Three Answers on Vocational Mysticism: Part I

These questions and answers have been used in discussing vocation with college students as part of the Opus: The Art of Work program at Wheaton, and are presented here as a resource for others involved in similar work in colleges or churches.

Do I Have Just One Vocation – and Is that My Career?

The traditional Christian (or at least, Protestant) perspective on vocation is that it is in fact two-layered. The Reformers talk about this in terms of “general” and “particular” vocations or callings:

General callings/vocations

First, God has made what He expects of us clear in scripture – general calling. There’s no point in trying to make a definitive list of general callings: they are as broad as the Christian life itself. But we’d suggest at least three basic categories:

  • Creation vocation:  Be fruitful and multiply; cultivate and keep the earth (Gen 2:15); exercise dominion in the earth (Gen 1:26)
  • Moral vocation (the Law):  Keep the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1-17 and Matt 5)
  • “Love vocation” (the Gospel):  This summarizes the Law: Love God and neighbor (Matt 22:34-40); serve others spiritually (Matt 28:16-20) and practically (Matt 25:31-46)

The point is, we receive many general callings in Scripture. The church has understood “general callings” to include all the things everyone is called to by God. More of our conversations about vocation should start here, with the callings for which we’re all clearly responsible!

Particular callings/vocations

The Protestant category of particular callings includes all the kinds of work we will do in our lives, whether in the marketplace, the home, or charitable settings—whether for pay or not.

How are we know these? We certainly don’t find our particular personal callings outlined in the pages of Scripture! Some have concluded that Christians must therefore wait and hear directly from God the One Big Thing they are to do in their lives. We address this view in more detail under the second heading below, but here we’ll just say that this kind of direct calling seems to be rare today, though not unheard of.

But there are two sets of reasons to believe that none of us has Just One Vocation – these are (1) empirical and (2) theological.

Empirical evidence against the “one vocation” view

First, think of the empirical realities of career paths today. Those who track such things estimate that the average person will have something like 9-10 jobs and 5-6 distinct career areas in their lifetime. People grow in their skills, opportunities, and sense of themselves, and along the way they move naturally from job to job both within an organization and between organizations. Also at times, of course, they may find circumstances conspiring to force a change.

So the empirical evidence tells against the “one-vocation” belief, at least in the area of marketplace work. (Again, that’s just one of many vocational arenas – though obviously a very important one that most of our students are preparing for now in their college years.) Marketplace work is quite evidently a multifaceted journey, and the pressure to see one’s career as a single, fixed vocation–whether that is a theologically loaded pressure or not–is completely out of touch with this fact.

Theological evidence against the “single calling” view

Even more compelling is the evidence of our own theological (biblical) tradition.

Martin Luther and the Protestant tradition do not support a single-vocation-which-is-your-career view. Luther understood the Bible as teaching that in every linkage or relationship between our life and the life or lives of others, we have a vocation. In this historical Christian view, our particular vocations are not only sequentially multiple, as the empirical evidence indicates. They are also simultaneously multiple.

Think of it this way: a person can be at the same time a child, with a vocation to honor their parents, and also a parent, with a vocation to raise their children well, and also a citizen, and a neighbor, and an employee, and a boss, and a friend, and a teacher . . .  with each relational status enmeshing them in distinct, particular vocational duties and activities. In fact, Luther sees these vocations as the primary ways God takes care of his precious human creations. He does so through each other!

Luther, by the way, loved to illustrate this with the example of the father (not, note, the mother!) changing his infant’s stinky diaper. He said that a Christian father who understands what God intends by bringing him together with that child will see even this menial task as part of a high and holy calling.

Finally, Luther and the Protestant tradition after him also taught that we should not only recognize and be responsible in each of these distinct, particular vocations. We should also carry each of them out so that they fulfill that other vocational layer: our general callings that are found in Scripture’s accounts of (for example) creation, the Law, and the Gospel.

In particular, this relational dimension of Luther’s teaching on vocation points to our Gospel vocation to love not only our neighbor but also God in our neighbor. So Jesus teaches in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 that as we love God’s precious human creatures, we are in fact also loving the Lord himself.

In other words, nothing in our own Protestant tradition supports a construal of vocation as single and monolithic, nor, even, the restrictive identification of vocation with career.

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