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Calling, Vocation, Profession

There are three terms which often get confused and conflated: calling, vocation, and profession. The first two of these terms are essentially synonyms; the third is quite distinct. That said, the first two terms have a primary as well as a secondary sense in which they can be understood (from the Christian perspective, at least); hence, the confusion and conflation.

The term “vocation” comes from the Latin verb “vocare” which in English means “to call.” And “calling” in English means, well, calling. So these two words in English have the same meaning, making it easy to confuse. So: rather than confusing them, it would be better to use the terms largely interchangeably – i.e., to refer to the same idea. But a problem arises, often in conversation, as one asks another “What is your vocation?” when one actually means to ask “What is your profession?” Well, “What’s the difference?” you ask. It’s quite straightforward: whereas vocation or calling refers to that arena of analysis, activity, and asking for which one is uniquely gifted and unquestioningly passionate; one’s profession or job is that activity – usually between 9am and 5pm (often for a season in one’s life) in which one carries out much, but not all, of one’s calling. (Recently, it isn’t uncommon if one were to hold multiple professions throughout one’s lifetime, even concurrently at times, all of which is aimed at fulfilling one’s vocation.) In brief, vocation includes profession but goes beyond it. Pointing to one’s profession is often simple: a profession inevitably is marked with a title easily recognizable by others (not the least of whom is the income tax agency of one’s nation!); whereas, defining one’s vocation is usually a bit more difficult. (The difficulty is a function of the ultra-personal nature of vocations: it involves so much of one’s being, e.g., one’s identity, passions, gifts, and goals.

Now, there is one further (and final) element to complicate (with the hope of clarifying) the picture: for the follower of Christ, vocation or calling has two senses: there are what Os Guinness calls “primary” and “secondary” callings (cf. Guinness, The Call). Our primary calling, as a follower of Christ, has to do with the One who calls us to follow. All of life is sacred; so everything counts as worship. And these truths imply that we live the whole of our lives in response to the “glorious grace” for which and by which we have been saved (cf. Eph. 1.5-6). That is, we live our lives as a response to the One who calls us to “deny [ourselves] and take up [the] cross and follow [him]” (Mk. 8.34). This primary calling invites us to explore, develop, and engage in our secondary callings: again, that arena of analysis, activity, and asking for which one is uniquely gifted and unquestioningly passionate. And our secondary calling gets explored in and eventually expressed through a myriad of ways, including (and usually most obviously) the various professions one holds throughout the course of one’s life.

Secondary Callings
Having foregrounded the notion of primary calling and having distinguished secondary calling from career or profession, let us next now outline somewhat concretely how one might discern one’s “vocation in the Kingdom” or secondary calling. In doing so, I shall begin with a few caveats.

Secondary callings as strategic
First, with regard to Kingdom vocation, sanctity and strategy are not mutually exclusive. In other words, that all of life is sacred does not imply that all that what we choose to do professionally is just as strategic in terms of Kingdom purposes as anything else. The need to be strategic about our profession means that we need to take account of what it means to “serve[] the purpose of God” in our generation (cf. Acts 13.36).

If, for example, the whole of the Christian universal church “felt called” to basket-weaving, something has gone wrong, dreadfully wrong (and it’s not because I have some against this often beautiful craft). We need to think carefully and prayerfully – indeed strategically – as we consider where the Holy Spirit of God is working and where he would want us to spend the majority of our waking hours, laboring for God’s Kingdom. Yes, all of life is sacred and therefore an act of our spiritual worship (Ro. 12.1); at the same time, we must apprehend the cultural-social, and indeed global, moment we’re in so as to serve in “God’s purposes in this generation” both faithfully and fruitfully. So: there are some secondary callings which are more strategic than others; or, more precisely, there are ways to deploy one’s secondary calling more strategically than others.

A caveat: Just as intensely as we discern strategic callings, we can easily squeeze out the Spirit’s work of simply speaking to us. Alternatively, we can begin to think that certain professions are more crucial than others. As Plantinga points out, John Calvin suggested that political life was the most important work of the Christian (109). Neither Spirit-less strategy nor secularist strategy is right: we must be thoughtful, reflective, and discerning while also relying on the Spirit of God and the Church community to give us “understanding of the times” (cf. 1 Ch. 12.32; Prov. 20.18).

Secondary callings as sacred
Secondly, there are some secondary callings which are more “sacred,” in a sense, than others. As we have argued many times before, all of life is sacred. That said, there are some things in life – initiatives, activities, thoughts, industries, institutions – which obviously are more sacred than others. For example, the sex-trafficking “industry” is about as sacred as hell; social workers do more sacred work than the pornographers. In brief, there are things which are either more redeemed or redemptive than other things. (Consider also: poverty-reduction versus pornography; singing praises from a pure heart versus shouting at one’s spouse; communion versus communism.) [Cf. 2 Tim. 2.20-21.]

Gifts and Passions in Service of God’s Purposes: GAPS in the Kingdom

A simple yet perhaps rather precise way of discerning one’s secondary calling can be abbreviated with the acronym “GAPS” – Gifts And Passions in Service (of God’s Purposes in this Generation). There are “gaps” in the Kingdom of God, if you will: that is, spaces in this world and holes in human hearts which need filling with GTB. Human trafficking in the Global South; rising suicide rates among the youth in Asia; the multi-trillion dollar mental health care industry in the US ($2.8T in 2012); as well as philosophy textbooks which need more truth; music and fashion which cry for more beauty; business which lacks goodness – all such needs (some more urgent; others more long-term) call for good and godly services to be rendered. And by considering the “gaps” in the Kingdom and the our unique Gifts And Passions which are to be put into service to fill such gaps, perhaps we have a clue, a very sound clue, to our secondary callings. Before moving on, let us take some time to unpack each of the terms that comprise the acronym “GAPS.”

Gifts. Our gifts are those capacities to engender GTB, the exercise of which comes naturally to us. In exercising our gifts, we feel most like ourselves. Take as example, the gift of: public speaking, or hospitality, or film-making, or networking, or coordinating large events, or connecting affectively with victims of abuse, or caring for the sick, or envisioning a business. Some of these gifts come naturally to some; others to others. We each have a gift or several (Ro. 12; 1 Co. 12).

It may be helpful to distinguish between gift and skill: A gift, generally speaking, is a native ability, whereas a skill is trained over time; and given such training, potentially any able-bodied and -minded human person could perform a given skill. (Everyone can be trained in the skill of picking ripe apples; not everyone has the gift of developing a business to trade apples internationally.) It should be noted that the line between gift and skill is blurry at the edges. Consider, for example, painting, drawing, playing soccer, golfing: while some of us are ingeniously gifted at one or more of these activities, with enough training others of us will make a great skill out of them (even if this training is had rather late in life). The line between the gift of painting and skill of it is hard to draw (no pun intended): and I suppose most of us lie somewhere along these lines.

It is interesting to note that etymologically the term “gift” connotes (unsurprisingly) the idea of giving of oneself to contribute to the good of others; and the exercise of our gifts is something that others should enjoy.

Passions. Passions are those dispositions of the heart in virtue of which we deeply desire to engender GTB. If exercising our gifts makes us feel most like ourselves, then expressing our passions make us feel most alive. Our passions often: dominate our thought-life; drive us to work; inspire us to dream; make us wish things were different; keep us awake; wake us up; make us wait; cause us to pray; get us talking as well as draw us into silent pondering; stir our souls. Accordingly, in order to discern what our deepest passions may be, it would be helpful to turn these features of passions into question form: What inspires me to dream? What makes me wish things were different? What keeps me awake or wakes me up? What do I love to pray and/or talk about? What upsets me because it upsets God?

Whereas superficial desires come and go, passions have staying power. Of course, occasionally we will need to kindle them; but for the most part, our passions have a way of becoming a part of who we are – indeed, they shape our thinking, our feeling, our modus operandi.

A helpful way of thinking about one’s passions may be as follows: a deep and thought-through desire to see the values of the Kingdom – i.e., the transcendentals (GTB) – reflected, reinforced, and reified in the world of: e.g., human trafficking; global (or local) poverty; politics; business ethics; academic scholarship; popular culture (films, songs, fine art, museum curacy, radio studios, tour buses, concert venues); primary/secondary school education; professional sports; social media; laws; and nearly infinitely much more. Passions are those dispositions of the heart in virtue of which we seek to engender GTB, and which we just wouldn’t mind if we felt more deeply about.

And. Where the exercise of our gifts is something others enjoy, the expression of our passions is something we enjoy. And it ought to be both: We cannot afford to live out our secondary callings only because others enjoy that we do so;[1] nor can we live only for our own passions simply because we enjoy doing so. We must consider our gifts (what others enjoy our doing) AND our passions (what we ourselves enjoy doing).

Serving God’s Purposes. Finally, we must discern our gifts and passions, and deploy them in the service of God’s purposes in our generation. In Acts 13.36, as part of a single-sentence summary of his life, we read that King David “had served the purpose of God in his own generation.” How we spend our lives matters gravely; and how we decide to spend our lives – taking into account what God seems to be doing in his cosmic redemption program in our generation and geography – matters even more. We could spin our wheels, so to speak, doing what we think is good or true or beautiful, and indeed they may well be so in and of themselves; but how much greater is it to align our analyses (thought), activities (work), and asking (prayer) with the global purposes of God in our historical moment.

A Final Word of Encouragement
There is a sort of personal redemption that we should keep in mind with regard to the myriad of major decision we must make in our lives. Often many of us fear of making the wrong decision: whether having to do with marriage, a job, a career, or even which social event to attend on the weekend. What we can take comfort in is the heartening fact that God is the God of redemption, which includes (perhaps especially) redeeming less than perfect decisions. So redemption flattens fear. (See Joseph’s story in Gen. 37-50.)

What I would tell my 20-year-old self:



Summary and transition
Given that everyone has a worldview and given the implications of the doctrine of the Fall – that (among other things) all learning is “socially-located” or “committed” learning (cf. Plantinga, 67) – it is crucial to have reliable foundations or sources for one’s worldview. Where could we go to find such a trustworthy source, one more certain and reliable than any other? Where do we climb to find our Archimedean point? It seems we would do well to follow (in this case) the example of the Apostle Peter. In the gospel of John chapter six, St. Peter, on behalf of himself and the other disciples, responded rather prophetically when asked whether they too wanted to leave the Lord in view of his hard teachings, by confessing: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

If we are to grasp the reality of this world – what is good, true, beautiful about it, and what is not – it would seem to make good sense if we were to consult the words of the one who made this world. And it would seem that if the Lord of creation has a word for his creation, then in consulting this word (Scripture) – i.e., drawing deeply from its well, indeed meditating on it – we might begin to get a grasp of the truth of ourselves, this world, and most importantly himself. In doing so, we are coming closer to answering the Course OQ: “How does Scripture inform the Christian worldview such that the integration of faith and reason impacts culture?”

[1] There are almost always exceptions. Consider Mother Teresa who, serving in the poorest of the poor in Calcutta for most of her life, did so mainly because she just felt it was the right thing to do.

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