In modern America, our view of vocation has become increasingly narrow and individualistic, focused only on economic action and our own preferred paths to self-actualization.
As David Brooks explains in his book The Road to Character, vocation is now mostly imagined as a journey of self-discovery and wish fulfillment, a way to satisfy inner longings so we can put up with the broken world around us.
“First you take an inventory of your gifts and passions,” Brooks writes. “Then you set goals and come up with some metrics to organize your progress toward those goals. … This is the way people tend to organize their lives in our age of individual autonomy. It’s a method that begins with the self and ends with the self, that begins with self-investigation and ends in self-fulfillment. This is a life determined by a series of individual choices.”
In turn, neighbors and institutions are quickly reduced to a mere means for our “meaning making,” inconvenient but necessary functions of our strategically conceived business plans for personal happiness and prosperity.
But what if vocation is not ultimately about serving and elevating ourselves? What if it involves more than a narrow set of transactional choices within a narrow sphere of economic life? What if we were meant to be summoned by life rather than wholly self-determined? What if, as Brooks goes on to consider, “the important answers are not found inside; they are found outside”?
As Gene Veith points out in Working for Our Neighbor, Acton’s Lutheran primer on work and economics, vocation is fundamentally about love and service to others. For Christians in particular, such love orients our lives and actions around and toward the divine in ways that multiply meaning and abundance across communities.
Pointing to the influence of Martin Luther, whom he calls “the great theologian of vocation,” Veith notes that such a notion is by no means new to Christian thought. Long before we constructed our modern altars to the self, followers of Jesus were imagining vocation as a basic part of daily devotion and communion with our creator and his creation.
“God does not need our good works, Luther said, but our neighbor does,” Veith writes. “…Though we may speak of serving God in our vocations, 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.”
From here, Veith writes, we can more readily see the bigger picture of the created order, connecting the dots between “the spiritual and the physical, transcendence and incarnation, ascent and descent, faith and love, love of God and love of neighbor.” By defining vocation outward, we see “the interconnections of faith, work, and economics not just theoretically, but practically.” Such a perspective “discloses how the ordinary, seemingly secular activities of everyday life are essential dimensions of Christian spirituality.”
Given the cultural platitudes that consume us—be yourself, love yourself, free yourself—a truly Christian notion of vocation enables us to resist the whims of modernity and the competing idols of the age, from the gurus of self-help hedonism to the coaches of careerism. “Vocation counters the materialism and self-centeredness of economic pursuits by giving them a new meaning and a new orientation,” Veith explains.
All this applies well beyond our economic action. Luther points our perspectives higher and wider, reminding us that we each have multiple vocations—countless callings across every sphere and every act of creation and cooperation we set our hands on. “God calls us to different tasks and relationships in the course of our lives in the temporal world,” Veith says, summarizing Luther’s thought. “But God’s callings also take specific forms in accord with how God creates and governs human societies.”
For Luther, these vocations manifest most commonly across three “estates” or “orders”: the church (ecclesia), the household (oeconomia), and the state or politics (politia). In the following excerpts from Working for Our Neighbor, Veith summarizes Luther’s approach to each estate and how it might challenge and enrich our own perspectives.
(For Luther in his own words, here’s a helpful roundup of relevant source material on the three estates.)
On vocation in the church and among its members:
The estate of the church involves the personal calling of the gospel, and, since God tends to call individual human beings into communities, he also calls people to tasks and offices in his church. Pastors speak rightly of being called into the ministry, whereupon God works through them to teach his Word, distribute his sacraments, and give spiritual care to his people. Church workers, through whom God brings his people into his spiritual kingdom and brings them to everlasting life—pastors, teachers, missionaries, and the like—do have a special vocation. Laypeople too are part of this community of faith and can help each other in their spiritual lives. Those who are not called to full-time church work can nevertheless also be called to do tasks in the local congregation—singing in the choir, serving on committees, serving meals, and in other ways blessing their fellow members.
On vocation in the household and, from there, across the economic order:
For Luther the estate of the household includes both the family and the activities by which it supports itself. He had in mind the concept expressed in the Greek word oikonomia, the management or laws of the household. This word is the source of the English word economy. For Luther, in his day of family-based labor, economic life was connected with family life. Since then, family life and economic life increasingly have been separated into two realms, and today they are often in conflict with each other. That Luther and the early Reformers subordinate economic activity to the family is still significant, however, as modern Christians struggle to order their lives.
On vocation in politics and across communities and institutions of order:
Luther’s third estate is the state (politia). This includes earthly government, but it is also more than that. We might use the term society, or, better yet, culture or community. This estate involves the many social networks that we are part of. If the household includes the particular economic labor that an individual pursues (as in microeconomics), the state includes the larger economic interrelationships (as in macroeconomics). Thus, Luther sometimes discusses particular economic vocations in this category as well.
At any rate, we were each born into a particular time, place, and society. The cultural context in which we find ourselves is thus part of the life that God has assigned us (1 Cor. 7:17). We thus have responsibilities to our government, to our society, and to our local communities. Some Christians are called to positions of authority in the government as presidents, legislators, judges, and police officers. Americans have the unusual calling of being both subjects and rulers at the same time, since our democratic republic places the governing authorities themselves under the authority of the people who elect them. Christians thus have the vocation of citizen, which means that politics, civic involvement, and cultural engagement are all valid realms of Christian service.
But these three estates do not represent the end or even the entire arc of our vocational opportunities. Luther says that Christians are also called to “the common order of Christian love,” in which “one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc.” Veith calls it the “fourth estate”—“the realm where people of different vocations interact informally.”
Our more modern sensibilities will surely resist such a framework, preferring to subjugate calling to our own terms and proclivities and preferences. Yet it is only by broadening our vision and seeing outside ourselves that we will find true transformation and flourishing, both individually and as a human community and civilization.
As Benjamin Mann puts it, vocation is “a school of charity” and “a means of crucifixion.” Or as Brooks puts it at the end of his book: “Your ability to discern your vocation depends on the condition of your eyes and ears, whether they are sensitive enough to understand the assignment your context is giving you.”
Ours is a service not of our own design or choosing, and when we orient our lives accordingly, that service becomes far more powerful.