By Todd Leonard
I have heard it no less than several hundred times in the past ten years. No doubt, it is always well-meaning and well-intended, and comes from a multitude of choruses, but the assertion leaves me a little perplexed, and, truth be told, somewhat discouraged. The refrain usually sounds something like this: “Todd, you missed your calling. You should have been” – then comes the rich and variegated occupations – pastor, teacher, motivational speaker, columnist, narrator, network anchor, broadcaster, politician, high school football coach; yes, even at times, nouthetic counselor, one that really puzzles me. Yet for the past twenty-two years, outside of four years as a Scout Platoon Leader in the United States Army, I have worked in some form of educational sales, marketing, and selling everything from textbooks, class rings, graduation cap and gowns, to varsity letterman jackets. Not exactly high glamour! The logical and difficult question thus becomes: Have I missed my calling? While I’m certainly no relativist, the answer is a bit more complicated and nuanced than what might appear on the surface and what I might have answered ten years ago. It goes beyond a simple yes or no, but I believe when we carefully understand the biblical basis and ground for work, the nature of primary and secondary callings, and the future orientation of our work, not only have I not missed my calling, but perhaps have come to understand it more completely and appreciate it more fully.
Learning From Kuyper and Luther
Sadly, most Christians in our contemporary culture today have little if any theological framework for a doctrine of work. The secular culture lives for the weekend, and many Christians have adopted much of the same mentality. The famous cliché that we “work at our play, and play at our work” may be a cliché, but a truthful one at that. Many view work as a result of the fall, coming as a sort of punishment for man’s disobedience and rebellion. Pastors have, sadly in my estimation, failed the Church in this area by their failure to fully ground the doctrine of work in the “very good” declaration of Genesis 1. In Genesis 1:26-28, popularly described as the Cultural Mandate, God establishes His first command for Adam and Eve to take dominion over the earth, for His glory, and to be co-laborers in establishing his Kingdom over the vast expanse of the Cosmos. Kuyper’s famous declaration of the Crown Rights of Christ over every “square inch” of creation was a restatement of God’s original plan, one that most certainly involved work, and physical work at that. Post-fall, that command has not been rescinded, but given a new orientation and direction, as I shall briefly explore shortly below. This concept gives immense dignity and meaning to every legitimate and moral enterprise; thus the great Reformer Martin Luther could declare: “God Himself will milk the cows through him whose vocation that is. He who engages in the lowliness of his work performs God’s work, be he lad or king.”
The Difference Between Calling and Vocation
While every legitimate vocation may have worth, we must go a step further and delineate between calling and vocation (by which I mean the work we are employed to do), something many in the Church fail to do and which engenders much disagreement. Over the years, I have examined the notion of “vocation” and “calling” from a multitude of angles, and while I used to hold firmly to the belief that both held much the same meaning, careful study has led me to cautiously make a distinction between them. Hugh Whelchel, in his marvelous book, How Then Should We Work, distinguishes between our primary calling and secondary callings as Christians. Our primary call is to follow Christ and receive the gift of salvation; many secondary callings flow out of this one primary calling. While certainly not setting up any kind of dualism between the sacred and the secular, something the Reformers vehemently opposed, this framework recognizes our secondary callings in the realm of family, church, and society. We are called to be husbands, fathers, elders, deacons, and into vocational work that glorifies God and serves the common good. With regard to the last, Whelchel labels this secondary calling our vocational calling and says this: “A Christian’s work is not a specific type of occupation but rather an attitude that sees work ‘not, primarily as a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do…Work is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s gifts, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.’ Under this definition you may have different careers and jobs at different points in your life, but your vocational calling from God will stay constant.” There it is! Many jobs may come, but the God-given passion and skills uniquely granted by the Creator and refined through years of discovery will remain and be brought to bear upon whatever vocational task that may constitute one’s “career path” for a particular season. In short, your job may not fully harmonize with your “calling” but the thoughtful Christian will constantly be seeking to integrate them as fully as possible. For some, this task is much easier than others, as there is more coherence and unity between the two. I think about many of my friends who have a passion for teaching and actually make their living doing it; the pilot who loves to teach and serves as a flight instructor; the skilled artisan who has a passion for restoration and runs a paint business; the astute and savvy business-minded friend who loves legal documents and research and supervises operations and title search at a major title company. For that matter, I think of my wife, a woman who loves numbers, finance, data, and spreadsheets and works as a CPA out of our home, and a great one at that! For most of us, however, the landscape is a bit more uncertain and requires that we constantly evaluate how our talents and treasures are brought to bear upon our vocational endeavors.
Work has Eternal Significance
Finally, work must be done with a view toward God’s overarching plan to unite all things in Christ, “things in heaven and on earth,” as the Apostle Paul states in several places in Scripture. When we are tempted to despair, and fail to understand in any remote manner how what we do from day to day has significance and meaning, we must remember that God has redeemed us, and thus, by extension, our vocational pursuits, and has promised to bring the best of those efforts and undertakings into the New Heavens and the New Earth. With redemption comes a new orientation for all of our efforts; we know that “our labor is not in vain” and that if the Kings of the Earth will bring their glory into eternity in some sense (Rev. 22), then what we do now, no matter how trivial and miniscule it might appear to us at the time, carries with it some transcendent and eternal purpose which is known perhaps only to God and which will find its way into the Consummation.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of hosting Pastor Greg Strawbridge in my home, along with ten other men, for an evening of theological discussion. He began the meeting by asking each man present what he did for a living. When he heard my response, he said, “so you work in the glory business.” It left a deep impression on me, for I had never really thought of it in those terms before. From that point forward, I began to see, sometimes more so than at others, the profound difference that the products I provided made in people’s lives. I also began to see how all of the unique skills, like those of speaking, teaching, motivating, and narrating, were employed in my vocational calling. I’m not sure how a class ring or a cap and gown will find its way into the New Heavens and the New Earth; most likely it won’t! What I am certain of is that it will be a place full of Glory where wise stewardship will be called for, where unique gifts will be employed in the service of the King for all eternity, and where God’s original purpose for man will be fully and finally realized. Perhaps, just maybe, what I’m doing here is but preparation for what I will forever do there. I can think of no better reason to work!
Todd Leonard has worked in Educational Sales for the past eighteen years and was previously a Scout Platoon Leader in the U.S. Army. He is married to Trina and the proud father of six children. He is a recreational triathlete who loves the pursuit of the strenuous life. He is also the leader of Micah 6:8 ministries, a member of Providence Church in Pensacola, Florida, and blogs at micahmandate.blogspot.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @micah68min.
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