Vocation and Work

The doctrine of vocation is a natural lead into a discussion on work. Work is one facet of vocation. It is one context where God calls an individual to worship him, serve his neighbor, provide for his family, utilize his heart, head, and hands  and  benefit humanity. Robert Barnett is a pastor who teaches a course on work at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. In a helpful article, he boils down the contents of his class for easy reading. He begins the article with this statement.

“If we are to help ourselves and others integrate Christian faith with the daily activities of the workaday world, the purpose of work and vocation must be adequately understood within the larger contours of our theology and world view. Therefore, I have identified and briefly summarized several ‘theologies of work’ that, in my view, represent various evangelical and mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions.”

Barnett identifies the following models of work and seeks to briefly describe each of them.


 Selected article
Veith, Gene Edward. “The Doctrine of Vocation: How God Hides in Human Work.” Modern Reformation 8:3 (May/June 1999).
Quote from article
“The Reformation doctrine of vocation teaches that God himself is active in everyday human labor, family responsibilities, and social interactions.”
Key points of the article
  1. God uses every day work to providentially care for human beings through their talents, opportunities, and stations in life; Luther called this the “mask of God.”
  2. People are providentially called in to various vocations based on the God-ordained circumstances of their life. For example, a man may be simultaneously a farmer, citizen, churchman, husband, and father, and is thus called by God to those vocations.
  3. The purpose of one’s vocation is to serve other people.

 Selected article
Hart, D. G. “Work as (Spiritual) Discipline.” Modern Reformation 11:4 (July/August 2002).
Quote from article
“The doctrine of creation and providence, in the reformers’ hands, elevated work that was once thought to be tainted because of its “worldliness” into a calling blessed by God.”
 Key points of the article
  1. Work is founded upon Providence: God cares for His creation through our work, thus all legitimate vocations are significant to God.
  2. Work involves Worship: We worship God through obedience toHim in all areas of life; thus our attitude makes work meaningful.
  3. Work provides a context for Sanctification: Work cultivates godliness (especially moderation and self-control); thus any job can transform us.

 Selected article
Meeks, M. Douglas. “God and Work.” In God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy. Fortress Press, 1998.
 Quote from article
“A humanizing economy depends on the creation of meaningful work for every person who is able and wants to work. This is necessary for the formation of a community that can realize human rights and redistribute wealth.”
 Key points of the article
  1. Each person of the Trinity engages in distinctive personal work- the Father creates,the Son redeems, and the Spirit empowers the mission of the Father and Son. Thus, all people have a right to meaningful work according to one’s abilities.
  2. The Trinity engages in cooperative work; each Person of the Trinity engages in work that coinheres in the work other the other Persons. Thus, human work must contribute to the life of the community.
  3. The Trinity engages in egalitarian work- the work of one Person of the Trinity is not elevated higher than that of the other Persons. Thus, all forms of work that exploit or dominate are wrong.
  4. The Trinity engages in self-giving love toward each other. Incentives to work that are dehumanizing are wrong (e.g., denigration of toilsome work over and above leisure; or exaltation of success without regard for the position or welfare of others in the community).

 Selected article
Volf, Miroslav. “Human Work, Divine Spirit, and New Creation: Toward a Pneumatological Understanding of Work.” Pneuma 9 (1987):173-193.
 Quote from article
“When God calls people to become God’s children the Spirit gives them both callings and capabilities in the form of charismas to do particular tasks either in the Christian fellowship or in the world.”
 Key points of the article
  1. Work is the exercise of one’s Charisma (spiritual gifts, talents, and abilities) toaccomplish God’s purposes both inside and outside of the Church; both Christians and non-Christians are given such spiritual gifts.
  2. Work can have lasting significance when it is involved in the Spirit’s instrumental purpose to transform creation (there is continuity between the old and new creation). Thus, work does not have significance if it is not clearly transforming culture.
  3. Work has an ethical implication: “Occupation should create the social space for the free exercise of one’s gifts in the service of one’s neighbor; occupations that do not meet such criteria should be changed.” Hardy, “Review of Work in the Spirit.” 193.

 Selected article
Cosden, Darrell. “The Threefold Definition of Work and Its Application,” pp. 153-161. In Theology of Work. Ph.D. thesis. St. Andrews University, 1998.
 Quote from article
“Human work is a transformative activity essentially consisting of dynamically interrelated instrumental, relational, and ontological dimensions: whereby, along with work being an end in itself, the worker’s and others’ needs are providentially met; believers’ sanctification is occasioned; and workers express, explore and develop their humanness while building up their natural, social and cultural environments thereby contributing protectively and productively to the order of this world and the one to come.”
 Key points of the article
  1. Work is instrumental (work is a means to an end).Work provides sustenance to the worker and to society and enables personal spiritual formation.
  2. Work is relational (work is a means to an end). Work provides for personal self-fulfillment and is a context for social relationships. Work enables the development and improvement of societal structures.
  3. Work is ontological (work is an end itself). Work has value through its relationship to creation. Since we are created in the image of God (who is a worker), our work is significant because we model God’s nature. Thus, all legitimate work has significance, no matter how mundane or ordinary. Work has value through its eschatological status (its relationship to the new creation as work is transformed and glorified along with all of creation in the consummation). Thus, work has significance because it is related to God’s ultimate purposes.

 Selected article
John Paul II. “Work and Man” and “Elements for a Spirituality of Work.” Chapters in Laborem Exercens: Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontif John Paul II on Human Work. Catholic Truth Society, 1981.
 Quote from article
“Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform.”
 Key points of the article
  1. Work has an objective meaning. Humans share in the activity of the Creator through cultural and economic activity to sustain and improve the worker, the worker’s family, and the community. Thus ordinary activities and work contribute to God’s work.
  2. Work has a subjective meaning. Humans are created in the image of God and are persons capable of self-realization – work is valued because of the worker rather than the product of work. Thus, work has meaning only when it allows men and women to realize their humanity.
  3. All work is linked with toil and difficulty. Through work, men and women are able to collaborate with Christ in His labor to redeem humanity.

Daily Labor

Work dominates the first two chapters of the Bible. The first sentences of Scripture introduce us to a God at work. Soon after we are introduced to man, the image-bearer who works. It would be difficult to dispute that work is anything but integral to man. Believe it or not work, according to Scripture, is first and foremost gift. The curse of Genesis 3 that led to frustrating toil only makes sense if work was a wonderful privilege. Ecclesiastes is a very interesting book. Many have said that the writer of this book had Genesis 1-3 open before him as he wrote. This book is an extended meditation on life through the lens of the curse. The themes of vanity, chasing the wind, and emptiness come from an honest look at life lived under the sun.

I have always been intrigued by a particular paradox in this book regarding work. Over and over again the author laments the fact that so much of his labor is in vain. He says it is a chasing the wind because you cannot ultimately determine the outcome of your toil. He notes example after example of situations where the fruit of one’s labor is never experienced. If you read the book you will see this theme over and over again. So you read this and you feel it with the author and then he makes an offhanded comment like this: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Ecc 3:12).

It seems the author is dispensing great wisdom to the working man through this paradox. He is showing us that work retains its status as gift. He is showing us that this gift has been affected by the curse. We live within this tension every day as we labor. More than that, he is showing us a creaturely posture in our work. As creatures we are incapable of determining the outcome of our work. The author is in agreement with James. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-16).

The ability to determine the end result of our labor requires foreknowledge, omnipotence, and sovereignty. These are attributes that creatures do not possess. They belong to God alone. The call of Ecclesiastes is to enter into the gift of work today without having to know its outcome. There is tremendous freedom here. My job is a gift of God for this day. My job is the provision of today to honor Christ and love my neighbor. This means my job will not be wasted if my desired outcome fails to come to pass. It is never a waste when we engage it as daily gift and work at it with all our might (Ecc 9:10). I really think there is something so helpful and practical here. What are your thoughts on work as gift? In what ways would you say that work is a gift from God? How does a theology of work impact our work for good or for ill? Look forward to hearing you.