (for example, marriage), even when it isn’t easy.  But bearing our own crosses and realizing how they are taken up into Christ’s cross as we depend on Him builds up our faith and contributes to our sanctification.

(4) Another finding is that, when you invest enough effort, you might find that your work becomes your passion.

This is an important finding.  If you don’t have “passion” for the work you have to do, if you devote yourself and put in the effort, you can develop the passion.  The passion doesn’t necessarily come first.

This is more constructive than some of the other findings.  It fits in more with the teaching that your calling is in the here and now.  Your attitude–particularly, for a Christian, acting in faith, with a realization that God is present, even in this boring job or this frustrating relationship–can transfigure how you see that calling and how you experience it.

(5)  “Finally, if you think that passion comes from doing a job you enjoy, you’re likely to be disappointed.”  Instead, the beneficial, satisfying passion comes “from doing what you believe in or value in life.”

This is extraordinarily important and deals with a misconception that Christians too often have.  Your calling is not measured by how much you enjoy what you are doing.  In secular terms, your “passion” is not the same as enjoyment.   If you aren’t getting pleasure from your job, or your family, or your church, that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of your calling.  Rather, the good kind of “harmonious” passion comes from doing what is right, knowing that your work has a purpose that you are committed to.  For a Christian, that means loving and serving your neighbor.  Such a purpose can give your work, your relationships, your responsibilities, your offices, a meaning and a “passion” that can make all the difference.

If you are interested in vocation, you might want to check out my “trilogy” on the subject:

God at Work:  Your Christian Vocation in All of Life,

with Mary Moerbe, Family Vocation:  God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood

Working for Our Neighbor:  A Lutheran Primer on Vocation, Economics, and Ordinary Life



Illustration by lsucc via Pixabay, Creative Commons

December 4, 2018

You have probably heard about John Chau, the 26-year-old who was dropped off at Sentinel Island, home of one of the most isolated tribes on earth, so that he could tell the inhabitants about Jesus.  They responded by shooting him with arrows, killing him on the beach.  Some Christians are hailing him as a martyr.  Some secularists are condemning both him and missionaries in general of being “colonialists.”

Lyman Stone, a missionary with the Lutheran Church-Hong Kong, offers a different perspective, applying the doctrine of vocation.

He says that Chau was sincere, well-intentioned, and pious.  He didn’t want to dominate the Sentinelese, but loved them, wanting them to have the Gospel of Christ.  That is good, and he will surely have his reward in Heaven.

But he did not know the Sentinelese language, had minimal preparation to be a missionary to this kind of tribe, and did not have the knowledge or skills to be successful.

This was the second time Chau went to Sentinel Island.  The first time he ran up the beach shouting “I love you and Jesus loves you!”  Never mind that since he didn’t know the language, the islanders had no idea what he was saying.  When they started shooting arrows, he fled back to his boat, his life saved by his Bible, which stopped an arrow.  The next time he went back, didn’t go so well.  Witnesses from off-shore said that they saw tribe members burying Chau’s body.

Being a missionary, Stone explains, is a vocation.  And God’s calling to be a missionary involves getting the training that such a vocation entails, as well as working with other Christians to accomplish the mission:

For all that God sometimes works through unexpected means, the usual way that God accomplishes his work is through the mundane vocations of normal people. God heals diseases mostly through doctors, proclaims his word mostly through pastors, and reaches uncontacted people groups mostly through long-term missionaries doing years of advanced preparation in a variety of disciplines and skills.

Some say that Chau’s case is similar to that of the five missionaries killed in Ecuador, as chronicled by Elisabeth Elliott in Through Gates of Splendor.  Her husband Jim Elliott was one of those speared to death, but she came back as a missionary to that tribe and eventually brought them–including the very murderers of her husband–to Christ.  But Stone contrasts Chau with the Elliotts, who did know the languages and worked with the indigenous people for 15 years before making contact with the unreached tribe that killed them.

Stone also points out that the reason the Sentinelese, who live off the coast of India, are so hostile to all outsiders, going so far as to shoot arrows at the helicopters that were checking on them after a tsunami, is likely because in the 1880s a British admiral and probable pedophile kidnapped several of their children.  After he finally brought them back, the tribe, now numbering about 100, have attacked all visitors.

Read Stone’s article in its entirety, which concludes with this point:

Chau is not emblematic of how mission activity has historically proceeded but, sadly, his approach, disconnected from any rational assessment of vocation, untethered from durable community roots, decontextualized and nomadic like an Instagram travel blog account, may be what much Christian mission work looks like in the future. That is, unless Christian churches push back against that trend, and demand of mission-sending organizations that they have realistic plans for how missionaries will be engaged in a materially productive relationship with their local community.


Illustration:  The Massacre of the Lamented Missionary, The Rev. J. Williams and Mr Harris [at Vanuatu], by G. Baxter (1841), via Wikimedia Commons  [Public Domain].

November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving is the one national holiday that has an explicitly religious meaning.  George Washington got the holiday started “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”  

Thankfulness is an acknowledgment of dependence.  In that, it is like faith.

The English word “thank” is related to the word for “think.”  Part of the observance of Thanksgiving should be thinking about our blessings, which leads naturally to thanking.

Our word “gratitude” comes from the Latin word for thanks, “gratus,” from which is also derived the word “gratia,” meaning grace.

The Greek word used in the New Testament for “to thank” or “to be thankful” consists of the word for “good” and the word for “grace” or “favor.”

St. Paul enjoins us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”  (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  The word is εὐχαριστεῖτε:  eucharist!

All of this is to say that thankfulness, like faith, is a response to “grace.”  God’s grace in salvation, His “unmerited favor” that He bestows upon us through Christ, but also His other “favors”:  family, home, food, country, and on and on.

We teach children to say “please” and “thank you,” social niceties that are signs of the deeper meaning in our social interactions.  “Please” is short for “If you please. . . ”  We are asking someone to do something for us out of his or her volition, if it pleases the giver, if the giver wants to.  We are asking the person for a gift of grace.  And then we respond with the confession:  “I thank you.”

In reality, of course, when we ask the waitress for “another cup of coffee, please,” she complies not just out of grace because it pleases her.  She has to bring the coffee.  That is her job.  Still, the work of her vocation is a sign of the greater provision of God, who works through her as His mask, giving us our daily bread, which includes our daily coffee.  We express our thanks to her and to God, our provider.  Thus, before our meals, we “say grace.”

Luther says in his Freedom of the Christian, which discusses the purpose of vocation as being to love and serve our neighbors, that we should be “little Christs” to each other.  So in our vocations in the family, workplace, church, and country–all of which come together around the Thanksgiving feast–we embody, in God’s temporal realm, the life of grace and faith.

Our Thanksgiving feast is a “eucharist” that speaks to us also of the ultimate Thanksgiving feast, which is not turkey and dressing but bread and wine.  In that eucharist, in the company of other Christians, we receive God’s grace in the body and blood of Christ with faith and thanksgiving.


Photo:  “Thanksgiving Grace” (1942) by Marjory Collins, photographer for Farm Security Administration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

October 15, 2018

The doctrine of vocation has been catching on.  There is now something called the “Faith and Work movement,” with think tanks, publications, and programs designed to show Christians the connection between the two. (The founder of at least one of these think tanks told me that my book on vocation, God at Work, was the catalyst for his interest in the subject, which I appreciated.)  But this movement may have drifted away from the specific insights that the great theologian of vocation–Martin Luther–has to offer.

Christianity Today’s cover story this month,  God of the Second Shift by Jeff Haanen, calls for a rethinking of vocation.  It says that much of what evangelicals have been doing with “Faith and Work” is oriented to middle class, white collar workers.  The emphasis is on “following your bliss,” finding self-fulfillment, and helping college students choose a career.  Working class jobs, though, the hard, often tedious labor that most people in the world have to do just to survive, get little attention.  Is there a doctrine of vocation for them?

First of all, Luther’s doctrine of vocation is precisely about farmers, craftsmen, builders, laborers, milk maids, and others who work with their hands.  (Luther himself was from a family of miners.)  And while acknowledging its satisfactions, it also deals with work as a realm of tribulation, frustrations, and cross-bearing.  For Luther, vocation is about God and the neighbor, not the self.  It is all about God working through you, as you sacrifice yourself in vocation out of love and service for your neighbor.

Those who want to rethink vocation will find lots of help in the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren’s classic book Luther on Vocation.

Some of you may remember a post I wrote here responding to someone who cited the “danger” of Luther’s doctrine of work.

He said that Luther’s ideas can make people who are stuck in dead-end jobs content with them, rather than bettering themselves.  He illustrated his point by telling about his college job at a milk-processing factory, how back-breaking and boring it was.  That was not a “vocation,” he said.  His job after graduating from college–being a professor of theology–was his true calling from God.  Working in a factory was just a “job.”  He then discussed a lady who worked with him on the canning line, how she had worked there for 15 years and how pathetic and “dehumanizing” that was.

I answered the article at length, explaining what what Luther’s doctrine of vocation is and the misconceptions about it.  But then I said this, which addresses the issue raised in Christianity Today:

The one thing, though, that really bothers me in Prof. Doriani’s post, is its attitude towards that woman who had been working in that “dehumanizing” factory for 15 years.

That milk-processing factory was a means by which God provides milk to children–part of the “daily bread” that He provides to all of us.  The purpose of work, again, is for the neighbor, not the self.  Young Doriani would be called to serve as a businessman, as a college administrator, as a pastor, as a professor.  This woman stays at that milk factory.  This is reason to honor her.  Not to minimize what she does.

Luther writes about vocation in terms of bearing the cross, of sacrifice, of self-denial.  When you love and serve your neighbor, you deny yourself out of love for that person.  Vocation is not about self-fulfillment, or enjoying your work, or not feeling drudgery.

Some work is less pleasant than others.  That work is often despised by the world, in favor of more prestigious and better-paying positions.  Often, those despised jobs–trash collecting, cleaning hotel rooms, tending to sewers– involves a level of love and service to the neighbor that far exceeds the socially prized work of, say, Hollywood actors and professional athletes.

In fact, I might argue that the more praised positions can be more “dehumanizing” than the more lowly ones.  That is, positions that bring affluence and prestige–including, I can say from personal experience, academia–can take a toll on the “humanness” of those in the position, as well as those under their authority or those their position is supposed to serve.

Luther’s doctrine of vocation does not prevent the woman in the milk factory from taking another job or working to improve conditions at the plant or taking night courses to help her move up in the world.  But it does or should prevent the rest of us from looking down on her or her work.

[Keep reading. . .]



Painting, “The Harvesters” By Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1565) – PAH1oMZ5dGBkxg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22554956

September 11, 2018

Geoffrey Owens is a Shakespearean actor, but he is best known for his role on The Cosby Show back in the 1980s, playing the boyfriend of one of the Huxtable daughters and later her husband.  But lately he has been working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s grocery store in New Jersey.

Someone took pictures of him at his cash register, and the London tabloid The Daily Mail ran with it.  The writer of the article thought it was hilarious that this former star had fallen so far as to work in a grocery store, his name, once up in lights, now on a company name tag.  Then Fox News piled on with a story of its own.

For once, social media erupted in a positive way.  This man is doing honest work.  He has taken on a job to support himself and his family.  How dare you mock him.  He deserves praise and respect.  These journalists were doing nothing but “job-shaming,” putting someone down because of the work he is doing.  But no one should be made to feel ashamed for taking on jobs that need doing, however “low status” they seem in the eyes of privileged snobs like the journalists.  (You get the idea:  See Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs.)

The journalists added ignorance to their snobbery.  Yes, big movie stars make lots of money, but there aren’t many of those.  Most working actors don’t make all that much anyway.  But even when they get parts, acting is a “gig” profession.  You get paid when you get a job in a play, TV show, or movie.  But after that job is over, you get nothing.  No regular paycheck, no health insurance, no benefits.  So between acting gigs, most rank and file actors have “day jobs.”  And since you might get a part at any time, you  can’t really take a long-term position with ongoing responsibilities.  So lots of actors work jobs they can leave easily, working retail, in restaurants, or in blue collar jobs.   (Read these reactions to the job-shaming of Mr. Owens from other actors.)

But job-shaming is especially despicable in light of the Christian doctrine of vocation.  Our work is part of our calling from God–along with our families, our church life, and our citizenship–where He places us to love and serve our neighbors, as He works through us in our everyday lives.  As such, all vocations are equally valuable in the eyes of God.

In the eyes of the world, though, all vocations are not equal.  Professional athletes and, yes, big movie stars get paid enormous amounts.  Those are legitimate vocations, serving their neighbors by entertaining them and bringing a little pleasure to our humdrum lives.  But the more lowly and low-paid jobs often involve higher and more important levels of service to the neighbor.

The people who clean up after us, build our roads and houses, manufacture the products we depend on, and bring us the food we eat (from farm workers to the cashiers at the grocery stores), are doing more important work for those of us who benefit from it than high status athletes, movie stars, and many other high status positions.

And the fact that many of those necessary jobs are hard, dirty, tedious, and unpleasant give us even more reason to honor them.  Those who do them are sacrificing themselves for us.

If you have a job that is satisfying, fulfilling, and enjoyable, praise God for giving you that calling.  But realize that other people don’t have jobs like that.  But theirs is no less a vocation than yours.

Vocation teaches us not to look down on anyone for the work they do.

See the reaction of Geoffrey Owens to the whole affair.  It is quite refreshing.  He says that Trader Joe’s is a good place to work.  He says that at first he was embarrassed by the job-shaming, but was heartened by all of the support he received.


Photo Credit:  U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Delano Scott/Released.  Public domain.







September 3, 2018

Happy Labor Day, a secular holiday which we here at the Cranach Institute are trying to co-opt as a Christian holiday to celebrate the doctrine of Vocation!  (Did any of you hear that connection made at church yesterday?)

And what better way to celebrate this holiday than to hear from Martin Luther, the great theologian of Vocation.  Here he underscores how we are not saved by our works and yet how good works are part of the Christian life after all.

He then expounds the purpose of all of our vocations (whether in the workplace, our families, our congregations, and our country):  to love and serve not ourselves but our neighbors (our customers, our spouse and children, our fellow-Christians, our fellow-citizens).

From Martin Luther, Sermon for Pentecost Monday, John 3:16-21–Christ, Our Mediator:

18. . . .No person who professes to be a Christian dare undertake to do any work, imagining thereby to be saved; he is not saved except through Christ alone, whom it cost his all. We must come to salvation through him and his work, with nothing else added to it. If we build upon human works, we are reckoning directly against God’s grace.

19. On the other hand, we must not abandon works, saying as do the impudent: Aye, then I will do good works no longer in order to be saved. True, you dare do nothing with the intent of its being meritorious for salvation, for the forgiveness of sin and for the pacifying of the conscience; you have sufficient for these in your faith. But your neighbour has not sufficient; you must extend a helping hand to him. That you may perform such service, God permits you to live; if not so, your execution would soon be called for. You live for the purpose of serving by your life, not yourself, but your neighbour.

20. Christ the Lord had also sufficient; what the world had was his. He might have passed us by, but it is not the nature of true life to do so. Nay, cursed be that life into perdition that lives for self; for to so live is heathenish and not Christian. Then those who have at present their sufficiency from Christ, must follow the example of Christ and with utter sincerity do good to their neighbours, as Christ did to us; freely, without the least thought of obtaining anything thereby, only with the desire that it be pleasing to God.

[This is from a translation of Luther’s Church Postil, a collection of 117 sermons that were sent throughout the Reformation churches for pastors to preach and model their teaching after.  Much of Luther’s teachings about vocation are to be found in the Postil, which means that those teachings were widely circulated throughout the Lutheran churches.  This is from the translation by John Nickolas Lencker (1905), which is posted on an excellent website on Luther originating in the Netherlands.]

For more on Luther’s doctrine of vocation, see the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation.  For how all of this applies to everyday life, see my book God at Work.


Illustration via Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons

HT:  Jackie

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