How Rest Can Save the Conversation on Vocation From Itself, Part 4: Saving Vocation by Resisting Our Worst Instincts

Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series

The Sabbath commandment not only provides rest for a restless world, but is an essential aspect of the conversation about vocation. Indeed, understanding the Sabbath correctly can help us to understand vocation – and even that dimension of vocation that we call work – better, as Marva Dawn argues in Keeping the Sabbath Wholly and The Sense of the Call.

As I have said before, Miller and Calvin would not allow the Sabbath commandment to be colonized by impulses to prioritize work, to set a minimum amount of work, or to make rest instrumental to work. Indeed, to do any of those would seem to dishonor the commandment, itself. The meaning of the Sabbath for vocation cannot be reduced to “here’s how Sabbath principles inform work.” To take rest seriously in the vocation discussion is to understand the ways in which the Sabbath commandment resists our worst instincts, restrains our impulses to do all that we can, and corrects some of the most serious problems of conversations about vocation.

Like any conversation, the conversation on vocation has its pitfalls, dysfunctions, and perversions. The anxiety of choice, the focus on career, and the problem of privilege are among the most serious of these perversions. Evidence for these perversions and dysfunctions is both anecdotal and research-based: see Bryan Dik and Ryan D. Duffy, Make Your Job a Calling and Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition. A commitment to Sabbath principles lived out in rest can help us to resist all of these perversions.

Conversations about vocation are sometimes marked by orientation toward careerism and consumerism. While there is nothing wrong with thinking about work and career, an overemphasis on career is sometimes an acquiescence to an impulse toward unrestrained consumption. This is more obvious when “vocational discernment” amounts to an intense desire to pursue a career path that will lead to material wealth.

But unrestrained consumption can also be consumption of other sorts, including consumption of experiences or the accumulation of power for selfish purposes. More often than not, this consumptive impulse is paired with a desire to possess and use all of these things to one’s own advantage. The Sabbath resists this perversion of the vocation conversation by emphasizing restraint and by requiring us to integrate the interests of others into our own.

Conversations about vocation are often marked by choice and anxiety. They often tend to suggest that choice is at the heart of vocational discernment. This emphasis on choice neglects aspects of calling that are somehow given, not chosen, including commandments to honor existing relationships and to rest. And the emphasis on choice can result in serious anxiety.

Introducing the Sabbath into conversations and curricula on vocation can help to correct for this emphasis on choice. We do not choose the Sabbath, but God, by choosing us, gives it to us as both gift and obligation. We are called to the Sabbath not after some period of anguished discernment, but because it is an integral aspect of the network of relations and responsibilities in which we already exist.

A commitment to live our lives in ways that are regularly punctuated by persistent, God-honoring, creation-sustaining, and neighbor-loving rest can be a first step toward recognizing and acknowledging that significant aspects of our calling are not discerned through exploration of and choice between competing options, but are discerned by examining and fulfilling existing obligations. Recognizing these obligations as part of our vocations can stabilize our awareness of vocation and help us to avoid the sense that vocation is a singular choice about work that is largely untethered from existing relationships and responsibilities.

Sabbath principles can also help to resist the anxiety that can plague vocational discernment when we wrongly believe that vocational discernment is primarily about choosing between largely open-ended possibilities. Brueggemann emphasizes that the Sabbath is partly about resisting anxiety by teaching us to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and provision even in the midst of hardship, confusion, and want. This same recognition can help to address our anxieties in the midst of vocational discernment pressures.

Conversations about vocation are often characterized by problems of privilege and inequality, related to this aspect of choice. “Vocational discernment programming” is chiefly available to the privileged, and conversations about vocation often emphasize the choice that comes with privilege. But historically, and even today globally, most people have not chosen whether they want to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, actor, graphic designer, professor, or urban planner. Instead, most have inherited responsibilities in their families and communities, and those responsibilities have defined their vocation.

It would strip the dignity of calling from those people if we were to suggest that because they do not choose their vocations, they do not have vocations. We need to build a conversation about vocation that can, for example, understand as vocation the calling of an oldest child to care for their siblings after their parents have died of Ebola.

I would like to acknowledge here that this idea of given, and not chosen, callings is deeply fraught. Too enthusiastic an embrace of this concept might, for example, deny women in some cultures access to education or a vision of work beyond the household. Specific ideas of given callings, then, must be the objects of careful examination and, sometimes, sustained critique.

But the admission that the concept is fraught and some specific senses of given callings are problematic does not undermine the fact that some of our callings are, indeed, given, rather than chosen. Such an understanding of calling must begin by taking seriously the fact that we are called to responsibilities that we do not choose, responsibilities like the Sabbath.

And we are all called to the Sabbath. We are all called to rest that embodies the quantitative (a full day) and qualitative (sustained, uninterrupted attention to the needs of God and to others) dimensions of the Sabbath. It must not be hoarded by those privileged enough to rest nor denied by those with the privilege of important work, but should be shared by all. Just like the Sabbath was for everyone in the Old Testament, it is for everyone now. If we can affirm this as part of the conversation on vocation, then we will take one step toward opening the conversation on vocation to all, as well.

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