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Reflections on Vocation (Part 2): Unhinging Vocation and Job, Rethinking Work

By January 19, 2012 12 Comments

Since my first post on vocation, a number of friends, colleagues, and readers have jumped into the conversation, raised poignant questions, and even taken their linguistic sledgehammers to the whole concept.  Jess Kast-Keat poignantly asked if vocation is only for the privileged: “I have the privilege of getting paid to do the work that I love to do because I have many different resources to tap into. But this is not the case for many people.” Deb Reinstra followed this up with a big “Ba Humbug” to vocation. As a college professor, she’s listened ad nauseum to self-serving, thinly constructed vocation talk. Then Jason Lief skillfully countered all this battering of vocation precisely from the perspective of those who are not privileged. So maybe our critique of vocation is also tied up in our privileged vantage point?!

I’ll leave the conversation about privilege to Jess, and with that in mind, take up the question of the link between God’s call and our jobs. Does God call us to a particular job(s)? Is this calling to the job itself, to a set of relationships in the context of the job, or to a way of being in the context of our job? This also raises another related question: What is work? Have we conflated “work” with “job/occupation,” or as one reader put it, to the place that gives me a paycheck?

Listen to how a thirty-one-year-old lawyer responded to questions about meaning and purpose in his work and how that relates to God’s calling in his life:

My [faith] doesn’t inform my work as far as the actual tasks I perform.  You know, I don’t think about writing a brief with my faith in mind. I do think [my faith] impacts how I interact with others whether they are my coworkers or opposing council. Not having a mean attitude towards them, or being able to talk about whatever issues with colleagues. My sense of purpose impacts how I carry myself in those situations. I don’t think of my job as something that I was called by God to do, it’s more just something that I do.

This lawyer (or, this person who happens to work as a lawyer) does not experience his occupation as part of his vocation; in fact, quite the opposite, God is not involved (in his estimation) in the actual content of his job.  At best, his job is a means to another, more meaningful end. A fifty-three year old man said it this way:

Occupation has never been anything more for me than a means to live my life. I enjoy what I do for work, but it’s not what I choose to focus on.

If this is what our interviewees said—(and BTW, these are people of privilege, at least socio-economically)—what would some (or, in this post, two) of our theological forebears say? 

Martin Luther: vocation is grounded in God’s ongoing creative work in all dimensions of our lives. We participate in God’s creative work as we die to sin and are raised to new life, and as we serve and love our neighbor in all stations of life, including marriage, family relationships, work (our jobs), etc. This is a much more nuanced understanding of vocation than what Marc Kolden, one of my former colleagues at Luther Seminary, calls “occupationalism.” He writes, “Defining vocation as occupation allows us to restrict it largely to self-serving actions (unless we are in some of the privileged service occupations, and even here the rewards are greatest for ourselves). Seeing vocation as the situation in history and society in which we find ourselves enlarges it almost beyond our strength. But responding to such a calling will surely allow God to sanctify us and empty us so that Christ will be all in all.”

Karl Barth: our vocation is multidimensional koinonia. Translated “fellowship” in English, koinonia refers to our union and communion with Christ, with each other, and our solidarity with the world.  Vocation is fundamentally about our attachment to Christ and through Christ to one another. Personally and corporately, the vocation of the Christian is a life lived in light of this attachment. There is no pious separation from the world in this vocation. For we are attached to the world on the basis of our common creaturely status. Thus Christian vocation involves recognizing the needs of the world and responding with generosity, care, and compassion. It involves confession and witness. This confession is first and foremost a proclamation of God’s “yes” to humanity; it focuses on God as friend, healer, helper, and savior; and it must be contextualized, connecting to a particular people in a particular time and place.

Lest I lose readers with this longer-than-recommended blog post, let me try to weave together some tentative assertions about vocation in light of the latest research on vocation, the insights of my colleagues and readers, and the theologies of Martin Luther and Karl Barth. (My apologies for leaving out Kuyper!)

  1. Vocation derives from God’s work in our lives, personally and communally.
  2. God’s work is fundamentally relational, cruciform, creative (as in, creating new life); it is marked by solidarity and witness.
  3. Because we are attached to God through Christ, our work, too, is relational, cruciform, creative, marked by solidarity and witness, which reflect God’s love and care.
  4. God’s work of reconciliation leads to a radical acceptance of humanity; perhaps our work, too, is marked by basking in that acceptance of ourselves and others. (Hear justification in my language of “acceptance.”)
  5. Work, defined in this way, may be related to one’s job, but it is far more than that. Theologically work and occupation cannot be equated with one another.
  6. Vocation may be the work of love, an argument that I’ll take up at length in the next post.
  7. All this may break up the problem of privilege in our vocation conversation.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    This is such rich stuff, Theresa! Thank you. I am encouraged by the emphasis in Luther and Barth and in your list of assertions on vocation as an affirmation of the world and our work in it. That's a helpful correction and may address Jason's worries, too. We have got to get away from the idea of vocation as a process of selecting among many possible careers. What a flat idea compared to what you are working toward here. As further food for thought, I'll include a link here to a fine article by Andy Crouch about his wife and her life as a scientist. The article doesn't explore the idea of vocation explicitly, but implicitly it raises some of the issues we've been discussing. Can we find a way to honor the "way of being in the world" that strongly characterizes some people's lives, and still keep the meaning of "vocation" true to a broad, world-affirming discipleship? Here's the link:

  • Jason Lief says:

    Excellent! Thank you. As I said before I find Dorothy Sayers to be helpful. Here's a link to her essay "Why Work?"

  • Eric says:

    Thanks for the Dorothy Sayers link Lief.

    THIS thread of blogs is SO good!
    It is all too easy to become cynical about blogging (even one's own!), but this series of articles shows what can happen when there is open and honest enquiry.
    The quality of it all is Exceptional and I wonder if in the end it might all end up in book form. I'll spread the word on FB etc. but it deserves a Wide audience

    HT to all contributors

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Friends, thanks for your continued engagement with this important conversation! I resonate with Eric–this is some of the best practical theological discussion I've had in years. My thinking, understanding, and passion are being sharpened and deepened by this. And I'm looking to reading the articles mentioned by Deb and Jason.

    Eric, your comments warm my heart. As for a book, yes, actually one of my colleagues at Luther Seminary and I have been planning to write a book on this very topic–reconstructing vocation. She's been part of two of the grants that I'm working with. So I take your question as an affirmation to continue to working toward that end, but now with more than a little help from my friends (near and far).

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    What about what JC said? No, not that JC. Calvin wrote: "the Lord bids each one of us in all life's actions to look to his calling. For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once . . . that no one my thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living "callings." Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life . . . . From this will arise a singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God's sight."

    My sense from this is that Calvin is saying vocational calling is not a divine mystery that we may or may not uncover but rather that calling is found in how one approaches one's work and any job done "as if for the Lord" is done as if for the Lord. Plus I like his use of the phrase "hither and thither."

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Thanks for adding a bit of Calvinist linguist flair to our conversation, Jeff! Besides the "hither and thither," I also resonate with your sense that what is at stake in our vocation is how we do our jobs.

    I actually read this passage from the Institutes as I was writing the blog. So this gives me time to reflect on why I didn't include it!

    On the one hand, I find JC's description of "ambition" here to be compelling, something to build on perhaps. At least in the academy, there's a fair amount of ambition (and no, I'm not immune from this either): attempts to publish more books than our colleagues, attempts to take on multiple projects simultaneously so as to prove ourselves, and attempts to market ourselves as authors who speak to contemporary church culture. So confronting our tendency to "embrace various things at once," in this sense, might be quite apropos.

    On the other hand, I don't think that, in this passage, JC's claims make sense in our world. Is our problem one of "heedlessly wandering through life?" It seems that our whole socioeconomic system forces us to wander from job-to-job and place-to-place. Life lived in a particular locale increasingly is the exception not the rule.

    Second, JC seems to hold the view (again, understandable in his context) that we all are placed in particular jobs and that we are called by God to faithfulness in those jobs. Most of us, I think, would reject this line of thinking as too simplistic an understanding of divine action. Would God want us to stay in abusive marriages (John Piper thinks so–though that's another conversation for another time), meaningless and deadening jobs, or toxic religious communities if there's a way of escape? I don't think so.

    I suspect that other places in the Institutes would be more helpful in thinking about vocation than this passage. Or if we draw on this passage, I suspect we'd have to do so with a critical eye to the differences in JC's context and ours. What do you think?

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    I'm thinking of my daughter who has used the phrase "possibility overload" to describe the huge variety of life options available to her generation. Ministry? Grad School? Overseas journeying? A "career" type job? All the options look good. I think of "ambition" that way — not in a "getting ahead of others sense" but in a "I want it all" sense. "Restless human nature" is an accurate description of this feeling. What I hear Calvin saying is "relax, God will help guide you." I don't think we will get to heaven and learn we really blew it, that we were supposed to have done something totally different with our lives than the direction we headed. Is that too simplistic? I want our lives to work that way.

    I have never read John Piper, so I don't know what he says about staying in abusive marriages, but that sounds like a bunch of things like blaming the victim, responding to abuse with another sort of abuse and obeying the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law. I have read Scott Russell Sanders, though, and appreciate his calling people to remain in a place over time. I have experienced that in my life — moving across an ocean and being pulled to return back, being open to moving across the country and not having it work out . . . I want to believe it was God helping guide me back to "my place."

  • William Harris says:

    I will suggest that the question of, the challenge to "vocation" is less class-oriented than theological. While I enjoy the seven tentative conclusions, nonetheless it is easy to imagine those for whom this would be something of a mystery where one's work and one's place of validation are thoroughly separated. The understanding of vocation in this light creates two classes: those whose work and worth walk together and those for whom it is something else. But what is this but the return of the medieval two-tiered system, albeit of a more secular variety?

    I don't think this is a matter of semantics, where we swap out vocation for "meaning" or "purpose." Theologically, the problem is how do we account for God's Presence in the very very ordinary, obliged parts of our life? If God isn't at work with me at the computer, here, or in a moment when I go downstairs to wash the dishes, where exactly will I find this One? And isn't that the point, to find and know and be known by this One who is altogether lovely?

  • Blair Bertrand says:

    Theresa, I think that it is important to remember Barth’s actualism and its implications for our identity and therefore the relation between our identity and what we do. God is as God does. If we receive our being from our covenant partnership with God then we not only are personalist in orientation, highlighted by your idea of love, but we ontologically similar to God in that we participate in actualism as well. What we do is, to a large extent, who we are. There isn’t some isolated “child of God” withheld in a seat of objectivity that adjudicates what we do. In actualism, there is no God beyond the God that does the choosing. There is God as God is as God does. God chooses to become covenant partner with humanity so God is covenant partner with humanity. There is no division between the subject and the action – the subject is the action. So too for us. There isn’t some pure self that sits behind all of the roles that I play, a true self that I can discover by shedding all of my other selves. There is me and so if, like much of humanity for much of history, I need to ‘work’ so that I might continue to feed and clothe myself and my loved ones, then I am irrevocably shaped by that work. I am what I do.

    This is profoundly important from an ethical standpoint because to divorce ‘call’ and ‘occupation’ is to build into our understanding of ourselves and our actions in the world an inherent alienation. When we understand ourselves and what we do as if we withhold something, the pure self, that is serviced by our actions, our actions become instrumental to our own desire, dividing ourselves against ourselves time and time again. This hurts the privileged but is even more devastating for the underprivileged. “Oh, it is ok that he flips burgers because that isn’t his real vocation, his real vocation is to sing God’s praises on Sunday.” We can ignore the alienation of others and its consequences because we justify our own alienation from ourselves, we hide that our work is meaningless and the results of our labour mean nothing to ourselves – only our vocation matters and we get to choose what that is in our spare time.

    Perhaps this is too much for a blog post comment! Looking forward to talking in person sometime.

  • Theresa Latini says:

    The conversation keeps getting richer! Here are a few more thoughts . . .

    (1) To reduce "vocation" to American cultural conceptions of purpose and meaning would be theological error. At the same time, if our conceptions of vocation don't somehow relate to our God-given needs for meaning and purpose, then our theology is likely a dead one, in my estimation. In part, what I'm calling for (working on) is an account of the inner logic of vocation. The life of multidimensional koinonia is one way of trying to unpack that, though there is much, much more to be said here.

    (2) I think one of the problems is that we have linked work and worth, or at least "job" and worth. (If anyone wants to read an insightful, interdisciplinary analysis of this see James Loder's Logic of the Spirit, particularly his chapter on the school-age child.) I don't think this holds up theologically. Our worth is tied less to the doctrine of vocation and more to the doctrine of justification. Though the fact that we are called to participate in God's work in the world is in fact a sign of our worth in God's eyes.

    (3) Interesting comments on Barth's actualism. Here I'm wondering about the distinction between God as Being-in-Act and humanity as being-in-act. God is as God does. Yes, I agree. But are we as we do? Or do we contradict who we are in much of our doing? Certainly our actions shape us profoundly. Here I guess I'm emphasizing the objective reality that human beings find their true identity in union and communion with Christ; we are actually, objectively in Christ. "It is finished." Yet in the here-and-now, we don't glimpse this often; we experience it rarely; and we contradict it daily. So the Apostle Paul talks about a true self and a false self and theologians talk about the simul–i.e., we are simul justus et peccator.

  • Phil GebbenGreen says:

    Hello Theresa, great conversation and topic. Some of it is over my head (I'll leave it to others parse out the Barth's actualism) but I want to add a few thoughts. One, our vocation seems to be all wrapped up in our STORY. Part of the reason that pastors over-emphasize the idea of vocation (from Part I of your blog) is that through the seminary and denominational call process we are forced and/or invited to tell our "call stories" over and over again. This idea of story changes the vocation narrative from choice (what vocation am I going to choose?–with it's possibility overload) to a narrative of revelation: only when I tell my story do I realize how God has been working in my life. Choice is an illusion; revelation is salvation. But this is never clear in any given moment. It only becomes clear as we tell our stories to one another in community.

    Two, I'm trying to think about this biblically. The easy places for pastors to go is the call narratives of Moses or the prophets, but now I'm wondering about the Israelites in Egypt. Was their vocation to be slaves? Of course not! But it was their daily labor. To reflect more on the slaves, I'll turn to the confessions in point three.

    Three, for myself and for those slaves in Egypt, I have never liked Q&A1 of the Westminster Catechism: "What is the chief end of Man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever." Sexist, of course, but also unsatisfying. Suggesting to those slaves and to me that if we could just get our Purpose (end) in order then everything would be okay. Vocation conversations easily drift into this same territory, suggesting that meaning and purpose is the main focus of human life. I instead appreciate Heidelberg Q&A1: "What is our only comfort in life and death?" In the midst of slavery, my deepest hunger is not purpose; it is comfort. And what is God's response to our need for comfort? Is it calling and purpose? The answer in the Heidelberg: "My only comfort is that in body and soul, life and death, I am not my own, but I belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ." God's response is acceptance and love. I'm not trying to get mushy here. I'm trying to understand my vocation. In other words, I am wondering if the absolute totality of my vocation is faith, is trust, is understanding that I AM NOT MY OWN but I belong to God. Not being a pastor or a handyman or spouse or parent or anything at all. Only to trust. Only to trust.

    I'm almost done, but I'm left with some random wonderings. (a) How does mysticism and crazy faith enter into the vocation conversation; ie why do the first disciples just jump off their boats and follow JC? (b) Is their a hierarchy of needs in the human life, where the needs for comfort and belonging and love trump the needs for meaning and purpose? In other words, if you try to meet the needs for meaning and purpose without first acknowledging the needs for love etc, we are in a world of trouble (illusion).

    Again, appreciation to all for a great conversation.

  • Blair Bertrand says:


    Hope you get pinged to know that this is here.

    I've been thinking about the actualism and anthropology for a while. I'm pretty sure that it holds for both, deity and humanity, despite our sin. Barth makes a distinction between natural humanity and Christian humanity. For instance in IV.4 he can say "As God's creature man [sic] has by nature and creation his own determination which is not destroyed or even damaged by his conflict with God, his fellow-man and himself." (4). We have a determination that is ours regardless of our fallen state. Then, in reference to images of transformation and talking of a new heart, Barth can say "According to biblical usage the heart denotes the centre of life in which a man [sic] is inwardly what he is, and from which he is also what he is outwardly, in all his acts and attitudes." (8). Here is a weak form of actualism but actualism none the less. III.2 contains lots of anthropology and actualism language but I'm reading IV.4 today so thought that I'd pull those quotes for you. Perhaps we should chat sometime?

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