Never before in history have so many people had the opportunity to change their lifestyles. Since many people no longer have to work “down in the mine,” “take over their father’s farm” or be “only a mother,” they are faced with a myriad of choices. Because people bring to these choices fantasies and unconscious expectations, vocational decision-making today is less like fitting a peg into its proper hole and more like compressing an unruly spring into a container and wondering how long it will stay. It is an awkward and lifelong process, one substantially helped by being a Christian.
Vocation is our divinely given life purpose embracing all dimensions of our human existence and the special dimensions of service Christians undertake in the church and world. Vocational guidance is the process of helping others, or receiving help oneself, to discover and persist in that life direction. It is more than finding the right job. It has a larger and deeper meaning: responding to God’s purpose in marriage, singleness, family, neighborhood, church, political service and occupation. Vocational guidance is a modern concept that emerged principally from the Protestant Reformation. At a time when the rigid structures of society were breaking down, the idea of calling and the recovery of the dignity of work permitted people to make choices in occupations. Out of this the idea of vocational guidance was born.
The confusion surrounding this topic is illustrated by Barbara Zikmund. Vocation, she says, is presented as something that “(1) has little to do with our jobs, (2) has something to do with all jobs, (3) has more to do with certain jobs, (4) or has everything to do with on-the-job and off-the job existence. No wonder good Christians get confused” (Zikmund, p. 328). So we must start by clearing away several misunderstandings.
The idea of choosing a calling is an oxymoron. The word vocation is derived from the Latin vocatio which means “to call.” So vocation and calling are identical in meaning. It would be a good thing if we used calling more often since it invites the questions, By whom? and For what? Basic to the idea of vocation is a divine, not a human, choice. God has issued a summons to his creatures. This summons is all-embracing and includes work, family, neighborhood, civic responsibility and the care of creation. The basic structure is found in Ephes. 4:1, where Paul urges all Christians (and not just church leaders) to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (RSV) and then in Ephes. 4-6 elaborates some of the contexts in which we are to live as called people: congregational life (Ephes. 4:1-16), marriage (Ephes. 5:21-33), home (Ephes. 6:1-4), workplace (Ephes. 6:5-9) and society (Ephes. 6:10-18). Simply put, the Christian vocation is God’s call to live for the praise of his glory (Ephes. 1:12, 14) and to serve God’s purposes in every context of life. A career is chosen; a calling is accepted.
God does not have a wonderful plan for our lives. He has something far better—a wonderful purpose! For some Christians, concern “to be in the center of God’s will” leads to guidance anxiety. A plan, like a blueprint, must be followed in slavish detail, but a purpose is like a fast-flowing stream that carries a boat along and incorporates even mistakes into its ultimate direction. God’s primary concern, according to the Bible, is not that we fit like pegs in their proper slots but that we become people who love God, neighbors and God’s creation. To participate in God’s grand purpose of renewing everything in Christ means to oppose evil, to do the work of maintaining a city, to build community, to create systems that bring dignity and value to human life. So John Calvin counsels that believers should “choose those employments which yield the greatest advantage to their neighbors” (Opera, XLI, 300). This does not mean, however, going into the ministry or choosing a Christian service career or a “people” job.
Vocation is not the same as remunerated employment. Indeed, we do not need to have remunerated employment to have vocational contentment. Some fulfill their service to humankind through volunteer work instead of or outside their remunerated occupation. Work, occupations, careers and professions are important parts of our vocation in Christ, but they are not the whole. According to Scripture the first human couple was given three full-time jobs, not just one: first, to enjoy full-time communion with God; second, to build community on earth starting with the relationship of male and female and third, to take care of God’s earth (Genesis 2:15) and develop God’s creation as coworkers with God (Genesis 4:20-22). While sin marred this threefold human vocation, Christ has reclaimed us for this, and we enjoy substantial redemption until there is complete fulfillment of the human vocation in the New Jerusalem. So work in all its forms is much more than remunerated employment, though that employment may be located primarily in one of the three full-time jobs. Christians are required to seek gainful employment, to meet needs of their own (1 Thes. 4:12; 2 Thes. 3:12) and of others (Ephes. 4:28). But when we are technically unemployed or retired, we are still caught up in God’s all-embracing summons.
Vocational decision-making is not a once-for-all event but a lifetime process. There is only one once-for-all vocational decision, and that is to yield to the gracious invitation of God in Christ and to welcome being caught up in his grand purpose. Within that purpose, life is full of adjustments, decisions, redirections, mistakes and even second chances. This has not always been recognized, as when vocation was identified with one’s station in life. In fairness to Luther (who is often charged with promoting fixed callings understood as positions in life), he stressed the duties attendant on one’s station as a means of fulfilling calling, not the location of that calling. Calvin and his followers developed this further: vocational living is using our gifts and talents within our callings—thereby opening the door to “changing jobs” to fulfill calling. In a modern mobile society we must grasp the heart of vocational living as a continuous process of discerning God’s will and purpose.
Vocational guidance is not simply an individual matter.
Gifts and talents are discovered and affirmed communally, and roles and responsibilities are defined communally. While we should, as the Puritan William Perkins advised, explore our own affections, desires and gifts, we should also consult the advice of others because of our inherent tendency to be biased (p. 759). The Christian community should create an environment where people with a broad vision can encourage one another with the particularity of one’s vocation (Fowler, pp. 115-25). Most people will find this possible in local churches, accountability groups and spiritual friendships.
A Short Theology of Vocational Guidance
Amid the confusion surrounding vocational decision-making, there is nothing quite as comforting or constructively helpful as good theology. This brief summary will include Christian identity, personal vocation, God as vocational director, the will of God, the providence of God and knowing ourselves.
Our vocation comes out of our identity, not the reverse. In the secular world people are defined by what they do: She is a doctor; he is a business person. Guidance counselors speak of helping people gain a “vocational identity.” But the Christian approach is the exact reverse. Our fundamental identity is to become children of God through Christ. So instead of developing a vocational identity, we should seek an identity-formed vocation. Being precedes doing. First we are called to Someone to become somebody. Then we are called to do something for that Someone. Vocation flows out of our essential identity in Christ. On this note Augustine insightfully recommended that someone wanting to find out who a person was should not ask what that person does but what that person loves.
Personal vocation particularizes God’s general call to all humanity and his special call to his people. Unfortunately most discussions of vocation focus on the relative importance of two “doing” mandates: the creation (or cultural) mandate (Genesis 1:27-29) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Large parts of the contemporary church regard the Great Commission as the only mandate now in force and relegate the creation mandate to pre-Christian existence. The Reformers and Puritans had a better grasp of the breadth of God’s call, arguing that God had diversified all the ways we fulfill the cultural mandate into all the occupations that keep the world running: homemakers, blacksmiths, cobblers, teachers and farmers.
A contemporary refinement of the Reformed view is supplied by Klaus Bochmuehl (p. 34). He asks us to imagine a three-tiered wedding cake. The bottom (and largest) layer is the human vocation of communion with God, building community and cocreativity (Genesis 1-2). The second (and smaller) layer is the Christian vocation expressed in discipleship to Jesus, holiness in life and service in the world. This second layer is related to the first: becoming a Christian makes us more fully human (rather than angelic) and empowers us to fulfill the human vocation. Then we can imagine a third (even smaller) layer representing the personal vocation—that combination of human and Christian tasks to which a person is uniquely fitted by God and led by the Holy Spirit. Taken as a whole—all three layers of the wedding cake—we are not left guessing about who we are and what we are to do with our lives.
God is the ultimate vocational director. Robert Banks notes that God is also our vocational model dignifying all the ways God invites us to make the world work (p. 22). God is craftsperson, shepherd, weaver, farmer, architect, potter, host, homemaker, ruler and warrior, just to mention a few biblical metaphors. But God directs people providentially as he did with Adam and Eve in the garden, Ruth gleaning in the field of Boaz, David in the court of Saul, Ezekiel among the exiles and Peter fishing just where Jesus needed to borrow a boat. Human freedom is real but limited. God is the only one who does “whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3 NRSV). Our whole story, even parts that do not yet “make sense,” is ordered and intended. Nothing can happen to us that cannot, by God’s sovereignty, be turned into good (Romans 8:28).
God’s will is not hard to find. Guidance is essentially a pagan concept. Outside the revelation of God to Israel and the church, people seek guidance by consulting mediums, casting spells and examining the entrails of animals and birds—all ancient equivalents to fortunetelling, reading the horoscope and looking for signs and portents. What Scripture offers is better than guidance; it offers the Guide. The Bible is more concerned with our relationship to the Guide than our being in “the center of his will,” a concept not actually found in the Bible but promoted by popular Christianity. Perhaps 90 percent of our questions about what we are to do with our lives are answered by the teaching of Scripture. As Bochmuehl says, “If God does not call us to a particular task at a particular time, we must fall back on the creational and salvational tasks that have already been given: to sustain and to further physical and spiritual life in the family and in the community, in the neighborhood and in the nation” (p. 34).
Sometimes God will speak directly through an inner persuasion, a vision or a dream. Though normally it is bad advice to tell someone to do that for which he or she is disinclined or unqualified, Scripture witnesses to God’s surprising and unwelcome summons, for example, to Moses, Jonah and Paul. Lee Hardy wisely comments, “When [God] does that, it is because he is about to give a special demonstration of his power. That is, he is about to perform a miracle—which is, by definition, a departure from the normal course of affairs” (p. 93). Lacking such supernatural direction, Christians are not powerless to move forward in their lives. They can do so confidently for good reason.
Vocational decisions are rarely irrevocable. We can trust God’s providence in our lives. Calvin said God’s hand is at the helm of both the universe and the life of the individual. Our lives are not a bundle of accidents. Family background, educational experiences and life experiences are a reflection of God’s good purpose for our lives. Our personalities, spiritual gifts and talents have been given by God. This can be overemphasized, as it sometimes was by the Reformers. But we should not reduce the hope and comfort implicit in a high view of God’s providence by looking for God’s leading mainly in supernatural signs and wonders. Even mistakes get incorporated into God’s overall purpose though our life path may be temporarily revised as a result. Joseph is a stunning example of God’s providence. He was able to say to his brothers, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8) and “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Since career decisions, for example, are rarely irrevocable, we are saved from paralyzing fear of ruining everything by one bad choice. So we can do the thing at hand. We can laugh at ourselves because God is God. Indeed laughter in face of a life decision may be an act of worship. Trusting in God’s providence, however, is not an alternative to knowing ourselves.
Self-knowledge is an important part of our spirituality. A study by the Marketing and Research Corporation showed that three or four out of every five people are in the wrong jobs (Jones, p. 30). Ralph Mattson and Arthur Miller have devoted themselves to making links between the central motivational thrust and its primary vocational expression in the workplace. Their approach, now systemized in the SIMA test, assumes that (1) God has made us with the capacity to enjoy working and serving in a particular way; (2) what brings joy to us is a powerful indication of what God has designed us to be and do; (3) our central motivating pattern is consistent through life—the boy that nurses a wounded bird at five drives an ambulance at thirty-five.
Sophisticated and popular tests are now available to measure interests, natural aptitudes, values, personality type, learning style and life changes, and many of these tests have been made available in self-help workbooks, such as Naturally Gifted: A Self-Discovery Workbook (Jones). These tests are useful and helpful in understanding ourselves, though they seldom acknowledge that much of the world does not enjoy the luxury of occupational choice or the privilege of a fulfilling career.
In some circles, knowing ourselves, especially if it involves loving ourselves, is considered antithetical to denying ourselves—taking up the cross and following Jesus (Matthew 16:24). Sometimes it is. As John Stott reminds us, we are not commanded to love ourselves but our neighbor as much as we already love ourselves in a fallen state (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31). Further, love (agapē) in the New Testament implies self-sacrifice. Finally, self-love as a form of idolatry is the essence of sin in the last days (2 Tim. 3:2, 4; Stott, pp. 34-35).
Taking this warning seriously, we may nevertheless develop a biblical approach to self-affirmation. (1) We will never know ourselves as we really are apart from God’s view of us, a view we gain primarily from Scripture and the inner affirmation of the Spirit. (2) It is safe and healthy to know ourselves when our primary focus is the glory of God and his will. (3) Neither self-confidence nor self-depreciation but true humility is the normal result of being in God’s presence. C. S. Lewis put this aptly, “It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His personality that I first begin to have a real personality of my own” (p. 189). (4) Even our inabilities, flaws and weaknesses revealed to us in every vocational context become strengths for the person who lives by the grace of God (2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Cor. 11:30; 2 Cor. 12:9). (5) Loving, or better affirming, ourselves in the sense of accepting and respecting ourselves as God does may be distinguished from God-excluding self-absorption (philautos, “lovers of one’s own self”; 2 Tim. 3:4). (6) Self-affirmation involves coming to a sane estimation of our own value and strengths (Romans 12:3) and agreeing with the priorities Scripture places on life purposes: maturity more than effectiveness, faithfulness more than success, character development more than skill development, being more than doing. Such God-inspired self-acceptance, unlike egotistical self-preoccupation, is marked by grace.
Since our capacity for self-deception is enormous, the process of knowing ourselves is lifelong. Action-oriented, task-oriented, high-energy people especially need spiritual disciplines to get in touch with themselves. The choice of a career, a marriage partner or even a role in the church frequently is infused with internal fantasies, a wished-for self that becomes a means of gaining a psychosocial identity. All of this points to the process of vocational guidance as being central, rather than auxiliary, to our life in God.
Vocational Guidance as a Spiritual Discipline
The process of lifelong vocational decision-making is a discipline. It is not only helped by the use of spiritual disciplines, such as meditation and journaling, but it directs us to God for some of the following reasons.
Vocational guidance is concerned with both entering in and continuing in a calling in worthy manner (Ephes. 4:1). Vocational life is littered with idols: the idols of gain (being in it for the money), glory (seeking position in the church for human approval) and instant ecstasy (getting a “fix” or “high” from making a sale). All too easily a challenging profession or an all-consuming role like mothering can feed our addictions and become idolatrous. Idolatry is defined simply as making something one’s ultimate concern other than the One who is ultimate. The Puritan William Perkins reminds us that “walking worthy of one’s calling” requires an ongoing process of sanctification of the worker and the works. He uses seventeenth-century examples of how not to walk worthy, examples that apply equally to today: for physicians, prescribing remedies without proper diagnosis; for booksellers, selling immodest and improper books; for the merchant and tradesman, having false weights and dressing up the wares so people are deceived; for the patron, making a public pledge of a large gift but following through with only part of it; and for the landlord, racking the rents (Perkins, p. 771).
The chief cause of a vocational mismatch is not being in the wrong location but yielding to the lust of the spirit. We should be living contentedly within our calling, but joy in service is not a matter of location as much as spirit. Drivenness is a symptom of something wrong inside. The lust of the spirit is the desire for something other than what God deems best for us. If we do not judge that the particular calling in which God has placed us is the best of all callings for us, we will yield to discontentment, as did Absalom, the sons of Zebedee and Cain (Perkins, p. 756).
To counteract this pernicious lust, Perkins offers several practical measures: (1) discerning the initiative of God in our lives so that even in times of crosses and calamities we may rest certain that God has placed us in this calling (p. 760); (2) repenting if necessary for the wrong reasons we entered a calling (be it marriage, career or ministry) but refusing to forsake our place and so continuing with diligence and good conscience (p. 762)—a strategy that is crucial for those who feel they entered marriage for the wrong reasons. Further, Perkins advises (3) seeking sanctification both of the worker and the work by the Word of God and prayer (p. 766); (4) resisting the temptation to covetousness by laboring to see our particular situations as a providence of God no matter how difficult it may be and by resolving in our hearts that God—not a perfect situation—is our portion (Psalm 16:6); (5) turning our affections from this world to better things by not seeking more in this world than we actually need and setting our mind on heaven (p. 770; compare Ephes. 1:18); (6) persisting in our calling by pruning our lives of ambition, envy of others placed in “better” callings, and impatience, all of which incline us to leave our calling when trouble comes. On this last measure Perkins uses a medical image from the days before anesthesia that is superbly graphic. He says we must continue in our callings as the surgeon who continues to cut his patient even through the patient is screaming a lot (Perkins, p. 773)!
Hardship is not an indication of our being in the wrong calling. Run through all the callings, Luther pleaded, and you will find that every earthly occupation has a cross. We can suffer for the sake of others and identify in some small way with the suffering of Christ right where we are. This is entirely in line with a faithful interpretation of 1 Cor. 7:20—“Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him”—namely that change, while permissible, should not be undertaken as though it had spiritual significance. Paul is a classic case. Though he was being stoned, dragged out of cities and suffered privations, not least of which was his day and night handwork to support himself as a tentmaker, he knew he was doing God’s will. Hardship can become a pruning experience, even a means of grace. Being in the will of God does not guarantee health, wealth and a creative, fulfilling career. Discovering that nothing in this world will ultimately satisfy us, as C. S. Lewis once pointed out, is a powerful hint that we were made for another life and another world. In the end what counts is that we are found in Christ.
We are accountable in the last day for what we have done with our lives. The supreme motivating factor in walking worthy of one’s calling is the fact that we must all give account on the day of judgment for what we have done in our callings. Perkins asks, “How then can we give a good account of ourselves before God on that day? We must calculate our blessings, weigh all that was defective and then cleave to the surety of Christ, his death being all the satisfaction God needs” (p. 779). This strongly biblical note (Matthew 25:19) is conspicuously missing in most Christian treatments of vocational guidance, as is the next.
We must walk by faith not sight. Walking by faith means that we cannot find the explanation of our lives in the circumstances in which we find ourselves but only by faith in God. This involves the daily discipline of seeking God’s face, finding our satisfaction in God, affirming our acceptance in Christ—rather than finding the joy of our life in how well things are going. At the root of this—as Luther so wisely discerned—is our actual heart-level experience of the gospel.
A person who has gospel confidence, Luther stated, is like a man who feels completely comfortable and secure in the mutual love between his wife and himself. Such a person does not have to weigh which act or deed might bring about the maximum positive response: “For such a man there is no distinction in works. He does the great and the important as gladly as the small and the unimportant, and vice versa. Moreover, he does them all in a glad, peaceful, and confident heart, and is an absolute willing companion to the woman” (Luther, pp. 26-27). But if the man is insecure in his or her love, he will calculate and offer the largest and most impressive deed to gain what he thinks he can obtain by works. So too the person insecure in his or her relationship with God may choose to win approval by works, works that might include going into the monastery (in Luther’s day) and going into the ministry (in our day). Without the foundation of divine approval, vocational decision-making will normally become a means of inventing personal meaning and satisfaction—a form of self-salvation for the unbeliever—or an attempt to win God’s approval in the case of the believer.
In summary, we should regard the Christian life and service as a comprehensive and liberating summons of God. We already know what God’s will in broad terms is for our life! Finding the best job is a minor part of this. We should do the thing at hand for God’s glory until clearly led by God. We should affirm God’s providence in our life. We are not a bundle of accidents, and even occupational—and other—mistakes can be incorporated into God’s purpose for our life. This means we can live wholeheartedly and exuberantly in the present, not with our eye on the next (and more fulfilling) assignment. The heart of Christian vocation, and therefore the essence of vocational guidance, is not choosing to do something, but responding to the call to belong to Someone and because of that, to serve God and our neighbor wholeheartedly.—Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, The