Choosing an occupation can be dizzying. Doesn’t have to be that way.
Today, relatively few pursue the line of work of their parents. How might Christians think about the additional freedoms and opportunities afforded by modern life? Is it really entirely up to us to choose our line of work, or can we wait to specifically hear from God on the matter?
In the Bible we see both Moses and David go from being anonymous shepherds to big-time prophet/miracle worker and king, respectively. But they had the advantage of remarkable divine intervention. How many of us would love to have God announce our life work to us audibly from a burning bush? Or have a prophet seek us out with anointing oil, announcing what career to pursue?
Though we may not “hear from God” in these ways, God is nevertheless present and active. He is at work in assigning us families and talents, and orchestrating circumstances which shape our passions for serving Him in architecture, teaching history or forensic science.
Work is intrinsically good and a gift from God.
You’ve seen the bumper sticker (which only pastors aren’t allowed to display): “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.” While there’s nothing wrong with occasional recreation, sometimes we wrongly feel that work is somehow demeaning or, at best, a necessary evil. We read of God cursing the ground because of Adam’s sin and falsely conclude that the Fall created work.
But in fact God assigned Adam and Eve important work prior to the fall (Genesis 1:28). Work is a gift from God — by it we employ useful skills and love our neighbors. The fall did not create work, but it did make it inevitable that work would sometimes be frustrating or seemingly meaningless.
Leland Ryken, in his helpful and balanced book, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure, identifies six dimensions of work:
- It provides for life’s needs and wants
- It is a means of economic production
- It carries with it a constant possibility of being a curse or drudgery
- It has the potential to supply a sense of human achievement
- … and psychological satisfaction
- … and service to humanity
God’s calling in our lives as Christians is comprehensive, and includes our jobs/careers.
In the Bible, we see “calling” used in various ways. In 1 Corinthians 1, being “called” is about getting saved: being called by God out of darkness and into light (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:9, 24; also 1 Peter 2:9). But being called out of darkness does not necessarily mean you are being called into full-time ministry. This is why the Apostle Paul spoke of Christians “remaining in the condition in which [they were] called” (1 Corinthians 7:20).
More ordinarily, God now uses the occupations in which we find ourselves to sanctify us and glorify His name through our testimony in the workplace. And I’m not referring to frequent gab sessions about Jesus in the break room, but rather making Jesus look excellent by doing excellent work as a result of consistent, diligent effort offered intentionally to God as an act of worship (Colossians 3:23-24).
But how does the idea of calling relate to a line of work that we choose? The connection is that it’s not enough to want a job; a job has to want you. You apply for the job, but they interview and make you the offer. In other words, we have to be called to a particular job — by someone else (an employer), and ultimately by God (who providentially orchestrates and guides these interactions, Proverbs 16:9, 33).
Our word vocation comes from the Latin vocatio, which means a summons or a calling. God ultimately calls us to a certain line of work, and we respond by recognizing, receiving and pursuing this calling. And if we look, we can see that even our desires for certain kinds of work, and the experiences which lead us to pursue particular fields, are orchestrated by God.
Vocational calling is not as mysterious as some may think. Rather it is directly related to the discovery of our God-given talents, which we then hone into skills and useful competencies.
A talent is a God-given knack for thinking about or doing something(s) with at least a moderate degree of potential for excellence. A 4-year-old child who does long division for fun (as I did) is not yet able to pay the rent with this pastime, but he is demonstrating potential for success in a number of fields requiring analytical and mathematical skills — skills which, if given the educational opportunities, and trained to possess the requisite internal discipline and work ethic, he will invariably develop.
Skills, then, are what become of talents through diligent practice. And useful competencies are activities or services we can render to others in society, using those developed skills in exchange for pay.
The amount of the salary, of course, is a reflection of the societal value placed on those skills, as determined (in most western countries) by some form of a capitalistic market. What that means is that some useful competencies will command a larger income than others — but that should not bother us as Christians. We are stewards of the money God entrusts us with, and must neither look down on jobs that pay less or nurse a grudge towards friends who earn more (see the parable of the talents).
That said, in taking out financial loans, we should be realistic about the kinds of jobs we might eventually secure at the end of our course work and how that will affect our ability to pay back those loans. Taking on $100K in grad school debt might be reasonable for a future corporate attorney, but is probably a poor choice for a kindergarten teacher in training. We need to balance practicality and realism with trust in God and a desire to glorify Him with our future jobs.
In choosing a line of work, there is a degree of freedom. But it is a structured freedom: structured, for example, by God’s moral law (producing Internet pornography or distributing drugs are off the table), our existing responsibilities (which necessarily limit our freedom — we may not yet be able to afford the required training), and our talents.
First, consider existing responsibilities. These represent other legitimate callings from God on our lives. For example, two biggies are family and debt. I’m not saying it is morally wrong to borrow money for graduate school or work long hours on papers after the kids are in bed. But the full complexity of our lives should be considered at a vocational cross-roads — we don’t make these decisions in a vacuum (without the consultation of loved ones and even church leaders).
And these factors can change over time: You might set out to get a Ph.D., meet someone special, get married, and decide to stop with your master’s. That’s OK. Things change — being a husband (or wife) is now one of your callings.
Most people have one (salaried) vocation and several (non-salaried) avocations.
Let’s say that after a few years in the work force you came back for graduate school and are almost done with a Master of Architecture degree. In your last year, under the stress of your hardest course load, you find yourself painting for relaxation. You’ve painted off and on since you were a child, but now you’re doing it at least once a week, and finding more enjoyment in it than ever. You daydream about painting when your brain is fried from architecture classes.
As the year plods along, the reoccurring thoughts are hard to resist: Should you actually quit architecture and pursue painting? Not necessarily. Remember, a calling is something that comes from outside you. Submit some of your work to a few festivals and galleries and see what happens. In other words, submit your work to the scrutiny of peers in that field (rather than just your friends and family, who will only say nice things).
If, over time, you discover that your work is not accepted on consignment or purchased by patrons, you’ve got your answer. Art may be a fantastic pastime, and you might create beautiful portraits as Christmas gifts, teach your kids to paint someday, and perhaps find a few other enjoyable outlets, but God has answered your vocational question through the closing of financial opportunities in that field. If you don’t want to become an economic burden to others, you should stay the course with architecture — recognizing that graduation is coming, and remembering all the reasons you got into the field in the first place.
But you may legitimately find many things that you do well — more than one of which is marketable. If multiple doors of opportunity are opening, the decision is then an exercise in Christian liberty. Consider your passions — it’s easier to endure the inevitable low times if the work satisfies you at a deep level. Consider the future prospects of a particular job or field — some degrees, for example, naturally open more doors than others. Similarly, some starting jobs naturally create more opportunities for advancement within the same company, while others are clearly intended to spin you elsewhere.
Talk to people in the fields, including those who have been doing it a long time. Ask around: Will this line of work be all-consuming or leave time for other activities outside work? Where can I expect to be in three years if I take this job? For example, one reason I enjoy teaching at a smaller, private university is the value placed on teaching versus research. Given the diversity of my interests, I wanted the time (and encouragement) to contribute not only to my technical field (engineering and physics) but also to write on cultural issues and to have a more broad social and spiritual impact. Many other jobs would not allow that kind of flexibility.
Be faithful today as you prepare for tomorrow.
Whatever set of responsibilities you have now — these constitute your callings. Let’s say you’re an engineering student with a part-time job at Red Robin. In that case, your callings include studying, going to class, turning in your assignments and delivering hamburgers to clients. If things work out with college and you’re able to graduate, you’ll hopefully get a different job and quit working at Red Robin. But until then, Red Robin is an important responsibility.
Earlier I mentioned that our vocational freedom is structured by God’s moral law, revealed in the Bible. This includes being a faithful member of a local church — the institution God established for building you up in the faith and as an environment where you can be a blessing to others. So when considering geography (perhaps in a graduate school or a first job out of college), don’t forget the importance of a good church for your spiritual well-being and overall fruitfulness.
If you’re offered a job in Wappinger Falls, N.Y., or considering graduate school in Boston, the Internet and other sources allow you to look in advance for possible churches. Who else do you know in that area? If possible, arrange your interview or visit in such a way that you might be able to experience a church you’d consider, even for some mid-week activity. A lack of opportunity for spiritual or social growth can make even the best job a lot less ideal.
Thankfully, we don’t have to be paralyzed with the question of what vocation to pursue. We can consider how God has wired our passions and what doors of employment opportunities He is opening. “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). By God we have dominion over all the earth (Genesis 1:26). The full gamut of morally legitimate professions can be pursued for Christ’s glory. Through the faithful development of God-given talents we mature as Christians and become more useful in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Through their faithful application we imitate God’s own creativity, order and appreciation for beauty and excellence.
On a micro level we provide for our families and are able to share with those in need (Ephesians 4:28). On a macro level we contribute to the global economy (Jeremiah 29:7), which gives food, shelter, and promotes the well-being for millions, and holds out the best promise of alleviating poverty for millions more.
Our work matters profoundly to God.
Copyright 2008 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University. He is the author of Thriving at College , Preparing Your Teens for College and Beating the College Debt Trap . Alex, his wife, Marni, and their three children reside in Riverside, Calif.