Vocation: The spirituality of ordinary life
by Gene Edward Veith
Many people today are bored with ordinary life; they want life to be extraordinary. Some try to escape their meaningless humdrum lives by keeping themselves entertained, by anesthetizing themselves with alcohol or drugs, by breaking up their marriages, or even by pursuing religion. They seek to transcend this world by means of spectacular experiences, whether pleasurable or mystical. Non-Christian religions, such as Hinduism or the New Age movement, often reject the material realm altogether. Even some forms of Christianity teach that we should separate ourselves from the world in order to be purely spiritual. In contrast, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation offers a spirituality of ordinary life.
In medieval theology, the word “vocation”—the Latin word for “calling”—referred only to the calling to be a monk, nun, or priest. These “holy orders” required vows of celibacy (not marrying or having children), poverty (not participating in worldly economic activity), and obedience (being subject only to the church rather than to secular government). In recovering the Gospel, Martin Luther insisted that having a family, working to make a living, and being a citizen of the culture are also vocations from God. All believers are priests. The Table of Duties in the Small Catechism refers to husbands, wives, parents, children, rulers, subjects, employers, and employees all as occupying “holy orders.” Luther worked out the relationship between the Church and the world in the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which emphasizes that Christians are citizens of both kingdoms and that God actively governs them both.
God at work
God actively provides for His entire creation, and He has chosen to distribute His gifts through human beings. He gives us this day our daily bread by means of farmers, millers, bakers, grocers, and the people who prepare our meals. God creates children by means of fathers and mothers. He protects us by means of policemen, firemen, soldiers, and our legal system. He heals us by means of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers. He gives us the blessings of technology by means of scientists, inventors, and engineers. And, crucially, He baptizes, conveys the Body and Blood of Christ, and proclaims His saving Word by means of pastors whom He has “called and ordained.”
The doctrine of vocation has to do, above all, with the way God works through human beings. Vocation is not primarily about what we do or what we are supposed to do. That enters into it. But vocation is mainly about God’s action. Christians are used to talking about “what God is doing in my life.” Vocation emphasizes “what God is doing through my life.” And, by the same token, “what God is doing for me through other people.”
The doctrine of vocation has to do with the way God works through human beings.
Luther called vocation a “mask of God.” He is hidden in ordinary people. Notice everyone who does things for you. Your parents who brought you into existence, brought you up, and cared for you; your spouse; whoever made your clothes; whoever built your house; the artists whose music or drawings or stories you enjoy; the experts who designed and built and programmed your computer; all the people behind the scenes who keep you safe and make your life possible. Consider that God looms behind them all, blessing you through all of these people working in their vocations.
And God also works through you. You do things for your family, your friends, the people in your church. On the job, you do things for your customers and people you work with. You provide goods or services that help others (otherwise, you wouldn’t stay in business very long). Perhaps God has given you the vocation of marriage. That means He works through you to bless your spouse. Perhaps God has made you a parent. That means He has worked through you to produce one of the most amazing miracles of them all—to create new life, to engender an immortal soul—and He works through you to bring up that child.
Luther taught that God created three “estates” for human beings to live in; in each of these, He gives us not just one but multiple vocations. These estates are the church, the civil state, and the household.
God calls sinners by the Gospel into His church, where they form a community in time and eternity that is no less than the Body of Christ, who is truly present with His people. Here some are pastors, through whom God proclaims His Word, and some are laypeople, perhaps holding different offices as elders, teachers, musicians, and the like. All Christians have vocations in the Church.
God has also ordained that we live under governments, in communities, as part of cultures. In Romans 13, St. Paul explains how God restrains sinful human beings by working through the vocation of lawful magistrates, thereby allowing even sinners to live in societies. Some people have vocations as government officials. We have the vocation of being members of our community, citizens of our nation, and participants in our culture. We are called to be salt and light in our various societies. Thus, we all have vocations in the state.
The household—that is, the family—is the primary estate and the site of our most important earthly vocations. The family is God’s ongoing creation of humanity, the foundation of culture, and the image of our relationship with God on earth. God brings us to existence by means of fathers and mothers and thus assigns us to a family—including all our siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and a lineage going back to Adam and Eve. We all hold some vocations in family—in the offices of husband and wife, father and mother, son and daughter.
We usually think of “vocation” as another word for “job.” Luther classified economic activity as part of the household—how families make a living. But doing so also provides goods, services, and other blessings to the members of other families. Thus we have vocations in the workplace.
God’s love; our love
The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbours. God is always calling us to love Him and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:26-28). This applies for every estate and in every office. In the church, pastors are to love and serve their congregations, and laypeople are to love and serve their pastors and fellow Christians. In the state, rulers are to love and serve their people, and citizens are to love and serve each other. In the family, husbands love and serve their wives, who love and serve their husbands; parents love and serve their children, while children love and serve their parents. In the workplace, workers of every kind are to love and serve their customers. Each vocation has its own set of neighbours whom we are to love and serve with the particular tasks we are called to perform.
Notice that the purpose of vocation is not to serve God, as such, but to serve the neighbour. Our relationship with God, on the other hand, is based on His service to us. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). “In this is love,” says the Apostle John, “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” But having done so, God sends us out to love our neighbours. “Beloved, if God so loved us,” John continues, “we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).
In Luther’s day—as well as in our own—Christians often had the notion that they had to do things for God in order to earn a high standing with Him. They constructed all kinds of spiritual works, exercises, and pious observances that were thought to earn spiritual merit. These often entailed a specific rejection of vocation, as in the clerical vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. The most revered kind of monasticism was that of the hermit or the anchoress, which involved shutting oneself away from any neighbours whatsoever. Luther asked, how are these man-made spiritual disciplines good works? Who are you helping? God doesn’t need your good works, Luther insisted. But your neighbour does.
God doesn’t need your good works. But your neighbour does.
Thus, in our relationship with God we should not distance ourselves from the vocations of daily life. On the contrary, as Christ Himself tells us, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers”—feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, visiting the prisoner—“you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). God is hidden in vocation; Christ is hidden in our neighbour. We love and serve God precisely by loving and serving our neighbours. Not to merit God’s favour, but as the spontaneous effect of the Gospel.
Out into the world
And yet, we often sin in our vocations. The explanation of “Confession” in the Small Catechism says that in determining what sins we should confess in church we should consider our vocations according to the Ten Commandments. Then, repenting of those sins we have committed as “a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker,” we receive absolution from “the called ministers of Christ” through whom Christ in Heaven deals with us. In church every week we find forgiveness for our sins, have our faith built up by God’s Word and Sacrament, and then are sent back out into our vocations for the upcoming week to live out the Christian life, in the words of the closing Collect, “in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another.”
Luther knew that the physical realm is far from meaningless or spiritually insignificant. God created and sustains the material world, into which the Son of God became incarnate. God uses physical means—His Word printed on paper and ink, the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of Christ’s Body and Blood—to bring sinners to Himself. And He is active when ordinary people do ordinary things—going to work, getting married, having children, participating in a community, going to church—to extend His blessings.
A non-Christian and a Christian may work together on an assembly line, both performing exactly the same task. The one may see that work as just a tedious way to earn a living; the other may see that work through the eyes of faith as a way to love and serve his neighbours, and may catch a glimpse of the God who hides Himself even in factories. In vocation, ordinary life becomes transfigured with the presence of God.
Dr. Gene Edward Veith is Provost of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, and the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. He is the author of numerous books, including God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life and, with Deaconess Mary Moerbe, Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood, from which this article is adapted.