Careers and Callings

For the Week of May 12, 2014
by Rubel Shelly

Robert Bellah makes a helpful distinction between career and calling.

One’s career is what a man or woman does in modern culture to earn a living. It yields certain rewards that make it possible for you to pay bills and enjoy a certain standard of living. To a greater degree than it should, it generates one’s standing – or lack of standing – within a society.

By contrast, a calling is a sense of commission from God one feels in what he or she does. It is one’s pursuit of the sovereignty of King Jesus over all she is or attempts to do in life. It is something one does with the sense that God’s hand is on you in doing it. Doing it provides you a sense of his pleasure with you.

Don’t pursue anything as a career that you cannot also embrace as a divine calling. Above your paychecks and promotions, you need to sense that your work is making the world better, is reflecting the character the Holy Spirit is building into your life, and is inseparable from God’s mission in your life.

Do you recall the scene from Chariots of Fire in which Eric Liddell described his pleasure in running? As best I recall the dialogue, he said something like this to his sister: “I feel the pleasure of God in the wind that brushes my cheeks!” Is that too idealistic for your work? Impractical? Does it smack of the absurd for you – in a job you don’t even like?

Until the day he died, my father would have told you that he worked as a merchant and felt God’s pleasure in that work. I have brothers who feel as solidly centered in the will of God as merchants themselves as I do in being a preacher of the gospel. And, yes, doing a job that is less than what you hope to be your long-term career calls for you to honor God there – perhaps especially there – by focusing on his calling for you in that challenging circumstance.

Paul said soldiers and civil servants in the Roman Empire should see themselves as “God’s servants, sent for [others’] good” (Romans 13:4). A while later, he told slaves to serve their masters “wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:5-8).

So why can’t you see yourself as an accountant, kindergarten teacher, lawyer, maintenance worker, or CEO who is God’s servant for doing good to others? Why can’t you see yourself as a nurse, parent, cashier, or landscaper who works intensely and honestly, as if serving the Lord Jesus himself?

From the perspective of faith, “the good life” is not money, sex, and power but character, quality of work, and being the light of Christ’s presence in all you do. Faith consecrates your workplace to God and provides you a calling that is larger than your career.

Martin Luther was right in his concept of the priesthood of all believers. The milkmaid at her task and the farmer turning the earth for planting is as much a glory to God as the priest in his function. So protect the dignity of your calling.