Blogs (Faith), Life, Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

When Your Job Sucks: The Doctrine of Vocation pt 2 – No Day is a Waste

In the first part of this series I introduced the Doctrine of Vocation – the Reformed Christian doctrine that basically says that God actually cares about the work you do during the day. I need to expound what the heck this means so that it’s clear why I find it so liberating.

In the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus says we should ask God to “give us our daily bread”. But how does he answer this prayer? Does bread fall from heaven? Usually, no. What we usually mean is that God would give us a salary so that we can afford the bread. What we usually miss is the larger and ordinary means that the bread comes to us – through the work of wheat farmers and cow milkers and bakers and truck drivers and retailers and cashiers and probably others. Our daily bread comes through jobs – those people working to bring the bread to us are serving us, their neighbour.

What did Jesus say were the two greatest commandments? He said we are to love God and love our neighbour (Luke 10:27). The work we do every day is us loving our neighbour. It really is. That’s why the work is important – God sees it as part of the ‘good works’ he encourages us to do.

The idea of loving our neighbour has become very abstract these days. We often think it entails doing charitable things – giving a poor person some food, being nice to those at the office, or standing up for justice. All that is true, of course, and encouraged. But how many of us think the physical day to day work we do, regardless of how menial it is, is actually an act of loving our neighbour?

The Reformers called this our “vocation”. Vocation means “calling” but it’s a better word, I think, because it doesn’t come with the baggage that modern charismatic extremes have pinned onto the word ‘calling’ – God zapping some world-changing idea into our heads, telling us how we are going to do ‘big things for God’ and be ‘God’s man / woman of the hour’ and all those cliche phrases the televangelists like to use to pump us up. That idea, however, is exactly like the old Monastic idea where the only work God sees as important is work done in the Church because it means ordinary work isn’t big enough for God.

So we look for our ‘calling’ in the Church. What is it I can do? For some reason, we feel that serving tea on a Sunday morning at church is more important to God than serving tea at the office during the week; or serving tea at home to our family. We couldn’t be further off the mark. God sees them equally and is just as pleased with all of them.

The Doctrine of Vocation affirms something that I’ve found to become more and more important – how God works in ordinary ways. His means of answering our prayers usually comes through people’s vocations. Sick? Well, he might heal you supernaturally, but the doctor has been called by God as his means to make us well. In need of some inspiration or entertainment? Lo and behold, God has actually called the artist, musician, actor, director, video game designer or sportsman to serve you in that. Every job is a calling from God, besides the obvious ones like drug dealing and sex working.

Suddenly menial work is just as grand and important as the pastor who is ‘saving them by the millions’. God calls some to be evangelists, some to be teachers, some to be pastors, some to be video game designers.

Vocations don’t need to last forever they can often be seasonal things. We also have a number of vocations – serving our family is a vocation from God. We can get into finding our vocations in another post. For now, the point is that all work is seen by God as ‘good works’. See Eph 6: 5 – 7 in this light and things change.

This has been liberating for me for this reason: all throughout most of my twenties I did a job I hated. For eight years I did regular two-o’clock-in-the-morning stints, found myself constantly frustrated, and pretty much hated life. It was an endless slog that sent me into deep despair. Day after day I saw myself sinking into this deep dark pit of meaninglessness. Life felt utterly meaningless. I mean, it sucked. I tried to console myself through my music and my work at my church, but it all just wasn’t fitting.

At last, about five years ago, I grabbed at a chance to get out – I took a voluntary retrenchment and started freelancing as a writer. That, too, over the years has brought its own frustrations – especially the frustration of not being where I want to be yet. I want to be writing books, not writing articles all day. And that dream is nowhere near coming to pass.

Here’s the thing: I always looked back at those years as wasted years. I felt my job meant nothing to me or to others or even to God. I felt I had no impact on anyone’s life and did a botched up job not only in the work environment (ultimately, everything I worked at failed) but also never did anything I thought God would be interested in (no one got saved, no one cared). But, looking at it through this new lens, not one day was a waste. God saw all the hard work for the company as good works. God is not just interested when we help old grannies cross the road. He sees it all as good works. And he rewards good works.

His rewarding I’ll need to expound on in a further post as this one’s getting a bit long. For now, though, you can see why the Doctrine of Vocation had such an impact when the Reformers saw it. None of our work done is in vain. In fact, the idle rich are the ones who, despite living the ‘good life’, are going to be in trouble sooner or later. Jesus said that many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matt 19:30). The guy who collects the rubbish, who works harder than the rich man who lives off an inheritance, will collect a far larger reward either in this life or the life to come. The rubbish collector doesn’t need to have a zillion people ‘come to Christ’ or stop slavery or create some new technology for God to count his work as good. He may die in obscurity to us, but never to God.

Suddenly, everything carries meaning as everything is counted as love towards my neighbour. That’s liberating. Motivating. And inspiring.

Blogs (Faith), Life, Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

When Your Job Sucks: The Doctrine of Vocation, Pt 1

(Read part two of this series here.)

For many (or most) of us, Sunday nights are often dampened by a feeling of dread, more or less. Tomorrow is Monday and it’s back to the grind. We feel that our work carries very little meaning and that everything actually requires work – even raising a family is work. It’s work, work, work all the way.

Is this sheer negativity? Or honesty? Well, perhaps a little bit of both. All of us are somewhere on the job satisfaction scale. But I think it’s true that we all do seem to look for some kind of meaning in our work – we want to know that what we do matters. We want our work to have impact in some positive way, but for most of us we feel that it’s either only the rich, company owners, presidents, CEO’s or pastors that seem like they can have any real impact.

The trouble here is that all five of those people get those jobs and – if they’ve managed to keep themselves from being influenced by corruption – find they are just as frustrated as the next person. Presidents can’t do whatever they want, they have layers of politics to sort out first. Business owners have to answer to shareholders. CEO’s have to walk a thin line to keep themselves from being fired. Pastors are frustrated with a lack of finances or may find that most of their job is just tied up in administrative work.

Most days are filled with menial tasks, regardless of your kind of job. Regardless of the PR surrounding people like Steve Jobs, I’m not convinced that he was always 100 percent happy with his impact.

In comes the Doctrine of Vocation, Reformed Christianity’s solution to the problem of work. It’s this doctrine that helped shape a prosperous Europe. The American Puritans were influenced heavily by this doctrine, forming their own out of it (the Puritan work ethic) that helped shape what America is today. Of course, in both cases secularisation has come in and tainted the original thinking – a focus on individual gifting in the doctrine is warped by secularised culture where the individual is the centre of the universe. A focus on hard work has led to abuse by secularised culture. And so it goes on.

But the doctrine is incredibly important yet extremely neglected in our modern day churches. Gene Edward Veith, a college dean, believes that the Doctrine of Vocation is second to the doctrine of ‘faith alone’. This is the doctrine that allows Christians to impact the world regardless of what they do.

Martin Luther is a forerunner in the forming of this doctrine. Back in Catholic / Monastic Europe, the only ‘holy office’ that God approved of (ie. the only work God saw as holy and important) was the work of the clergy. In many instances, ‘good works’ were relegated to prayer and spiritual disciplines rather than, well, feeding the hungry or doing a good job. This is because farmers and milkmaids and whatever else were not seen to be doing anything that God actually cared about. The Doctrine of Vocation put that thought right and set people free to approach their work with vigour, joy, and a great deal of meaning. Regardless of what they did. Because even the most menial jobs actually carry meaning.

The unfortunate neglect of this doctrine, particularly in evangelicalism, has led to a kind-of return to the old Catholic Monastic teaching above. Many Christians have no idea how their daily work can have any impact – they’re not content with their work – so they think the only impact they do have that’s meaningful is what they do in church – their contribution to the programs and activities of their church. Not that their contributions are not important or should end, but when life is only ever about our ‘ministry’ then we feel it’s only ‘ministry’ that has impact, rather than the ordinary, every day work that most of us do.

I’m on a journey of discovery here as I study this doctrine. I’ll be putting more posts up as I go. I’m currently working through Veith’s book called God at Work (link to the Kindle version below) and am convinced he is right – this doctrine needs a much more central space in our church life and teaching. Join me as a I post my findings and thoughts on this line of thought, which I have already found quite liberating, in the next couple of weeks.

Read part two of this series here.