Ordering Our Vocations

In my previous blog post, the second in this series on vocation, I wrote about how Luther’s view of vocations as “masks of God” frees us to serve in many ways, and to love and serve in the present. But the knowledge that we have many vocations can make us feel fragmented, pulled in too many directions. Understanding our primary calling—the call of God to Himself—unifies our lives and our purpose. If you haven’t read the first two blog posts in the series, you may want to read those first.

Towards Unity

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17, ESV

Remember that something can be a vocation or calling only if some other party calls you to do it, and you do it for their sake rather than for your own. Our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others. And that is exactly how the Bible teaches us to view work.(1)

At first blush, Luther seems to take us farther away from a holistic view of life. It’s all too easy to feel fragmented by so many roles, relationships, and vocations. Fragmentation characterizes modern life and modern man as he has lost sight of the One who unifies all things, who holds all things together. While the Roman Catholic Church distorted the concept of vocation to mean only estates in direct service of the church, Protestant views of vocation eventually gave way to the complete secularization of vocation, a view of vocation as no more than a job, a call without a Caller.

Yet without a Caller, we are in dangerous territory. How can I know I have chosen the right vocation(s)? How can I be sure what I even want out of life, let alone know if a particular vocation is a good fit for my gifts and abilities? What am I to do when my various vocations seem to conflict? Which ones deserve top priority? What if circumstances or people seem to be thwarting my vocation?

Knowing that the same God has called me to all my multiple vocations gives my life an integration point because they have a single Caller. I am not serving two masters, but one Lord who calls me to multiple kinds of work and relationships and responsibilities.

Primary Calling

As I studied God’s call in the Bible, I noticed that sometimes God’s call was one to salvation, and sometimes it was to specific work or a specific task. Os Guiness categorizes and clarifies these differences, and encourages us to see an even deeper unity in our various earthly vocations. He distinguishes between our primary calling and a secondary calling. 

Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).(2)

The primary call is the call to relationship, and to complete subordination to God’s will. It is a call to God Himself. Responding to the primary call is one of faith in Christ’s finished work, not in any work I can do. 

The Bible repeatedly uses the word “call” to speak of God’s drawing followers to himself into a relationship that shapes the rest of their lives.

Including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:6-7 ESV)

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (I Corinthians 1:2 ESV)

God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (I Corinthians 1:9 NIV)

We encouraged you and comforted you as we urged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory. (I Thessalonians 2:12 Berean Study Bible)

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. (I Corinthians 1:26 ESV)

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29 ESV)


Secondary Calling

If the primary call is to God Himself, secondary callings are callings in the direction of other people, tasks, roles, and relationships out of love for God. Secondary callings are those masks Luther talked about. Because I have responded to God’s call to himself, because I am now in a personal relationship with Him, I live in a certain way. I am on a path of obedience. And along that path of obedience, God calls me to love and serve through my secondary vocations.

Secondary callings, then, are an outworking of the primary call in the same way that “works” in the Bible are outworkings of “faith.” James makes the argument in the second chapter of his epistle that without works, faith is dead. Living faith invariably leads to action. The primary call leads to loving and obeying God through our secondary callings. Just as a body separated from spirit is dead, so faith separated from works is not a living faith. Secondary callings are the works God calls us to do as a manifestation or a result of our faith in Him. 
To quote Guiness again, 

Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history.(3)

Guiness stresses that we must never confuse secondary callings with the primary. Both must be present, but faith and works—primary and secondary callings—must be held in the proper order. “We must make sure,” Guiness writes, “that first things remain first and the primary calling always comes before the secondary calling.”(4) Earlier he says, “Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.”(5)

My primary calling is to the One who calls—to a relationship with the “infinite- personal God” as Francis Schaeffer called him.(6)⁠ My secondary callings are the avenues of love and service that God calls to me as I follow Him, as I walk God’s path of sanctification and service. God will glorify himself through my vocations as I obediently worship and serve through these secondary callings. 

When I forget my primary calling to relationship with God and focus my attention and affections on my secondary callings in place of God, when I make them into little gods, I am living in disorder. God charges Jeremiah the prophet with a stern warning for Israel who had forsaken Him:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13 ESV)

When I forsake the God from whom all meaning and joy and satisfaction flow, I cut myself off from the source of life. To expect purpose and significance and happiness to come from any vocation is to kneel to drink at a cracked water storage tank—unless it is constantly being refilled by another source, it will empty out and dry up, unable to quench thirst. Looking to my vocation—whether it is motherhood, art, teaching, or ministry—for my ultimate satisfaction and meaning is to forsake God, the fountain of living waters and drink at a broken cistern that can hold no water.

I believe that putting secondary callings before the primary call of God to be His own is one of the greatest ways Satan derails believers in their vocations. Is it any wonder that our secondary vocations grow stagnant, disappoint, and in the end cannot satisfy? When we turn these good gifts into idols, we forsake the God of the universe as the source of our joy.

Read the next post in this series here.

1. Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 66.
2. Guinness, Os. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group, 2003, 38-42.
3. Ibid., 31.
4. Ibid., 31.
5. Ibid., 31.
6. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian World View (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), 290.

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.

Brannon McAllister