To answer this question effectively, we have to go all the way back to the Middle Ages. In the language of medieval Catholic theology, the term vocation (Latin vocatio vocare, “to call”) referred to a “calling” to serve God in the church. In other words, it was understood specifically as a “call” to become a priest, a monk, or a nun.
Spiritual perfection, the medievals thought, can only be found in celibacy, poverty, and monastic withdrawal from the world. They further believed that the Lord “calls” only certain individuals to this highly specialized and extremely demanding way of life. The rest of us are beneficiaries of the holiness they achieve through their specialized spiritual labors.
The Protestant Reformers questioned this perspective. As they saw it, the Catholic doctrine didn’t fit in with the true biblical teaching. On the basis of verses like I Peter 2:9, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others began to speak in terms of “the priesthood of all believers.”
They declared that God “calls” each and every one of us to serve Him and advance His kingdom wherever we are and whatever we happen to be doing. They said that everyone has a spiritual “vocation.” Some find their “calling” in the family (marriage, parenthood), some in the workplace (as masters, servants, employers, employees), some in the culture (as rulers, subjects, and citizens), and some in the church (as preachers, teachers, elders, and deacons).
In our time, the word “vocation” has become virtually synonymous with “job” or “occupation.” But it’s important to understand that this is not precisely what the Reformers had in mind. They were not trying to say that God specifically “calls” one person to be a supermarket checker, another a doctor, and another an airline flight attendant.
On the contrary, their point was that there are opportunities for ministry in every walk of life. It isn’t just priests, preachers, and church elders who have the privilege of following Jesus and reaching out to others in His name. Mechanics, housewives, executives, farmers, teachers, firefighters, and soldiers also have a role to play in spreading the Gospel and impacting other lives by the grace of God. To put it another way, vocation isn’t primarily about career. It’s about spiritual service.
Does this mean that the concept of “divine calling” has nothing whatsoever to do with your work? Certainly not. God is sovereign over every detail of your life. The very hairs of your head are numbered (Matthew 10:30). If you find yourself working in a difficult, uninteresting, or unfulfilling job, it must be because, in some important and meaningful sense, God has put you there. He has orchestrated events so as to lead you to this particular place at this particular point in your life.
To that extent, your current occupation represents a holy “calling.” While it lasts your responsibility is to serve the Lord and other people through it. But this does not mean that you’re “stuck” in this job, or that you don’t have the freedom to make a change if and when you get the chance. As Paul told the Christians in Corinth,
Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you-although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become the slaves of men. (I Corinthians 7:20-23, NIV)
Your assignment for the time being, then, is simple:
- Accept your situation, whatever it may be, as a gift from the Lord. Be thankful to Him for providing your needs.
- Serve God and other people through your work.
- If you have an opportunity to branch out, move up the ladder, try something different, or learn something new, by all means be open to it. Remember that your primary “calling” is to please Him in everything you do (Ephesians 6:5).
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these ideas at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
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Called and Accountable: Discovering Your Place in God’s Eternal Purpose
Live Your Calling: A Practical Guide to Finding and Fulfilling Your Mission in Life