Tag Archives: vocation

Toward an Old Meaning of Vocation

We usually think about our vocation as our career. We talk about it in terms of the future. We discern it in light of our gifts.

But Kate Harris, executive director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, wants to change how we think about vocation. Since "vocation" is derived from the Latin word vox, which means "voice" or "vocal," she says, we should think about it as "one's entire life lived in response to God's voice or call." It's more about who we are (identity) and whose we are (belonging) than about what we do.

Instead of thinking narrowly about our vocation as career or title or role, we should think more comprehensively, as "a steady and unique arterial pulse that gives shape to all different kinds of encounters." Rather than talking about it in terms of the future, we should focus on the present moment, where constraints "aren't impediments, but the point." Finally, although "vocation certainly draws from our skills and abilities, more often than not, it has its origins in our griefs." For example, "it's the recovered addict who goes into counseling to help others or the strategist who suffered some pain of disorientation and now wants to make coherent sense of things or the child of divorce who wants to build a strong family and marriage."

How does vocation reflect the Trinity, the creation, the incarnation, and the death and resurrection of Christ? Watch this 18-minute video to discover more.

The Magi and the Eternal Effect of Our Work

Have you ever wondered what led the wise men to undertake their long, dangerous journey to Bethlehem? What led them to believe that the particular star they followed would lead them to a great king?

What most people know about the Magi comes from popular traditions and Christmas carols, few of which are supported by the biblical text. Matthew does not suggest the Magi were kings, he does not say they were three in number, nor is it likely they were from the Orient.

magiWho then were these Magi, and where did they originate? Craig Chester, past president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy gives the following description of the Magi:

The group of Magi in question came "from the East." They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus' kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.

The Magi were important, powerful people of their day. The mention of their visit to Jerusalem was Matthew's way of securing the testimony of top scientific authorities to authenticate the royal birth of Jesus.

There are many references in ancient literature to Magi visiting kings and emperors. For example, Tiridates, king of Armenia, led a procession of Magi to pay homage to Nero in Rome in AD 66. Josephus records that Magi also visited Herod in about 10 B.C. A visit by the Magi to pay homage to a newborn king would not have appeared unusual to the original readers of Matthew's gospel.

It would not, however, have gone unnoticed. In fact, Matthew 2:3 says that not only was Herod disturbed but also "all Jerusalem with him." The Magi were such important individuals; they probably traveled with a large entourage that included soldiers, even a small army for protection. So it should not be surprising that Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem were troubled when they arrived.

What Led the Magi to Jerusalem?

The Magi must have seen an unmistakably clear astronomical/astrological message to urge them on such a long, dangerous journey. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi indicated that they saw something in the night sky that was so significant it convinced them to make the trip of more than a thousand miles to Jerusalem to look for this new king.

How could seeing "signs in the sky" inform the Magi that a king of the Jews had been born?

The answer may take us back more than 500 years to the work of one of God's faithful servants during the Babylonian exile. We read that King Nebuchadnezzar assigned Daniel to the high office of "chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners" (Daniel 5:11). In other words, Daniel was appointed chief of the Magi.

The Magi of the first century would have most certainly studied the writing of Daniel and possibly other Jewish writings with which Daniel would have been associated, such as the book of Isaiah. This connection between Daniel and Magi may help to explain why the Magi in question 600 years later expected a Jewish king to arrive in Judea near the end of the first century.

In fact, there is evidence that Daniel's prophecy of the coming of a powerful Jewish king was well known to many in the ancient world in the first century. Both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about a widely held belief based on ancient writings among the Jews of a great world ruler that would be from Judea. It is likely therefore that the Magi followed the star based on their study of Daniel's writings.

Because Daniel was faithful in his work, God used him to bring the news of the birth of Christ to both his fellow Israelites and even the some of the most powerful, knowledgeable, and influential Gentiles of the day.

For the Good of the City

In Jeremiah 29, we find part of Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon: "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).

These exiles, including Daniel, had seen the destruction of their homeland, the death of their family members, and the demolishing of their holiest place of worship. It must have been hard to work for the good of a city that had destroyed his homeland, yet Daniel obeyed God's call and became "chief of the Magi" and an adviser to the king.

In a way, we too are in "exile," for we live in a fallen, sinful world and look forward to when Christ will return and restore it. But rather than sit passively, we actively engage in the world because God calls us to "work in the peace and prosperity of the city" here and now.

With Christmas passed and the business year about to start again it is good to be reminded about the effect of our work. God calls us to be faithful in the here and now, even when we can't always see the result of what we do. We have no idea how God will use it.

Take the story of Edward Kimball, a Sunday school teacher. Concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of his pupils, he never gave up, even though the task of teaching a group of rowdy boys could be mundane and difficult.

It turns out that through Kimball's teaching, evangelist D. L. Moody came to Christ. In his lifetime, Moody led thousands to Christ, including Wilbur Chapman. Chapman himself became an evangelist who converted the famous preacher Billy Sunday. During his many evangelistic meetings, Sunday led Mordecai Ham to accept the gospel. And who did Ham reach? His preaching led to the conversion of Billy Graham, who preached to more people than any other individual and led untold thousands to Christ.

Today, few people remember Edward Kimball. Yet because of his faithfulness and tenacity, God used his efforts to set off an incredible chain of events that saved millions.

The story of the star of Bethlehem and the Magi does not start in Matthew 2. It extends hundreds of years back to the Babylonian exile where Daniel faithfully answered God's call to work and engage in the culture—even in the most difficult of times. If we are faithful in this same call, who knows how God will use what we do today to further his kingdom tomorrow.

Is It Actually Hard to Be a Pastor?

As a pastor who often hears other ministers teach and preach, I am disturbed by the number of times pastors allude to their jobs as being particularly difficult. Yes, we face many challenges—ministry may involve times of high emotional and spiritual duress—but I don't think these difficulties merit special recognition with regard to other vocations. After all, being a pastor involves almost no manual labor, which makes it physically easier than most other occupations in history. It doesn't require a 60- to 80-hour work week, unless you somehow equate longer working hours with more of the Holy Spirit's presence. And although the emotional and spiritual challenges faced are difficult, teachers and social workers—to take just two examples—face similar or greater obstacles.

priest_collarIn many ways this issue reflects a broader trend in how Americans approach their vocations. We generally derive our value from what we do rather than who we are, so those who do more are more important than those who do less. To prove your worth in society, you must continually boast about the difficulty of your vocation. For pastors in America this trend is particularly ironic given the relative ease of the job compared to other parts of the world. I recently had dinner with one of our bishops from northern Nigeria who stated that the work of a pastor is hard, then proceeded to instruct us on how to minister to members whose churches had just been burned, and how to pray when you're about to be executed.

I do not intend to denigrate the work of ministers, nor to whitewash over the real hardships faced by ministers. Ministry often requires you to get involved in the messiness and brokenness of life, and to labor in such situations in relative obscurity. However, I want to caution against such an overabundance of vocational teeth-gnashing, as it can create specific problems for local congregations.

First, it can help build a mystique around the pastoral office, erecting a barrier between clergy and laity. Laity grow up learning about the pastor's difficulties and begin to believe that pastoral duties can only be performed by such highly trained and skilled artisans. This can work in a mutually reinforcing downward spiral. Laity do not think they can teach, preach, disciple, and counsel others, so they place all of this burden on the pastor, who then complains about the difficult job of masterfully performing each of these duties. One of the primary duties of a pastor is to help release gifts in the laity for building up the entire body of Christ. To do so a pastor must model various duties with simplicity.

Second, pastors need to be mindful of what they are implying about the men and women they serve when they complain about their jobs. No one appreciates feeling like a burden to others. So pastors who appear exhausted by their job may find a congregation less and less willing to bring forward valid cares and concerns.

Third, pastors who continually complain about the difficulty of their job set poor examples for how Christians ought to approach work as a whole. Vocational crises often result from a faulty theology of work. We elevate the quest to discover the perfectly fulfilling career above all other purposes of labor, such as fulfilling duty to family or accumulating resources to help expand Christ's kingdom. Pastors who portray only the hardships of their jobs may tend to mirror or enhance the vocational anxiety in their parishioners.

The apostle Paul explains to Timothy that those who aspire to become overseers desire a noble task. May we as pastors handle this vocation with the upmost nobility, working hard in our daily tasks while modeling with dutiful and joyful obedience to the Lord the simplicity of the pastoral life.

Is Your Job Useless?

When I graduated college, I saw many of my Christian friends apply for campus ministry and rush to missions work in Africa for fear they would not find significance at a standard 9-to-5 desk job.

I watched plans to become dance teachers, chiropractors, and entrepreneurs dissolve as my peers gave up their dreams in order to pursue "full-time ministry." They feared one day waking up and feeling they weren't changing the world or advancing the kingdom of God. They were ready to do anything to avoid that gnawing feeling.

They aren't alone. Today, three-quarters of Americans feel unfulfilled in their work -- and job dissatisfaction may be an even greater struggle in the Christian community. What do we do, then, when we feel our work is useless?

Biblical Basis of Work

When thinking about our vocations, we should remember God created us to work. According to Genesis 2:15, work is not a curse, but a gift from God given to us before the fall. Work was—and still is—a tool for us to develop the creation and be salt and light in the world for the glory of God and his kingdom.

As a result of the fall, however, our work will at times be frustrating and difficult. So work can often seem useless. But Christ came to restore all things, which means even the most boring job is redeemable.

All Work Is God's Work

Though some work may seem useless, Christians understand that all work is God's work. Our work only seems insignificant because we fail to grasp the big picture. This is what economists refer to as the "knowledge problem." The knowledge problem means we can't always see the big picture because knowledge is dispersed among many people; no one person knows everything. In the vocational sense, this means we may not understand how our work is part of a much larger economic dynamic. If we can't easily see how our work contributes to the common good, we may understate the effect of what we do.

Some positions make it difficult for workers to see the end product, but that certainly does not mean that their work is insignificant. Just because a factory worker doesn't receive the instant gratification of seeing the final product that he helped to create doesn't change the reality that his effort contributed to that product.

Hugh Whelchel articulates this idea well when he writes,

The work of believers possesses a significance which goes far beyond the visible results of that work. . . . All human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God. Work is the potentially productive act of praise.

It's important to remember that the value of our work may never be fully realized in our lifetime. In medieval times, it could take hundreds of years to build a single cathedral. The laborer laying the cornerstone might never live to see the top of the steeple.

Clearly, the knowledge problem is also a faith problem. Rather than being discouraged in seemingly insignificant work, we can humbly rest in the confidence of God's master plan.

However, there are a few cases in which work is truly useless. They occur in industries where demand for a product or service is immoral or if the product or service doesn't meet the intended purpose. Examples include anything from pornographic material to goods that do not function properly.

Every Task Significant

All good work can be "Christian" and no work that serves mankind is useless. Even interns who enter contact names into a spreadsheet add significant value to their organization—and the organization's mission—through their labor. Likewise, the factory worker who churns out widgets day after day is actively participating in the work of God.

Though some routine assignments seem unimportant, every task is significant if God has called you to it. We fulfill our call to Christian work when we put our hands to the task he has called us to do—and leave it to God to see the final outcome.

Do Truck Drivers Matter to God?

The interview playing over my car radio was standard fare. The host of a Christian program was interviewing a wildly popular contemporary Christian music star---little more than background noise as I drove down the highway. But then the discussion landed on the topic of serving the Lord in ministry. The musician told the listening world how his brother was once a truck driver but gave up trucking in order to serve the Lord as an assistant pastor. This drew hearty affirmation from the host, who was actually laughing at the comparative insignificance of truck driving. The music star then recounted his congratulatory words to his brother: "I always thought you had more in you than being a trucker."

There are 3.2 million truck drivers in the United States.

I turned the interview off and silently drove down the highway, wondering, What are the truck drivers who heard this feeling right now? A superstar Christian just implied that 3.2 million truck drivers are less significant than assistant pastors.

A massive question now hangs in the air---a question loaded with profound implications for the significance of your life and vocation: Are truck drivers---the same drivers who transport our food, clothing, building materials, and church sound systems---less significant to God?

Ultimately, the only true measure of significance is how much something or someone is valued by God. But many people mistakenly believe God only values ministry work, because it deals with eternal souls. In their minds, ministry is the only work that counts for eternity. They assume God places little, if any, lasting value on work that deals with the temporal things of everyday life. The implied ranking of our vocations is obvious. Additionally, when someone who holds that belief isn't careful with his words, it sounds as if he's applying that same ranking to each person's individual value to God. Our superstar probably didn't mean to imply that truck drivers are less significant to God, but that's what many of us heard.

Higher Call?

I've listened to hundreds of similar testimonies in seminars, conferences, and churches across the continent. You've probably heard them, too. Missionaries, pastors, and relief workers stand up and tell us about making the leap from nearly every profession imaginable. They answered the "higher call" to full-time ministry. They cast aside their marketplace jobs in order to do something meaningful---something "for the Lord." Meanwhile, everyone else, the remaining workforce, looks up from a pew and listens to their stories---stories often laced with contempt for the speaker's former, "meaningless" work.

Audiences will sometimes affirm the speaker's decision to leap "from success to significance" by offering up an "Amen!" or "Hallelujah!" They may even give the speaker a stirring round of applause. But what's the truck driver---the one quietly sitting nine pews back, third from the left---feeling at that moment? And the godly accountant, engineer, retail associate, bank manager, and all the other people who will get up early the next morning and bend their backs at jobs just like the one the speaker renounced---what must they all feel at that moment?

They've told me. I've listened to their frustration, their unapplauded stories, and sometimes their despair. You see, I've been that speaker---the one standing on stage, receiving the applause. I'm a former corporate finance guy who became a missionary and then somehow wound up doing some public speaking, too. Whenever I speak, I hang around afterward and talk with individual audience members about their specific questions and concerns. As a result, I've had countless conversations with people looking for an answer to the question of significance. They sit in those pews and wonder, Did I miss my calling in life? Is my life's work meaningless to God? Is ministry the only way to impact eternity? Sometimes they lower their eyes in resignation and guilt---vocational guilt. But that guilt is a lie.

Stunning Truth

The truth is stunning. The truth is that the regular, everyday, earthly work of a Christian's life possesses breathtaking significance bestowed by the touch of God's magnificent glory. God pulls the white-hot ingot of eternity from the forging fire of his sovereignty. Then, like master to apprentice, he entrusts the hammer to our hands (Eccl. 9:10; Col. 3:17, 23; 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Thess. 3:6-12). He says, "Strike it. Strike it right here. This is your place. This is where I want you to influence eternity. Live the life I gave you to live." And so, in stammering awe, we take up the hammer. We live our lives---our regular, everyday, toilsome lives. The hammer falls. Sparks fly. Eternity bends, and the Master is delighted (Matt. 25:21).

God, the Maker of the universe, destines our everyday lives to make a difference? Yep. Fuel filters, tax returns, laundry, and Southern-style barbecue are important to him? Yep (especially Southern-style barbecue). A life as a gospel-driven engineer, florist, or realtor can be as meaningful to God as the life of a pastor, missionary, or humanitarian relief worker? Absolutely.

There's something massive going on here---God's epic cosmic story---and we're smack in the middle of it. He knows your name and mine. He's given us each a life to live---a regular, everyday life---a particular place for us to shape eternity (Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12; 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:6-12)

You and I look at our ordinary lives and think, "Seriously? That's supposed to be epic?" But the Master delights in it. He forges his masterpiece with it. And when we see what he's done with it, it will blow our minds (1 Cor. 2:9). It will thrill the souls of men, dazzle the angels, delight the heart of God, and glorify his name. Forever.

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This excerpt is adapted from Paul Rude's new book, Significant Work: Discover the Extraordinary Worth of What You Do Every Day (Everyday Significance, 2013).