Grasping Vocation

The core meaning of vocation, like a wet bar of soap, can easily slip from our grasp. The term has skidded off in two basic directions. The on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, first defines vocation as: "an occupation for which a person is suited, trained or qualified. Then it goes on to say vocation is: "the inclination to undertake a certain kind of work, especially a religious career."Those two meanings capture what many think when they hear the word vocation. An “occupation” that fits you. Or a “religious career” toward which you have an “inclination.” These definitions fit neatly into the false division of life into sacred and secular compartments.

But originally vocation carried more weight. In New Testament Greek, in the Latin translation and in our English versions, vocation means “calling.” A call requires a caller. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its definition of vocation, defines God as the Caller: “The action on the part of God of calling a person to exercise some special function. . . . the fact of being so called or directed towards a special work in life.”

As modern life crowded out God the Caller, the idea of vocation as calling lost its footing. So now the pull toward a certain kind of work must come from the self. It's your “inclination” or your “strengths” or your “abilities.” In the absence of the Caller, your challenge is to re-invent yourself. In the presence of the Caller, your challenge is to discover his call.

In his book, The Call, Os Guinness says, “Answering the call of our Creator is ‘the ultimate why' for living, the highest purpose in human existence. . . . calling is not what it is commonly thought to be. It has to be dug out from under the rubble of ignorance and confusion . . . . But nothing short of God's call can ground and fulfill the truest human desire for purpose.”

Guinness defines calling as “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.”

Everything you are, do and have includes more than your work. But you can carry out a large part of your calling, your vocation, right inside an ordinary job. Jesus called Daniel a “prophet” (Matt. 24:15). Daniel fulfilled that calling while working as a bureaucrat in Babylon.

So vocation, calling, turns out to be far larger than a paid job or professional career. And calling applies to every believer—not just to those paid as pastors or missionaries. According to theologian Nancy Duff, vocation affirms, “Your life matters; furthermore, your life matters where you are right now.”

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