Vocation is the Latin term for “calling.” Our job is but one of our vocations. We are also children, parents, church members, spouses, members of a community, etc. Each of these callings has its own obligations. We are not where we are by mistake. Nor are the people around us. Nor our surroundings. And God works through them all.
I highly recommend Gene Veith’s God at Work, which highlights this forgotten Reformation doctrine of vocation. Some random quotes to whet your appetite:
The purpose of vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbor. … Secularists see this as simply the economy, which it is, but theologically it is the interaction of vocations. Of course the farmer… does not love me as such. He doesn’t even know me. But still, he is serving his neighbors in his vocation, and his work in feeding thousands of people he does not know is an act of love– if not his own, God’s love working through him.
One aspect of the doctrine of vocation flies in the face of every self-help book and occupational seminar, every conversation about “your plans,” and every agonizing bout of decision-making. Despite what our culture leads us to believe, vocation is not self-chosen. That is to say, we do not choose our vocations. We are called to them. … Since God works through means, He often extends His call through other people… Our calling comes from outside ourselves… Our vocations are, literally, in the hands of others– college admissions boards, medical school selection committees, employment agencies, bureaucratic hierarchies, or the person we love who may or may not choose to marry us.
The doctrine of vocation helps Christians see the ordinary labors of life to be charged with meaning. It also helps put their work into perspective, seeing that their work is not saving them, but that they are resting in the grace of God, who in turn works through their labors to love and serve their neighbors.
…However God chooses to answer our prayers, whether by changing the situation or by changing us, we have given the outcomes over to Him. Our part is to carry out our vocations. The outcome belongs completely to the Lord. The burden is shifted over to Him. … [T]o quote Luther… “Work and let him give the fruits thereof! Rule, and let him prosper it! Battle, and let him give victory! Preach, and let him make hearts devout! Marry, and let him give you children! Eat and drink, and let him give you health and strength. Then it will follow that, whatever we do, he will effect everything through us; and to him alone shall be the glory.”
Two carpenters, side by side, are doing the same job, one a Christian and the other an unbeliever. Their work, on the outside, is exactly the same…. They may even think of their vocations in the same way, whether as just a way to make a living or feeling the satisfaction of creative work well done. There is not a “Christian” way to be a carpenter, as opposed to being a non-Christian carpenter. Nevertheless, one fulfills his vocation in faith, while the other rejects God and prefers to be completely on his own.
One day the scaffolding falls. Both are injured. … They are feeling exactly the same misery. The Christian, when he can, prays in agony. He is not healed, but he exercises his faith. The unbeliever feels not only the suffering but the meaninglessness of his suffering. He resents the God he does not believe in.
They both get better. They go back ot work. One has grown closer to his God. The other, embittered, has grown farther away– unless at the point of his helplessness he has started listening to his coworker, who has been trying to tell him about Christ for years.
William Powers, a nuclear physicist… was asked how being a Christian affected his work. He explained how abstruse is his research into theoretical physics, how it consists mainly of working at a computer screen, analyzing thousands of calculations… He said that while he finds this work fascinating and though it is indeed useful in the field of nuclear energy research in, he used to worry about the value of what he was doing. He wondered, what goods is this really? He felt the should be spending his time doing something that was of more service to the Lord, such as evangelizing, instead. But ever since he learned about the doctrine of vocation, he feels a new satisfaction in his work. In his number-crunching and theory-testing, in exercising his abilities as a scientist, he knows he is leading “the life that the Lord has assigned, to him, and to which God has called him.”