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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Called to a community

Vocation | A Christian's vocation involves more than a career

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

The concept of "vocation" or "calling" is an application of the doctrine of providence: God not only preserves the cosmos and superintends the history of nations but is subtly at work in the most minute circumstances of each individual life.

The doctrine's biblical lineage is clear: Since God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies in splendor (Matthew 6:26-29), and since a sparrow cannot fall from the sky apart from the will of the Father (Matthew 10:29), then surely God provides and cares even more for His children. If God has a plan to prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), and works all things to good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), then surely each believer is called to a role in the salvation of the world and the redemption of all things.

The concept's attractiveness is also clear. The doctrine of providence has the Creator God as a personal, intentional being, not a distant God but a God compassionately involved in the fates of persons and communities. Special providence fills the universe with subtle threads of purpose, and promises they will weave together beyond the sorrows of the world for the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. Each person becomes the subject of God's most intimate concern. The concept of vocation slakes our thirst for significance.

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Yet, the theology of vocation is complex. As an undergraduate, I belonged to a fellowship of faithful overachievers at Stanford University. We thought of vocation in the same way we thought of finding a spouse. Just as we sought "the one" partner God meant for us to marry, so we sought the one path God had prepared for us. This was the occasion for great anxiety. Students feared that if they diverged from God's intended path, or never found it, then they would miss out on the blessing of becoming who they were created and called to be.

We rarely challenged the equation of vocation and profession: We were to venture great things for God and reach the heights of our professions in order to acquire a broader influence for the sake of the kingdom. Yet I could not escape the feeling, when we joined together for fellowship and worship and service, that we were already living the life for which we were designed. We loved God and loved the world shoulder to shoulder.

When our four years at Stanford were up, we scattered across the globe in pursuit of our vocations. The costs became clear over time. To use myself as an example, none of my five closest friends live in the same city as I do, and none of their closest friends live in the same cities they do. We have equated vocation with profession at the expense of family and fellowship. And many who believed they were called to particular professions find themselves, when their jobs are lost or unfulfilling, frustrated and disillusioned.

I have spoken with many of these Stanford students. Some are still chasing significance or success. Others have given up the search and only want to pay the bills. Many regret the sacrifices they have made to the idol of their careers. One friend recently wrote, "I share my life with virtually no one, and if I don't do something about it then I will die just having been someone's employee." The right-minded pursuit of professional excellence is important. But were we right to leave family and friends in the belief that our calling to particular careers trumped everything else?

The conditions of modern living only exacerbate such problems. We are connected superficially to vastly more people than before, yet connected deeply to far fewer. When my father grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s, he saw 10 to 30 people on a typical day. He knew them all. He knew their stories. They knew his. Today we see thousands of faces every day, yet know hardly any of the souls behind them. Surrounded by a sea of company, we die of thirst for companionship.

The most mobile and networked society in the history of the planet has its drawbacks. Duke University researchers have found that Americans in 1984 enjoyed an average of three deep relationships in which they shared "important matters." By 2004 that number had fallen to two, and a quarter of respondents confessed they did not have a single confidant. In 1940, single-person households composed roughly 7 percent of all households. Today that number is nearing 30 percent. Sociologists like Robert Putnam and Robert Bellah have shown how technology that decreases the distance between nations has increased the distance between neighbors. We know the news on the other side of the world, but not the neighbor on the other side of the fence.

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