Acton Institute Powerblog

Your job is not your vocation

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What we do to sustain life and what we’re called to do for the good of the gospel and our neighbor are two different things. But the first can be put in the service of the second. […]

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It is sometimes claimed—wrongly—that until the Reformation, the only vocations known to Christian teaching were monastic and/or clerical. One might be called to a monastery or called to the priesthood, but ordinary work, family life, secular singleness—these are the things of the world one may be called out from, not something God called one to. Then Martin Luther and the Reformation came along and changed all that.

I say this account is wrong for two reasons.

First, while there may have been a clericalism and an overemphasis on monasticism in the 16th century, one can find defenses of the good of marriage by St. Augustine, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who exhorted his catechumens in this way: “Hast thou been put in trust with riches? Dispense them well. Hast thou been entrusted with the word of teaching? Be a good steward thereof. Canst thou attach the souls of the hearers? Do this diligently. There are many doors of good stewardship.”

One must remember that many ancient and medieval Christian texts come from expert rhetoricians. So when commending the good of monasticism or the daunting duties of ordination, they speak in the highest terms available and may at times seem to denigrate ordinary life. But then one only needs to read a little further to discover that such an interpretation is unfounded. Too many, it seems, have not had the will to read a little further.

Second, the account I began with is wrong because it misrepresents the Lutheran and general Protestant understanding of vocation. Luther and others may seem to elevate the mundane and denigrate ordination—and in the case of monasticism, they surely, if understandably, went too far—but they do not simply say that all jobs are vocations. Rather, Luther wrote, “It is the part of a Christian to take care of his own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and well-being, he may be enabled to labour, and to acquire and preserve property, for the aid of those who are in want, that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ.” Thus, one’s vocation is not so much the job itself as the end that the job ought to serve. If one does one’s job to that end, then one’s vocation can be found in it. As the Lutheran theologian Gene Edward Veith has summarized it, “The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors.”

This distinction is important because there is an opposite error to the clericalism of the Middle Ages (to the extent such was really the case): the failure to acknowledge that our work in this world is under the curse of human sin and is everywhere tainted by toil. That toilsome quality of work can ascetically contribute to our sanctification, but telling someone stuck in a genuinely terrible job that it is their God-given vocation, as sometimes happens or is at least implied by the common rhetoric of vocation today, does not strike me as truly loving our neighbors. Rather, it may actually be a failure to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called … bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1–2). For example, people who had to drop out of college or give up a dream of becoming an artist or a musician or an athlete to support their children might feel that, in terms of their job, they have “missed their calling” to properly steward the talents God endowed them with. Telling them, in response, that the job they’ve settled for is their real vocation downplays the toilsome burden they bear. That doesn’t mean that job can’t serve their true vocation, but first they need to look beyond their job for what that vocation really is. Helping them do that is a better way to bear with them in love.

The Orthodox saint Mother Maria Skobtsova wrote insightfully and beautifully on this problem of balancing encouragement in the grind of a hard job, on one hand, while refusing to romanticize it as necessarily a divinely imposed vocation, on the other, in her essay on “The Mysticism of Human Communion.” Those who would denigrate “worldly” work and service, she characterizes scathingly:

Love of God—this is the chief and only thing. All the rest is just obedience, just a “job,” which in any case should not diminish the chief thing…. Pity, love, work, responsibility for the human soul, willingness to sacrifice—these are all necessary elements of obedience, but one must know moderation in them. They should not be allowed to overwhelm and disperse the spirit. Compared to the chief thing, it is all not a deed but a job.

Such is her caricature of the one who overemphasizes the individual aspect of the Christian life. However, she did not, for that, fall into the opposite extreme:

Here we must add the reservation that there is, of course, work that can essentially be called a “job.” When hermits wove mats and fashioned clay pots, it was a job. When we peel potatoes, mend underwear, do the accounts, ride the subway, that is also a job. But when monks of old, by way of obedience, buried the dead, looked after lepers, preached to fallen women, denounced the unrighteous life, gave alms—that was not a job. And when we act in our modern life, visiting the sick, feeding the unemployed, teaching children, keeping company with all kinds of human grief and failure, dealing with drunkards, criminals, madmen, the dejected, the gone-to-seed, with all the spiritual leprosy of our life, it is not a job and not only a tribute to obedience that has its limits within our chief endeavor—it is the very inner endeavor itself, an inseparable part of our main task.

One might read this as still driving something of a divide between “sacred” and “worldly” occupations, but I think that would be a misreading. If we “peel potatoes, mend underwear, do the accounts, ride the subway,” and so on, as means to the love-inspired ends of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, setting aside funds for almsgiving, or traveling from our homes to encounter the reflection of God’s image in the face of every human being, honoring and reverencing that image as we do holy icons in our churches and homes, then these tasks become “not a job” but the very means by which we fulfill our true vocation, loving God and our neighbors by taking up the cross daily for them. This, too, St. Maria knew well, speaking of how “the churching of life” should transform our vision of our neighbors through “the sense of the whole world as one church, adorned with icons that should be venerated, that should be honored and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the Living God upon them.” Moreover, “Everything in the world can be Christian, but only if it is pervaded by the authentic awe of communion with God, which is also possible on the path of authentic communion with man.”

Thus, your job is not your vocation. But your job can serve your vocation, which in its highest sense is the same for all people, as Jesus prayed, “that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26), no matter what job you may happen to have.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.