I grew up in a community of people who felt very sure that what they were doing with their lives was what they were meant to do. After all, making the decision to move yourself and your family overseas to serve the underprivileged as a missionary requires a great deal of conviction. Most of my parents’ colleagues would have said that they had no doubt that they were doing the work that they were born for. They might have said that it was their vocation.
I, on the other hand, have never had such a conviction. I have never felt compelled to choose one career path over another, or felt that my particular talents and inclinations propelled me down one certain path. Still, I hoped that my vocation would eventually become clear to me, so that I too might know what I was meant to do with my life – so I could be sure, too, that my life wasn’t going to waste.
“Vocation” is a weighty concept. More than occupation or even career, the term is loaded with seriousness and finality. Once you figure it out, that’s what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. There’s no more guesswork involved. This is the way you’re going to make your mark on the world. But in general, we still tend to think of vocation as a parallel concept to career or profession; vocation still has to do with work.
But one of the things that vocation is not is “just what we do for a living.” Vocation is more, even, than what we do to support our families. The word vocation comes from the Latin verb vocare, which means “to call.” A vocation is therefore, quite literally, a calling, and the word originally referred exclusively to a calling to religious orders and a life as a priest, monk, or nun. Today, we might expand that definition to include missionaries and pastors. Still, there’s an idea that while a few people are called this way, most of us are not.
But though only a few people might have a specific vocation to holy orders or pastoral service, every individual can still be seen as participating in humanity’s general vocation – that is, the call of God to all people to live a life of holiness. This was a call that didn’t have to be particularly felt or experienced. To the medieval citizen, a monk or nun might be closer to God –more holy, perhaps – but that did not leave the population at large any less responsible for their own faithfulness and obedience to God.
With the advent of the Reformation and the rise of the Protestant work ethic, however, labor began to be seen by many Christians as having a holy quality. Eventually, our current understanding of vocation as the job God wants us to have eclipsed the more holistic view of vocation as God’s call for our lives. Moreover, as the modern world began to emerge, this shift was accompanied by a gradual diversification of possible occupations and the rise of more specialized labor forces. Rather than a general call for everyone in every aspect of life, vocation came to mean a very specific calling to an individual in a particular area of his or her life.
But the full meaning of vocation cannot be constrained to the forty-hour work week. It encompasses both the work day and what comes before and after it: time with family, leisure time, hobbies, housework, volunteering. This can be freeing in one sense: it releases us from the centrality of work. If our vocations are not solely fulfilled by the way we earn our money, then we can worry less about choosing the right major and getting the right job that will place us on the path God has chosen for our lives. At the same time, expanding the concept of vocation forces us to use discernment not only in choosing a career path, but also in deciding how the rest of our hours will be spent.
This definition of vocation points to another thing that vocation is not: it is not just about us. When communities were small and often depended upon the work of each community member to ensure survival for all, each person’s role was ultimately oriented toward ensuring the success of the community. Nor, in the pre-modern world, did discerning one’s vocation usually involve much decision-making. Most individuals were born into a family or community where their expected role was defined from birth or young adulthood, and few would have suggested that God’s calling for their lives lay outside of where He had placed them. Needs took precedence over individual preferences.
However, just because people have the ability to live more independently in our modern world does not mean that God’s calling to live our lives oriented toward others has ceased. The roles we play in our families, churches, neighborhoods, and cities are as central to our vocations as the title on our business cards. This means that career advancement and optimal job moves are not the only factors relevant in deciding where we live and what we do. Those choices must be made with an eye toward other obligations and the needs of other people we’ve been called to live in community with.
Interpreting vocation as a call to holiness in all aspects of our lives demands one more anti-definition: finding one’s vocation is not the path to a perfect life. In a fallen world, things do not always work out as they ought or in the best possible way. God will not necessarily, as the saying goes, “open a window where he closes a door” – because God’s will is not the only factor at work. We might perhaps imperfectly or improperly discern a calling – or even willfully turn away from one. Other people’s missteps or disobedience might also get in the way, preventing us from taking an ideal path.
Moreover, for even those who do discern God’s will for their lives and work, reaching their paths despite any obstacles found in the way will not be wholly satisfying. Even the most fulfilling job will have its share of difficult personalities, moral quandaries, and plain misfortunes. Working within an imperfect culture and financial system can lead to frustrations and failures. And as Christian history abundantly demonstrates, doing God’s work is not a talisman against sorrow, suffering, or death.
Choosing what to study, what career to pursue, or what job to accept is an essential part of discerning one’s vocation. It is not, however, the only part. Vocation is not just about work, not just about the individual, and not just about finding the career that perfectly fulfills our individual interests and abilities. Rather, seeking one’s vocation involves a commitment to discerning God’s will in all areas of life. If the only vocation we’ll accept is a call to change the world on a grand scale, we run the risk of failing at the smaller obligations and duties we’ve been given. Some people will experience a specific call, to service or to holy orders or to a particular place or work. The rest of us are called to holiness, wherever we are. More than a path to self-actualization, vocation begins with a call to die to ourselves and to live by faith.
Sarah H. Clark graduated from Dartmouth College in 2011 with a B.A. in English and Russian Area Studies. She works at HarperCollins Christian Publishing and is the managing editor of Fare Forward: A Christian Review of Ideas.