Vocation/calling is a concept that often plagues us. Some might be tempted to dismiss the idea as relevant only to those who are to work in “full-time church ministry”. Others of us may spend anxious hours worrying over the possibility that we somehow missed our vocation, failing to hear God’s call at some point and so doomed to a second-rate life.
The Bible does indeed contain many stories of individuals who heard and responded to a “call” from God to go and do something specific. But, this doesn’t exhaust the idea of what we might understand as “calling/vocation”. It is something that seems to manifest itself on both broad, general levels as well as the more specific. We are “called” to be human beings in the image of God, followers of Christ and pointers to the new creation as well as to our own individual roles.
Once again, our individualistic culture tends to encourage us to think of vocation in individual terms – it is all about me. We also can get caught up in focussing too heavily on its possible relation to tasks – what we are to do. Whilst it is true that tasks and our personal roles matter and can be considered part of vocation, they do not tell the whole story.
The first notion of vocation in the Bible comes in the creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis. Human beings are made in God’s image and tasked with looking after the Earth. Now, we might easily recognise the instructions given by God as a kind of vocation, but what about being in the image of God? Is our nature our vocation?
In one sense, we already are in the image of God; it is part of who we are. Yet, in another sense, it is something we are to aspire to be; it is something we can fall short of. By our choices, we can either become more truly that which we were created to be, or allow that image, that vocation, to wither and become difficult to recognise.
Being in the image of God is a common human vocation, not just an individual one. It is something for all of us to learn about and seek to maintain and grow in to. There is a strange paradoxical sounding element to this, but it is one that re-emerges in the New Testament and is important to begin to grasp; we are to become what we already are.
Moving into Paul’s letters, we often find passages that base their reasons for doing or not doing certain things on this kind of argument. For example, in Colossians 3:1ff, Paul says that as believers have been raised with Christ they ought to think and behave in ways that reflect that. Similarly, in Romans 8, the readers are said to be in the realm of the Spirit, yet are still encouraged to live accordingly. There is a sense in which Paul is encouraging people to become more fully that which they already are.
Ethics and the idea of character formation are certainly not to be excluded from the concept of vocation. God is not interested in simply getting a bunch of tasks done and recruiting us to help. Our calling, first and foremost, is to be or to become more like our God as revealed in Christ by the Spirit’s power. This is a common calling that we learn about and live out together.
All of this comes before we even start considering the idea of individual calling to specific roles. We have a foundation of our calling to be in the image of God and to become what we already are in Christ that we need in place to give our own individuality, our own particular vocations a solid platform.
What if we feel that we haven’t ever had a “call” from God? Well, as we’ve seen, there are plenty of things to get on with being and doing which are all part of our common vocations. Nobody can say they are truly without vocation as that would say that God asks nothing whatsoever of them.
One possible reason that we might not sense God calling us to something is that we are doing ok and don’t need a drastic change. Another might be that the “call” is more subtle, perhaps, or coming in a way that we don’t recognise as a vocation. For example, perhaps you find certain tasks easy and can take it for granted that you can do them well. Maybe you have a real passion for something which has encouraged you to spend more time doing it. These could be ways in which God is revealing to you who you are.
Rather than being suspicious of our desires, maybe we need to reconnect with them to discover more about the people God has made us to be. Not all desires are sinful by any means. Many can reveal facets of our personalities, areas of concern where we may be more effective, or latent skills waiting to bubble up and be discovered.
It is important to remember too that vocation need not be tied up with earning money. In many cases this will be the case, but it is not always so. For a start, some of us may be called away from paid employment to do other things. Moreover, it is possible to have more than one “gift” or “vocation” and use them in different contexts, some of which may be employment related whilst others are not.
If we equate vocation with paid work or a lifelong career then we risk getting very frustrated at God. If we are waiting for a particular life-changing task that we have been made to do then we also risk missing the point. God is calling us first of all to be someone. Yes, that does involve doing, of course, but it prioritises character over tasks. It is also something we can and should be getting on with every day, not just waiting for a bolt from the blue to orientate our lives in a new direction.
Perhaps, as with our vocation to God’s image and Christ’s likeness, our own vocations can be discovered as we find out more about our nature. We are made to be human – we are called to be human. We are in Christ and part of the new creation – we are called to act like it! What has God made you to be? He is calling you to be you.
© Joe Lenton, February 2013