We do not use the word ‘vocation’ much anymore. We may talk about ‘vocational training’ or ‘vocational education’. Yet, what does that mean? For the most part we use vocation as a filler for the word ‘job’. Not much would change if we talked about ‘job training’ or ‘job education’. Vocation is a word that has fallen on hard times. Yet, it is a rich word that as Christians, and particularly Christians who locate themselves in the tradition of the Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Bucer), we should be eager to retrieve it. We should be eager to retrieve it because it was these same Reformers who originally brought the word to prominence.
The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocatio which means ‘calling’. Coming out of medieval Christianity, vocation was a common word. However, to have a vocation, a calling, was the exclusive arena of church work. So, the priest, the nun, the monk, all had vocations, but the farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, mom (often translated as ‘mum’ outside of the USA), dad, or even the king did not have a vocation. They may have had important work; nevertheless, their work, being marred in the world, was less than a calling.
What the Reformers did in their time was radical. In fact, when you read most histories of the Reformation, historians would say this is the lasting societal impact of the Reformation. People like Luther and Calvin transformed ordinary work and showed how it was a calling. For the Reformers, contra the Roman Catholics, God works for us in our salvation, and he works through us in our vocation. Moving vocation into the life of every Christian was revolutionary. Now the blacksmith had a calling just like the minister. The Lord worked through the mother changing a nappy, just as he worked through the minister preaching a sermon. The work in each vocation was distinct, but in each vocation it was a way in which God providentially cared for this world. Luther put it eloquently:
God who pours out his generosity on the just and the unjust, believers and unbelievers alike, hides himself in the ordinary social functions and stations of life, even the most humble. God himself is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.
When is a job more than a job? When it is a vocation. When we consider our work a calling from God, it transforms our work. Our work no longer is something that is on the periphery of life our life with no connection to our faith. When we see our work as a vocation, it becomes a central piece of our life and devotion to God. This happens even in cases where our jobs seem meaningless and trivial.
Thus, there is a sense in which our jobs are our vocations and yet they are more than that. They are pieces of our various vocations. How does God answer my prayer to give me this day my daily bread? He gives me a job that I can work to purchase groceries. How do I fulfil the vocation as a father and husband to provide for my family? Through the job that I work. Thus, my job is a part of that vocation. It is a way in which I love my neighbour (in this case my family). How do I fulfil my vocation as a member of the church to support my church with my financial resources? With the job that I have and giving a portion of what I earn to the church for the work of ministry. This is also an aspect of my vocation as a Christian to love God. Demonstrating that I have faith that God will provide even when I give my money away.
All too often when we think of vocation or calling, we think that there needs to be some form of internal feeling. There needs to be a sense of deep satisfaction in the work for it to be properly understood as my ‘calling’, my vocation. The problem with this view is that there are going to be times in any vocation be it in the family, in the state, or in the church that you ‘just don’t feel it.’ This does not mean that we are any less called to that task. So, if my job is not ‘satisfying’ me, but I have no other options that will provide for my other commitments, it is still my calling. This is because it is still a way that God works through me to care for and serve others. Take for example your vocation in your family. In this vocation you are called to love and serve the members of your family. Yet, we all know that there are times when we do not feel like loving and serving our families. Nevertheless, that does not mean that we are any less called to this at that moment. This same thing holds true with our vocations in the church. It is also true with our calling to the larger society.
So, on the Lord’s Day I show up to church even when I do not feel like being there because the Lord has called me to this. When I gather with the saints, I am doing thing I have been called to do. I worship. I also love my neighbour as we gather and encourage one another. I show up to work even on the days that I just could not be bothered because the Lord uses my work to serve the people the around me. If I am a garbage collector, he uses to keep the city clean and free from some diseases. If I am a doctor, the Lord uses me to heal the sick. He also uses me to answer the prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ by allowing me to work and providing the money for me to buy the food that feeds my family. When we understand that the Lord uses me and the work that he has called me to do as a way to care for, preserve, and serve the world, our jobs become more than a job, they become a vocation.
Is there a difference between my job and my vocation? Yes, and at the same time no. Vocation, in the way that it was recovered in the Reformation, is a bigger than just what I do in my daily work. It involves my job, but it is more all-encompassing. At the same time, my job in so far as the Lord uses it to love and serve my neighbour, is my vocation. Through my job the Lord continues providentially to care for his creation. Thus, through my job, the Lord calls me to enter into his work. It is in this sense that my job is a vocation, a calling.
– Cam Clausing lectures at Christ College