How Luther’s View of Vocation Frees Us
In my last post, the first in this series about vocation, I wrote about the crisis that led me to study the doctrine of vocation. I also discussed Martin Luther’s metaphor for vocations as “masks of God.” You may want to go back and read that post first.
Differing Views of vocation
Amid all the controversies Christianity has preserved the fundamental idea that our lives count for something because God has a direction in mind for them. (1)
Vocation as mask
Perspectives on vocation are varied. Luther’s view of vocations as masks of God lends itself to the view that almost every person has multiple vocations throughout life, and often many at the same time. I am a believer, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a professor, an employee, a neighbor, a painter, a writer, a church member, a citizen. Almost all of these represent personal relationships of varying degrees of friendship and intimacy. All are for the purpose of loving and serving others as a conduit of God’s care. So while I am an individual, I wear many masks. We refer to “wearing many hats” when talking about the many different roles we engage. Luther’s view is similar in this way.
Vocation as a Life’s Mission
In contrast, many view a vocation as something to be discovered, a person’s single purpose for living, the one thing they are on earth to do that no one else can do. This approach is somewhat like a college student trying to decide on a major, only with much higher stakes. It is true that God has a purpose for each of our lives, and that often his purposes become more apparent with time. This view has a high view of God’s wisdom in forming us and equipping us to do specific work, and encourages the believer to anticipate with hope the discovery of her gifts and talents, trusting that God will use them.
One detriment to this view is that the search for that one perfect-fit vocation can keep us from loving and serving those around us now. We can lose sight of the ways God wants to use us now in our ordinary relationships while waiting for our extraordinary, abundantly “meaningful” future. Once discovered, if something goes awry in that one vocation of “purposeful service”, our lives are upended and nothing makes sense. We feel we are losing our meaning.
This perspective could easily limit our view of God’s purpose to one dimension of our lives when God has a web of purposeful actions and interactions for each of us to engage in. This approach would also make very little sense to those unable to choose a vocation in the way that we are able. Our ability to choose from so many kinds of work is testament to our privilege in the contemporary Western world. Gender, race, social and financial status, and political, geographical, and religious constraints have limited the vocational options of millions in the past and continue to do so the world over, even in America.
Vocation as Story
Still another view of vocation is that of a single, yet multifaceted and individualized plan that God calls a believer to. Andi Ashworth describes calling as "a comprehensive picture of the unique path laid out for each of us, consisting of the particular things God has asked us—and sometimes no one else—to do.”(2) Your vocation is the story God is telling with your life. This view allows for a variety of kinds of work and relationships in a person’s life while maintaining that vocation is singular. And it’s not wrong—God does have a specific story for every life, and this view can feel more holistic initially. It’s not necessarily that different from Luther’s view. The difference is more a matter of nuance.
Comparing Three Views
The Story approach would be like saying that vocation is the comprehensive resume—or biography—of an entire life.
In contrast Luther’s view of vocation as Masks would see each bullet point on the resume as a separate vocation.
The middle view I mentioned of vocation as a Life’s Mission would see vocation as the dream job that the resume is ultimately hoping to secure.
So which of these is correct? All three are merely viewpoints or systems for understanding our work in the world. While based on biblical principles and observation, they are not clearly outlined in Scripture.
While each has its strengths, I have found Luther’s view of multiple vocations most practical and useful to me both in my teaching and in sorting out my own responsibilities, priorities, conflicts, gifts, and opportunities with regards to vocation up to this point in my life. This view makes love and service to others immediately practical and actionable.
Loving and Serving Now
I have my freshmen make a list of every vocation they currently have that they can think of: student, son or daughter, roommate, friend, brother or sister, boyfriend or girlfriend, employee, barista, citizen, church member, officer in a student organization, artist, athlete, coach. Each student outlines whom, specifically, they are to love and serve in each vocation and how, specifically, they can serve these people.
This is an activity that can be immediately implemented, even if the student has not settled on a major, let alone a life’s direction. Predicting the future is not necessary for specific acts of love and service now. Loving my neighbor as myself is a command for today in all interactions.
No crystal ball is needed to understand God’s will for me today.
Spending time to think through each of my various roles and asking God to help me imagine how I might love and serve others in my interactions and tasks allows me to walk through my days with purpose and with eyes and heart open to ways to love and serve others. It also helps me to think honestly about my priorities and how I’m using my time as I see my commitments to others listed all in one place.
Learning about Luther’s teachings on vocation freed me personally in two very specific ways: First, I realized I could do God’s work of loving and serving others in any true vocation, including art. Pleasing God and caring for others is not limited to the home or to church interactions. God desires to care for His creation and those made in His image through secular vocations as well. Second, I saw, for the first time, that having multiple vocations is the norm, not the exception.
Having many vocations can make many of us feel like we're being pulled in different directions. In my next blog post, I'll discuss the way that God unifies all our earthly vocations and gives us stability when these vocations change.
1. William C. Placher, Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 3.
2. Andi Ashworth, Real Love for Real Life: the Art and Work of Caring (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2002), 22.
Michelle Berg Radford is an artist and educator living in Greenville, SC. She holds an M.F.A. in Painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She began her studio practice as a landscape painter, but has recently been exploring the meaning behind motherhood and domestic spaces through her mixed media assemblages and collages. She lives with her husband, Paul, and three young children and is passionate about weaving together art and daily life. Michelle serves as Director of Programming at Leaf Institute.
Visit her website at www.michellebergradford.com.