Calling in the 21st Century

What is your main purpose in life? What is the reason you were put on the face of this earth?  Could you answer this with any conviction?  Or to put it another way, if you were to die tomorrow, will it be said of you that you were a person who lived out the purpose of their lives fully?

These are deep, searching questions.  You may not have considered these questions before and may think it is impossible to answer them with any precision.

In this article, I suggest that Christians have the privilege of understanding themselves as people who are called to Him and then called to service in God’s grand restoration of creation.  Properly understood this gives energy and purpose to our existence.

Today we are infected with a secular vision of life, a legacy of the Enlightenments influence over the last 300 years.  The world is divided into 2 separate spheres; the secular and the sacred.  This shapes the way we understand our faith and practice.  For example the general narrative that runs in the Church in Australia is that there are 2 types of Christian; those who are called into ‘full time’ ministry (the sacred sphere), whether that is a missionary or a pastor and those who simply have ‘jobs’ (whether paid or unpaid in the secular sphere).

But from the standpoint of the Bible this cannot be.  The Gospel, the announcement that Jesus is the world’s true Lord, and that in his death and resurrection He has brought God’s new world into existence does not divide reality into 2 distinct spheres.  This is the context in which we find ourselves; we await this new world in all its glory and so we live and work between the ‘now and the not yet’.  As we wait and we are called to work for God’s justice and reconciliation in every sphere of life in the light of this final ‘right ordering’ of creation which comes at the end of the age when His Son returns.

In the light of this grand narrative all work takes on a new significance. In the New Testament, the book of Ephesians is a magnificent commentary on this vision.  Paul labours to show how the gospel relates to every area of our lives.  Saved by grace, recreated in Christ Jesus ‘for the good works which God prepared beforehand so that we could walk in them’ (Eph 2:10)  We are called to model the life of the age to come, in speech (4:25), in temperament (4:26) and lifestyle (4:28).  No one is exempt, for even the lowly slave, at the bottom of the 1st Century food chain has a significant place in this grand narrative (6:5ff). In short we become imitators of God, modeling the life of the age to come, in every square inch of our existence (5:1,2).

So what does this have to do with work in the 21st Century?  What does it have to do with the work of professionals, tradespersons and homemakers?

Taking our cue from St Paul, we need to look at the world through the lens of the gospel, and see that all we do is of significance to Jesus Christ.  Listen to what he says to the Christians in Colossea;

And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him, to God the Father. (Colossians 3:17)

Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men … It is the Lord Christ whom you serve … (Colossians 3:23)

This text challenges the popular notion that there is a sacred and secular realm.  Much like the modern world today, Greek and Roman society had a strong tendency to split the world into the sacred and secular.  The sacred tasks were those of contemplation and reflection.  The secular and profane tasks were to do with physical work, such as farming and tending to menial tasks in the household.  The Gospel swept aside this distinction and affirmed that all work had significance in God’s sight.

The New Testament holds out the story that all of life and history has been reclaimed by the God who created the world.  Given Jesus is the world’s true Lord, whatever we do within that world is now to be done for him.  Therefore every inch of our lives, whether it be what we call ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ is transformed as a place Jesus is vitally interested in.

Dr. Os Guinness, of the Trinity Forum in the USA is one of the leading commentators on the subject of calling. (See below).  Citing the work of the Puritans, particularly William Perkins he gives the following definition; 

Our calling is the expression of our identities, the exercise of our total range of gifts given a real direction and dynamic in all our lives precisely because it is not done for ourselves, our families, our churches, or nations or mankind in general – but we a drawn to doing things because they are done primarily as unto Jesus Christ – especially in the light of his coming and in the light of His work in the world.

Guinness notes the Puritans were wary of the ways in which this could be distorted.  They were careful to guard the essence of this truth and made a further distinction between what they called primary and secondary calling.  Such a distinction is a vital ‘balancing’ factor to help keep calling on track and preventing it from falling into 2 errors; the religious and the secular.

Our primary calling as followers of Christ is ‘by Him, to Him, and for Him’.   We are called by Jesus into a relationship with Him.  We are not primarily called to something (motherhood, politics or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Mongolia) but to the crucified and resurrected King of the world – Jesus Christ.

This resonates with much of the teaching we see in the gospels.  Jesus calls men and women to himself.  They leave their nets or tax collecting booths to follow Him in His mission (Mark 1;16-17; 2:14).  Some return to the place where they have lived, others go on to travel around the known world (Mark 5:19).

The secondary calling, is that everyone (not some special class of person, like those called to the priesthood), everywhere (not restricted to the precincts of a church), and in everything (not simply religious activities – but all those things that are consistent with his rule) should think, speak, act and live entirely for him.

Called to Christ, we then find ourselves in specific contexts.  Some may be missionaries, but others find themselves in ‘non religious’ roles; like factory work, banking, law and so on.  Growing out of a rich understanding that they are primarily called by Christ to this context, they work ‘as unto him’.  It gives a dignity and spiritual significance to all that we do.

Held together, and in their right order, the above distinction reflects Jesus’ summary of the two most important commandments; to love God and our neighbour .  So in loving God, we work in ways that please him and respect his agenda for the renewal of His creation.  This naturally translates into a loving engagement with our neighbour.

But calling can easily be distorted.  In history the order has often been reversed.  If the primary was emphasized to the expense of the secondary, we return to a monasticism, which preserves a deep dualism between the religious and the secular.  Reverse the order, holding the secondary calling as the most important, and people lose themselves in their work and forget the God who has called them.  This is the path that was eventually taken in the modern world and explains the strong process of secularization in world of work.

So the challenge in each age is to live the reality of this doctrine.  In our highly secularized society this is extremely difficult and calls for ‘a work of imagination’.  I must embrace the truths of the scriptures and make this the lens in which I see every area of life as significant in the sight of God including my daily work.  Using Paul’s language from Ephesians (2:10) I understand that I am created in Christ Jesus for ‘good works’ and so each day is an arena for this to be realized.

Three important implications will be realized if we live this truth.  Firstly with a correct understanding of calling I see the world in a new light and indwell a different story.  I work imaginatively in the context that I find myself in, recognizing that Jesus is watching me and delighting in my attempts to pleasing him.  We see ourselves and others in a different light, and are energized to care and serve those around us.

Secondly, it reorients my priorities in regard to success. I must remember that in all I find myself involved in, the most important thing in my life is the fact that I am in relation with the Lord of history who loves me and has given himself up for me (Gal 2:20).  Success and failure in the tasks of life are not the most important things in life.  Rather it is remaining faithful to Him and His teaching.

Thirdly, it empowers one to give of one’s best, even when there is no possibility of human gain.  Often we are faced with situations where we are called to do things that will go unnoticed or we suffer injustice by not being given our due.  Calling enables us to live with a clear conviction that Christ sees and will reward us at the end of the age for those who do this ‘as unto Him’.

Each of us has a unique place in God’s new creation.  Understanding our calling in this light is desperately needed in today’s world.  At those times in history when the Church has rediscovered this emphasis it has released fresh energy in art, in the world of work, justice and the home.  In so many areas, the narrative of the modern world is coming apart in what we call our postmodern age.  Calling is a way back to heal the deep rift that exists in our society which leaves people with a deep sense of hopelessness.  Instead of despair we see all of our lives as fused with the grace of Heaven in the context we are set.  In this place we are called to labour for transformation of lives and situations.

Books and Articles on Calling

Everyday Spirituality – Connecting Sunday and Monday  Gordon Preece July 1995 Zadok Paper S76.

The Call – Finding and fulfilling the central purpose of your life Os Guiness Word Publishing 1998

Rising to the Call Os Guiness Word Publishing 2003.

The Other Six Days Vocation, work and ministry in Biblical perspective.  R Paul Stevens Eerdmans/Regent Publishing 1999.

The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work Lee Hardy Eerdmans 1990.

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