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3 Plates to Spin in the Vocation Conversation

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Sometimes to understand the Bible rightly we need to be like a circus performer who keeps different plates spinning on sticks. If we focus too much on one biblical truth, others will begin to wobble and fall.

This is certainly the case when we connect our faith to our daily work. Three biblical “plates” must be kept spinning simultaneously.

Plate 1: God’s Creation Mandate

In the first chapter of the Bible, Adam and Eve are given an assignment: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen. 1:28). The world God created, although very good (Gen. 1:31), wasn’t the finished article. It needed, and still needs, “subduing.”

Put differently, the world was designed to reach its optimal state through cultivation. It was delivered to us in flat-packed form, like furniture from IKEA that requires further assembly. It can be satisfying to earn a living through realizing creation’s inherent potential; nevertheless, because of the fall, we should expect all work to be painful toil (Gen. 3:17–19).

When work causes irreparable environmental harm, or profits from the exploitation of people, it cannot be done to the glory of God. The creation mandate speaks of subduing the earth, not plundering it.

Plate 2: Our Individual Calling

Our primary calling is to follow Christ. But the Bible also speaks of another calling (or “vocation”—the words mean the same thing), best understood as our unique life situation with its various responsibilities and duties. Both our life-situation calling and our follow-Christ calling can be seen in 1 Corinthians 7:20. Translated literally it says, “Each one should remain in the calling he was in when God called him.”

Some Christians—especially those living in countries with freedom of opportunity—will be able to develop a personal aptitude and make a career out of it. For them, the daily work of their life situation has the added zest of dream-fulfillment. But we shouldn’t think of that happy scenario as the definition of “calling.” For many Christians, the daily work necessitated by their life-situation calling is a burden to endure patiently.

Plate 3: Gospel Work’s Eternal Significance

Luke 5:10 is the punch line at the end of a miraculous catch of fish. Jesus says to Simon Peter, a fisherman, “From now on you will catch people.” Peter’s new work will have a different kind of significance than his previous job. Catching people—in other words, winning followers for Jesus—has unique eternal consequences. Unlike fish caught in nets, persons saved through prayer and the ministry of the Word—“gospel work” for short—will live forever in the perfect world to come.

Of course, catching fish might provide opportunities to catch people. Fishermen can prayerfully share the gospel with non-Christian fishermen. What’s more, catching fish earns money that can be used to fund others working full-time at catching people. In God’s economy—his method of spreading salvation through allocating particular tasks to particular people—many have great gospel impact through mainly plate 1 or plate 2 work. But it’s still important to recognize that catching fish in itself doesn’t have the same eternal significance as catching people.

Not Just One Plate 

What happens if we focus on just one of those plates?

When we focus exclusively on plate 1, we fail to see that some work has the power to save lost people eternally. As a result, some Christians with the opportunity and gifting to move into full-time gospel work may be less likely to consider doing so. More subtly, Christian parents overly focused on plate 1 may steer their children toward stable careers instead of encouraging them to consider work such as missionary service in hard places.

When we focus exclusively on plate 2, we miss out on the God-given impulse to “go” found in both plate 1 and plate 3. Only the spinning of all three plates leads to the creative tension that exists when people remain open to fresh challenges while acknowledging their God-given responsibilities. We should always be ready for the possibility that, like Peter, God will give us a “from now on” experience.

When we focus exclusively on plate 3, we rebuild the harmful wall between “spiritual” and “secular” that existed in the late middle ages, when people viewed entering religious orders as the only meaningful way to serve God. An exclusive focus on plate 3 led some missionaries and evangelists in Christian history to neglect their wives, due to an erroneous belief that gospel work justified abandoning their plate 2 commitments. Speaking personally, a misguided focus on plate 3 at the expense of plate 2 when I was at college meant I didn’t give adequate time to the studies I was actually at college to do.

Honor Others

Romans 12:10 instructs us to honor one another, yet Christians can tend to look down on one another when it comes to the work we do. Keeping all three plates spinning helps us understand the different ways to connect faith to work, so we can honor believers whose 9-to-5 looks unlike our own.

Jesus himself displayed his perfect humanity not only in his three-year public gospel ministry but also in his decades of carpentry beforehand. And he modeled faithfulness to the responsibilities of his life situation when he gave instructions for his mother’s future care while dying on the cross (John 19:26–27). It shouldn’t be hard for us to honor one another’s work when we see each variety of godly work reflected in the life of our Savior.

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