Earlier this year I shared three things your calling is not—it’s not for you, it’s not from you, and it’s not future tense. Formative in my understanding of this pervasive but often misunderstood concept was Gene Veith’s God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Crossway, 2002). In that work, Veith made the following observation:
I am convinced that recovering the Reformation doctrine of vocation—specifically, Luther’s version—is a key not only in bringing Christianity back to the culture but bringing Christianity back into the everyday lives of contemporary Christians.
I agree, and I’d love to see more people engage and appropriate this doctrine in our day.
As Veith admits, his own thinking and work is largely derivative; it’s a distillation of another book, half-a-century old, translated into English: Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation (1942; Muhlenberg Press, 1957). And of course this book is based on a reformer who lived five centuries ago.
Aside from the prosaic title and the occasional dry writing, Wingren’s book is refreshingly clear, practical, and timely—so much so that I transcribed quotes from nearly every page. Below are 20 of the most helpful ones, grouped around specific themes that are good reminders for us today.
Your Calling Is from God
“An unexpected power flows forth in work when a man knows that he is truly under divine command in discharging the vocation at hand, a power greater than any to be found in the words of orators” (212).
“Since the course of our life is shaped by factors beyond our own plans and ideas, we are to address ourselves to the present hour, to whatever is at hand, to whatever is waiting for me now and belongs to my vocation. What ‘your hands finds to do’ has not just sprung forth by accident. Since God is at work in the world about us, it is God who gives us the moment together with the relationships with others in our situation which the moment brings; and with these relationships he gives us our definite tasks. To use the moment and the time which God gives is to enter into one’s vocation” (226).
Your Calling Is Fueled by the Gospel
“[F]or him who gives himself to his vocation, the gospel is the fountain; action flows from the fact of having been saved” (182).
Your Calling Is for Others
“[T]he Christian life does not consist of that which such men as monks invent; it does not drive people into the wilderness or cloister. It is Satan who commands you to forsake men. On the contrary, the Christian life sends you to people, to those that need your works” (54–55).
“Vocation is a summons to work for the neighbor’s sake; it is not the gospel” (74).
“God bestows his gifts on him who labors faithfully in his vocation and surrenders all attempt to determine the course of his life himself. Through such a person the gifts God gives are passed on to others as a matter of course, but he who is without faith is always marked by a tendency to keep God’s gifts for himself, being anxious as he is for his own future. He dwells on the future, and is closed to the demand which the present makes on his action, and so he places himself as well outside the divine gifts” (223).
Your Calling Is for Your (Proximate) Neighbor
“The living persons in my environment, who one by one become my neighbors in the providence of God, through the variety of their needs have the function of serving as unforeseen moderators of my actions, as long as I actually love them and care about what they need” (148).
“Vocation means that those who are closest at hand, family and fellow-workers, are given by God: it is one’s neighbor whom one is to love. Therein vocation points toward a world which is not the same for all people. . . . Each is to do his own work, without eyeing others or trying to copy them. Christ is not to be imitated by us, but rather to be accepted in faith, because Christ also had his special office for the salvation of man, an office which no one else has” (172).
Your Calling Does Not Save You
“The truth is that the need of others is an absolute imperative in the life of a Christian concerning love, works, vocation, but it is counted as nothing before God. Faith’s realm in heaven and love’s realm on earth must not be confused; but neither is inconsequential. . . . Faith’s kingdom is a realm in which all are alike; but vocation’s world is full of grades and differences” (12, 13).
“A Christian . . . knows that what God wants is faith, whereas works belong to this world and are to be done for the sake of one’s neighbor. These works are the expression of love which places others’ well-being above one’s own self-realization” (230).
Your Calling Equips You to Be a ‘Mask’ of God
“The good that man does on earth is God’s creation, and it is to be directed toward his neighbor. Before God the good is not man’s but God’s. Only before one’s neighbor does the good done appear as coming from him who does it. Through this we can understand the concept of man as ‘mask’ of God” (19).
“Instead of coming in uncovered majesty when he gives a gift to man, God places a mask before his face. He clothes himself in the form of an ordinary man who performs his work on earth. Human beings are to work, ‘everyone according to his vocation and office’; through this they serve as masks for God, behind which he can conceal himself when he would scatter his gifts” (138).
Your Calling Is for Your Sanctification
“Thus a Christian finds himself called to drab and lowly tasks, which seem less remarkable than monastic life, mortifications, and other distractions from our vocations. For him who heeds his vocation, sanctification is hidden in offensively ordinary tasks, with the result that it is hardly noticed at all that he is a Christian. But faith looks on simple duties as tasks to which vocation summons the man; and by the Spirit he becomes aware that all those ‘poor, dull, and despised works’ are adorned with the favor of God ‘as with costliest gold and precious stones’” (73).
Your Calling Drives You to Prayer
“Prayer is a door through which God enters into vocation in transforming action against the devil” (84).
Your Calling Is Cosmic in Scope
“The combat between God and the Devil for all vocations and orders takes place within every single human being. If God is victor, then that part of external existence which lies within man’s reach is made to serve God. If Satan wins, God’s creation is used in the opposite way. But an office is good, even when it is misused, even as the spear that pierced Christ’s side did not for that reason cease to be God’s good creation. . . . [T]he Devil’s onslaughts consist of temptations to misuse a good and divine office, to mismanage one’s vocation. . . . Temptation in vocation is the Devil’s attempt to get man out of his vocation” (86, 87, 121).
Your Calling Is Flexible
“Life according to vocation never becomes fixed or rigid. Again and again we find in Luther concepts which keep his system open for new action, doors through which God creatively enters into the orders of creation. ‘Freedom to do or not to do’ is one of these concepts. . . . For him who has an unaffected love for his neighbor and his work, vocation becomes flexible and adaptable. For him who in truth loves only himself, vocation becomes rigid, unyielding, and coercive” (96, 100).
Your Calling Is Unique
“When the purpose of men’s efforts is that they should serve others, serve all people, it follows naturally that their works will differ widely. Differentiations are willed by God himself as a wealth of gifts which are spread abroad through the system of earthly vocations” (178).
Your Calling Entails Suffering
“No person who lets the work of his vocation go forward without grudging will escape troubles, hatred, and persecution. . . . The human being who in his vocation serves his fellow-men fulfills his task out of love for Christ, and receives the same poor measure of gratitude as Christ did” (30, 31).
“Vocation belongs to man’s situation before the resurrection, where there are two kingdoms, earth and heaven, two contending powers, God and the Devil, and two antagonistic components in man, the old man and the new, related to the constant battle for man. The old man must bear vocation’s cross as long as life on earth lasts and the battle against the Devil continues. As long as he continues in his earthly vocation, there can be no end to the struggle. After death comes a new kingdom free from the cross; heaven has taken the place of earth, God has conquered the Devil, and man has been raised from the dead. Then man’s struggle is at an end” (250–51).