Five Thoughts on Vocation

Five Thoughts on Vocation October 7, 2011

Last night I had the occasion to share some thoughts on the theology of vocation.  One of the greatest legacies of the Protestant Reformation, the doctrine of vocation has fallen on hard times.  In the midst of economic crisis, in the midst of public pressures to private and compartmentalize our faith, and in the midst of a church-wide reexamination of the proper ways and means of cultural influence, the church must recover its theology of vocation.  As I was preparing to offer my thoughts, I came across two passages I found inspiring.  The first comes from Gene Edward Veith (from a special issue of the Journal of Markets and Morality), provost at Patrick Henry College (and a blogger).  The emphases are mine:

Christians today urgently need to revive their commitment to whole-life discipleship. Millions of churchgoers are “Christians” for a few hours every week. Christianity is something they practice on Sunday morning rather than a way of life. The withering of discipleship is one of the gravest threats facing the church today.

One of the main causes of the problem is that churches and seminaries have disconnected discipleship from everyday life. Too often, pastors and professors talk about one’s “walk with God” and “stewardship” almost exclusively in terms of formally religious activities such as worship attendance, Bible study, evangelism, and giving. As important as these activities are for every Christian, they will never take up more than a tiny percentage of life for those who are not in full-time ministry. The largest portion of life—work in the home and in jobs—is excluded from the concepts of discipleship and stewardship.

It is urgent for the future of the church that we recover a whole-life model of discipleship that understands every legitimate human activity as responding to a call from God. Every human being is called to be, in all of life, a steward of God’s creation.

The doctrine of vocation shows Christians how to live out their faith in the world. It has to do with God’s presence in the world and with how he works through human beings for his purposes. For Christians, vocation discloses the spirituality of everyday life.

The second quotation comes from Exodus, Chapters 35 and 36.  Again, emphases mine:

Exodus 35:30-35: Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.”

Exodus 36:2: “And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work.”

Now, five quick thoughts:

  1. There is perhaps no more important task for the church today than rediscovering the proper doctrine of vocation.  The doctrine of vocation abolishes the boundary that separates the sacred from the secular, and shows us how impoverished is any vision of faith that is privatized.  The doctrine of vocation speaks to the totality and vitality of the life of faith; it permeates the entirety of life with the presence and purposes of God; it shows the holiness of all of life and all of creation to God.  The doctrine of vocation is the art of living out our faith in every moment that passes, in every decision we make, in every task we engage, and in every interaction we have.
  2. The same God who called us into being calls us as specific individuals to employ the specific dreams and passions and talents he has given us to accomplish specific purposes for the sake of the world and the sake of the kingdom.  Every good and perfect gift comes from God.  It is not simply that we have talents and skills and passions, but God has gifted us with them for his glory.  God gives extraordinary callings, visions, and gifts not merely to prophets and priests and kings but also to craftsmen and businessmen.  We are all, in everything we do, the instruments of God’s redemption of the world.
  3. As Luther taught, vocation, at its best, is about love.  God does not need our works of service; our neighbor does.  Vocation is about serving God in serving others, about making the world more hospitable for God’s creatures, about the creation of culture and the creation of value and the creation of what is true and good and beautiful.  The doctrine of vocation shows how our work is an act of obedience to God, of love to our neighbor, and of service to God’s kingdom.
  4. We need communities of faith that help each individual discern the calling of God within her, that helps to elevate that calling and encourage and nurture it.  Churches should identify those who have been gifted and summoned to kingdom-cultivating ventures, and supply them with the support and the guidance and the encouragement that they need to bring those visions and gifts to fruition.
  5. Finally, the theology of vocation is fundamentally about who we are created to be — both as human beings in general, and as specific creatures.  We are made in the image of a Creator God, a God who invited us to be creative and re-creative with him in tending the garden.  Even before the world fell, we were made for work.  And as Adam was given a helper — not merely a friend but a helper — we are made for work together.  Then, of course, each of us is made to express the image of God in our creativity and our labor in different ways.  One of the greatest gifts that we can give to other believers is to help them discover the gifts and the callings God has given them, and then to support them as God lives in them and works through them in their creative work.

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