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Reordering the loves: How vocation redeems our self-interest

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“The economic order, in light of the doctrine of vocation, becomes a complex network of individual human beings loving and serving each other according to their God-given gifts and abilities. The division of labor is transfigured into a labor of love.” –Gene Veith

“Martin Luther” by Lucas Cranach der Ältere (Public Domain)

In his latest book, Working for Our Neighbor, Gene Veith explores a Lutheran understanding of work, vocation, and economics, concluding that, for the Christian, work and vocation are God’s design for serving the people around us.

“Though we may speak of serving God in our vocations,” he writes, “we do not, strictly speaking, serve God. He always serves us. Rather, we are to serve our neighbors — the actual human beings whom God brings into our lives as we carry out our daily callings.”

Through this lens, then, “the economic order is a vast network of loving and serving, giving and receiving, in which God is present and in which Christians live out their faith.” Even as individuals are acting on their own callings and/or pursuing their own interests, Veith writes, “God is making them all meet the needs of others.”

Vocation is an invitation to activate our faith in love and “participate with God in his love of the world.” It “counters the materialism and self-centeredness of economic pursuits by giving them a new meaning and a new orientation,” he writes.

Yet whenever I share this sort of theological framework, whether told by Veith and Luther or Lester DeKoster, I’m routinely greeted with skepticism, even (or especially) among Christians.

How can something we do for personal reward ever be truly loving? If work and vocation are about self-denial and service, doesn’t such an approach conflict with our current free-market context, which, as Adam Smith thoroughly explained, is driven by “enlightened self-interest”? Is there really that much difference or distance between self-interest and selfishness?

To answer these questions, Veith points to Lutheran thought and theology, which includes two important elements: (1) the bondage of the will and (2) the action of God.

On the first, Luther surely recognizes that sin is inescapable for humans, defining the sin as incurvatus in se, or “the state of being curved in upon oneself.” “This curvedness is now natural for us,” Luther writes, “a natural wickedness and a natural sinfulness. Thus man has no help from his natural powers, but he needs the aid of some power outside of himself. This is love.”

Veith explains the implications of all this on the economic order:

Human beings, by their fallen nature, are oriented first and foremost to themselves. They are curved in upon themselves, and, moreover, they strive to bend all other good things—including “not only physical but even spiritual goods”—so that they gratify the self. But they also experience love, which takes them outside of themselves. Love draws them to other human beings, to the external world, to God.

Yes, in our economic activities, we are working for our self-interests. But, if we are honest and attentive to our deepest motivations, we have to recognize that we are also working for love. We work as hard as we do, taking on unpleasant tasks and pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion sometimes, because we love our families, whom we are trying to provide for. We often love the people we work with, and so take on responsibilities in the work-place that go beyond our selfish aggrandizement. We sometimes feel a love for our customers and want to give them our best. And there is also love for the work itself, the satisfaction that comes from exercising our skills, from making something, from having an effect on the world outside ourselves. All of these examples of love manifest themselves in acts of self-sacrifice, of saying no to our selfish pleasures and personal preferences out of love. And ultimately, all of these loves come from God.

And yet even if we resist or reject such love, God continues to work, which leads to that second element about God’s providence. Gustaf Wingren summarizes Luther as follows: “With persons as his ‘hands’ or ‘coworkers,’ God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth (food through farmers, fishermen and hunters; external peace through princes, judges, and orderly powers; knowledge and education through teachers and parents, etc., etc.).”

As Veith explains:

As it applies to the economic vocations, a business owner might care nothing for his employees or his customers. He is in a state of sin and is under judgment, in need of God’s grace and the forgiveness that comes through faith in Christ. And yet, despite himself, he is providing employment so that his workers can fulfill their vocations and provide for their families. He is providing goods or services that benefit his customers. If he is not serving others, both his customers and his workers will desert him, and his business will collapse. Even though the wicked business owner remains motivated solely by self-interest, he is nevertheless, by virtue of his vocation, a channel for God’s love.

With all of this together, we begin to see the bigger picture of God’s design for work and vocation in the economic order. We begin to understand mystery of trade and exchange, and how we might work and innovate and create value not just for ourselves, but for the life of the world.

And before any of that proceeds, at a more basic level, we mustn’t forget that most simple of realities. All of this hinges not on our work or toil or effort or service but on and in and through the gospel and the power of the Spirit.

“God’s action is manifest not only in vocation but in the gospel, in which he, by grace, forgives sinners through the work of Christ,” Veith concludes. “Thus, in the gospel, the will in bondage is set free. As a result, even our self-love, which continues to motivate many of our actions, is redeemed and rightly ordered.”

Photo: Public Domain

Working for Our Neighbor

Working for Our Neighbor

The Protestant Reformation was a catalyst for social mobility, universal education, and the rise of modern market economies. In his classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber showed the connections between Protestantism and the new economics. Weber, however, focused on the Calvinists and Puritans and speculated that economic success became a way of proving one’s election. He thus posited, with little evidence, a spiritual self-interest that was parallel to economic self-interest, distorting both Protestantism and capitalism. Weber neglected the specifically Lutheran doctrine of vocation, which emphasizes the spiritual and moral value of economic activity. According to Luther, God himself is hidden in vocation, as he providentially works through ordinary human beings to care for his creation. In their work—not only in the economy, but also in family, church, and community—Christians live out their faith in love and service to their neighbors. For Lutherans, the doctrine of vocation is nothing less than the theology of the Christian life. In its social impact, vocation gave a theological basis for the division of labor, social equality, and individual freedom. In this elucidating work, Gene Edward Veith connects vocation to justification, good works, and Christian freedom—defining how the Lutheran contribution to economics can transfigure ordinary life, and work, with the powerful presence of God.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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