In part 1 of this three-part post, Dr. Doriani looks at the experience and concepts of calling, and begins to ask some questions about calling, which are explored further in part 2. Part 3 will look at how we find a calling and live wisely within it. This material is adapted from chapter 5 of Dr. Doriani’s recent book Work: It’s Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation (P&R Publishing, 2019) and is used with the permission of the publisher.
The Experience of Calling
In 2001, two planes smashed into the World Trade Center. As thousands of office workers dashed down the stairs to safety, hundreds of firemen and rescue workers raced up them toward danger, to rescue trapped workers. They knew they might lose their lives, and many did. The nation called the rescue workers heroes, but the firemen replied, “We’re not heroes, we just did our jobs.”
The words “I’m no hero, I just did my job” come easily to the lips of people who know their calling and fulfill it. Designers, surgeons, and mothers of twins sound the same notes. Ordinary people shout their praise and they reply, “Just doing my job.” Christians might add, “Yes, it’s your job and God’s calling.”
The experience of calling is gratifying and we can recognize a calling in clear cases, but the concept has been long fraught with confusion and debate. Classic Roman Catholic theology spoke of calling to the priesthood, but not of callings to “secular” work. The Reformers challenged that view. Luther insisted that the milk maid with her cows, the farmer in his fields, and the magistrate dispensing justice were as pleasing to God, and as important to man, as any priest or monk. Today, however, some Protestants question Luther’s notion of calling. They claim it can lead to passivity, even oppression, if people think they must remain in their position because they view it as God’s appointed place for them. Others notice that the Bible almost always uses the term “calling” in the sense of God’s call to everyone to believe in Jesus. So they wonder if “calling” is the right term for the labor of farmers, magistrates, or any other career. Indeed, they ask if Protestants have fused secular notions of fulfillment with biblical notions of calling.
Concepts of Calling
Abraham Maslow asserted that once humans meets their needs for food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, and love or acceptance, they pursue higher goals—achievement and self-actualization. Today, most young adults hope that their work will help them find fulfillment and significance, especially if they work hard, consult the right experts, improve themselves, and stay mobile.
Meanwhile many churches still harbor medieval hierarchical notions of calling. Somehow, disciples feel that “business” is second class, spiritually, a notch below “full-time Christian service.” Sadly, even pastors can feel that they are second rate. A seminary professor, reading and lecturing, seems inferior to a pastor, who deals with the gritty problems of ordinary people. But if a missional church starts to rank clergy, pastors may rank below missionaries, who leave the comforts of home and minister in another language! But even missionaries have ranks. Those who serve in Africa outdo missionaries serving in comfortable Europe. Among missionaries, evangelists enjoy more esteem than support staff. And city evangelists bow to frontier evangelists, who reach their people by traversing crocodile-infested waters. Yet no one can surpass pioneer translators, who labor without a church. And at the pinnacle of translators stands the Bible translator who lives alone, in the jungle, without electricity, in a snake-infested tree hut. So it goes.
The interest in ranking work pervades secular society, too. In a recent presidential campaign, a reporter discovered that a leading candidate had donated only $600 to charity the previous year, though his annual income approached a million dollars. When questioned about his miserly ways, he replied, “I have given my life to public service.” If political work equals public service, the politician may have a point. But when he said he gave meagerly because he served publicly, he implied that a politician need not give money because he has already given his life.
But we might question our politician. When he claims, “I have given my life to public service” does he imply that bakers, physicians, and garbage collectors have not? If all bakers, truckers, farmers, physicians, garbage men, and politicians disappeared on the same day, whom would we miss first?
Perhaps that question is unfair. Whatever occupation we might miss first, in time we would miss the services of every legitimate and productive vocation. Society certainly needs politicians with hearts for justice and the public good, but do pastors, politicians, or physicians serve in a uniquely noble way? That question deserves a careful answer. First, no honest calling is morally superior to any other. Cashiers and corporate leaders, cabinetmakers and icemakers, all have a capacity to serve God and neighbor. He will ask each of us the same questions on the last day.
- Did you honor me by honing the skills I gave you?
- Did you honor the parents, mentors and friends who invested in you?
- Did you use your abilities to provide for your family?
- Did you to promote the good of your neighbors, mankind, and this world?
- Did my people receive answers to their legitimate prayers through you?
These questions do not necessarily preclude evaluating various lines of work. The five questions assume that valid work serves society. Sadly, some work that is legal is useless or destructive. Strip clubs are an obvious example. But passing out fliers for going-out-of-business sales seems pointless. And what about the sale of cotton candy, which offers nothing but empty calories. The sugar surge is hard on children, and on parents who do battle with children who long for towers of rainbow-colored sweets. But surely some will object that children should be free to enjoy cotton candy. Besides, a reader may ask, who appointed you the sugar police? Truly, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. That said, if a worker decides he or she is producing nothing useful to society, it is wise to seek a new job. Unfortunately, a man can wake up and find himself in a frivolous job, marketing trinkets. He wants something better; but how will he find it?
Questions about Calling
When my oldest daughter was seven, I spoke at a secluded retreat center ringed by mountains that were sprinkled with streams, plants, and small animals. We cut her loose one day and she returned with a box of moss, crickets, and newts. Presenting her discoveries, she exulted, “I love this. I was made for this.”
To do what we love is everyone’s goal. Musicians love to perform their favorite music, bakers delight to make delicious pastries, and engineers yearn to solve challenging problems. But how do we find the job we love? Is there a perfect job waiting for us, a job God designed us to do? And if we do find a job that makes us exult, “I was made for this,” how can we keep the sensation from slipping away? For it’s thrilling to make an audience laugh, but stand-up comedians can get tired of their own jokes, just as musicians grow weary of performing their hits, not to mention the grinding travel that performers endure. Beyond that, every job has its tedium. Jerry Seinfeld noted that he would spend an hour to shorten a joke by one word and most musicians labor through take after take when cutting an album. Beyond that, every calling has moments of “taking out the garbage.” At worst, work is futile—like trying to raise beef cattle in lands suited for bison or trying growing wheat in drought-ridden plains.
So how do we find and recognize God’s call? What if we feel miscast and want a different job, but prospects look dim? What if a man or woman longs to marry and have children, but hopes dwindle? When work is difficult, how can we tell when to persevere and when to move on? What if we sense a readiness for greater responsibilities, but no one offers them? What if a headhunter recruits us to a new position? Is it true that we should feel peaceful and fulfilled if we find the right place?
Let’s start with the foundation, the biblical teach on calling, which we’ll look at in part 2 of this post.
 By contrast, in 2018, a sheriff’s deputy in Parkland, Florida took cover instead of attempting to stop a shooter who killed seventeen high school students. We might conclude that he had a job, but not a calling.
 See discussion of Luther in chapter 3 of my book Work, or this adapted blog version of the discussion: https://www.covenantseminary.edu/theology/the-power-and-the-dangers-in-luthers-concept-of-work/.
 Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,”in Psychological Review 50, no.4 (1943): 370–96.
 Douglas Schuurman, Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 117–21.
 A microphone once picked up John Lennon shouting, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers.”
 Dan O’Brien, Buffalo for the Broken Heart (New York: Random House 2002, 2003, sic); Jonathan Raban, Bad Land (New York: Vintage Departures, 1997); Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 91–107.