Cover Story
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Serving a higher purpose

Vocation | A person is greater than the sum of his material parts, and his reason to work goes beyond making the money to satisfy his appetites

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

"Short People got no reason to live." Randy Newman's 1977 hit song, "Short People," was controversial for a time, but should we extend the inquiry: Do any people have a reason to live?

The biblical answer has always been yes. The world is God's theater and our classroom. We slowly learn what it means to trust Him. We slowly learn to act in a way that displays His grace. But if we think there is no God, what reason to live do we have?

Foundation officer Greg Forster, referring to the dominant economic theory of the past four score years, recently wrote, "The fundamental premise of Keynesianism is that the purpose of economic activity is to facilitate consumption. This basic commitment to consumption as the highest economic good is clearly connected to an anti-metaphysical, essentially materialistic anthropology. What is the good for man? To serve a higher purpose, or to gorge his appetites? Keynesianism assumes it's the latter."

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Materialistic anthropology suggests that affluent people have no reason to live, so they might as well entertain themselves with extensive consumption and travel. (Novelist Walker Percy referred to a penchant for "external rotations.") Poor people also have no reason to live, so they might as well be on welfare.

God gave Adam a reason to live: "God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work and keep it." After the Fall, Adam had a similar calling, but it would be harder: "You shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread."

God gave Israel a reason to live: "You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Jesus gave His disciples a reason to live: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

Forster writes (at thepublicdiscourse.com), "The predominant economic model of behavior assumes that if you could draw the same paycheck without ever having to go to work at any job, you would always choose not to go." But he notes what both common human experience and social science data tell us: "People want to work. It's a presupposition of basic human dignity that we make a productive contribution to the common good."

So how do we work joyfully? To a large extent we need the right attitude of looking at the world as God's theater and classroom. But we also need to be in the right place, where we can use whatever talents God has given us.

Tony Woodlief's "Working for good" asserts that the workplace should not be merely a place to evangelize or earn money to support pastors and missionaries: The work itself should be productive.

In "Called to a community," Timothy Dalrymple provocatively asks us to distinguish between "calling" and professions: "A vocation is both greater and more intimate than a call to a career."

Then we move to practical applications. Since our Aug. 28 special section on work and calling concentrated on people in business, this time we profile only one business leader and then look at unusually determined people in a variety of fields:

The section concludes with a review of a book, 48 Days to the Work You Love, that might help some readers to find the right way to spend their working time.

I'll add a personal note here. I love what the adopting couple do. I don't agree with some of the decisions of the philanthropist and the artist. But the stories of all these individuals remind me of a song I see as focused on vocation and calling, even though its author, Patty Griffin, may have had something else in mind: "Sometimes you find yourself flying low at night / Flying blind and looking for any sign of light. / You're cold and scared, and all alone, you'd do anything just to make it home. / It's a mad mission, under difficult conditions, / not everybody makes it to the loving cup. / It's a mad mission but I got the ambition. / Mad, mad mission, sign me up."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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