Seeking a Vocation as a Reformed Christian

“Commit they works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established” (Prov. 16:3).

People work.  That’s a simple fact of life for most adults, and for many adolescents and teenagers as well.  Whether it’s in the home, in the field, on the worksite, in the office or elsewhere—people work.  In past generations the type of work—or vocation—that one performed had more to do with family history than choice.  If your father farmed, so did you.  If he ran a small shop or store in town, so did you.  And if he was a teacher or minister, it was more likely that you would find a similarly educated vocation that required more schooling than your fellow church members or others in the community.  Over the past century, however, the type of vocation one assumed after grade school or high school gradually became more about choice and abilities rather than family history.  While this shift in vocational determination enabled individuals to find more than just a “job” in life, it also placed a greater responsibility on the individual to choose wisely when considering what would be his life’s calling.

Today we find ourselves in a time and place where nearly any vocation is possible for an individual with the God-given talents and desire to pursue it.  It is less common now for high school graduates to question whether they should go to college than what they should go to college to learn.  Given the myriad of educational choices that students are faced with today, it is not surprising that many—perhaps most—of them end up in a career that is altogether different from what they had intended back in high school.  This was certainly true for me, and is no doubt true for other readers who find themselves on the other side of college education or vocational training.  In hindsight, I can also say that I wish I had been more deliberate in the choice of my career.  While I can see the handiwork of our heavenly Father guiding me through my educational and vocational path in life, I now also see that the choices I made on that pathway—though sovereignly guided by God—were not always made from the correct perspective.

So what is the “correct perspective” on vocation? And if one can determine what that perspective should be, how does it help in finding the right vocational path in life? These are questions that every high school and college student should be asking as he or she thinks about adult life.  For readers who have only just started high school, perhaps these questions seem to be about something that is very far away.  But as any high school senior or college student can tell you, four years is a remarkably short time.  Before you know it, you will be making critically important decisions about your future.  And before you reach these big decisions, each and every one of you should be thinking about what God would have you to do with your life.  If you have not already begun to do so, I would like to encourage you by pointing to a number of Biblical principles that will help you to understand why choosing a vocation is so important and how to go about doing exactly that in a deliberate, God-centered way.

The importance of vocation in the service of God

When God created Adam and put him in the garden, He immediately gave Adam a vocation, which was to cultivate and develop the Garden of Eden.  Even though the creation God made was perfect, he created Adam to work. The work God gave Adam was to create culture.  By culture we refer to any of man’s work with creation using his mind or body.  The Bible passage that particularly speaks to this idea is Genesis 1:26–31, which is commonly referred to as the cultural mandate.  In this mandate God called the human race—represented by Adam—to develop the creation he had made.  All of the physical creation was put under the authority of Adam so that he could shape and mold its contents for the purpose of glorifying God.

The fact that Adam’s calling to work in the Garden was a call to worship God is emphasized by the word “culture,” which we use to describe God’s command in Genesis 1:28.  The word is derived from the Latin root “colere”, which carries two meanings in its original form.  The first meaning is “to cultivate”, which makes sense in the respect that Adam was called to cultivate the creation God had made.  The second meaning of colere is “to worship”, which is less obvious unless we consider that the purpose of everything we do—including our work—is to glorify God.

That “cultivation” and “worship” would be wrapped into a single word may be strange to us, but this was a common theme in the ancient world. Consider, for example, the many religions of the heathen nations surrounding Old Testament Israel, and the names of their many gods quickly come to mind.  Names like Baal, Asherah, Dagon and Aphrodite are familiar, but what you may not realize about these idol gods is that all of them were deities of fertility.  They were specifically worshiped because they were expected to bless the work of cultivation, which was the central vocation in the ancient world. The work of cultivating and worship of the gods served the same basic purpose, which was to bring fertility to the hills and valleys of the ancient world.

In the modern world we now have a much broader array of vocations available, and have mostly lost the connection between work and worship.  But this theme is important if we are to understand the purpose of our work.   When we work, we are not just earning a living or doing something we find enjoyable.  Rather, we are developing the creation that God entrusted to us in the beginning.  This development of creation—which we call culture—is meant to glorify God, and as such our work is in its own way a form of worshipping the Creator.

Seeking the right vocation and calling

When we ask what kind of vocation is appropriate for the redeemed believer to consider, we are really asking what kind of culture we should be engaged in.  This is a difficult question today, as the word culture has been largely twisted to refer to things that please man rather than God.  As a result, our tendency is to associate culture with the ungodly music, literature, drama and entertainment of the world around us.  But if we properly understand culture to mean the cultivation of creation in any way, we can see that this concept really includes any and all callings, and not just those associated with arts and entertainment.  With this understanding in mind, it is possible to ask what kinds of vocation and culture are open to the redeemed believer.

The answer to this important question is that all kinds of vocations are open to and appropriate for Christians.  A strong Biblical foundation for this position is clearly developed in Prof. David Englesma’s article The Reformed Worldview on Behalf of a Godly Culture (PR Theological Journal, April 2005).  In this article Prof. Englesma lays out the importance of Reformed Christians developing Godly culture in every sphere of life and in every vocation.  Two points from this article are especially worth mentioning.

The first and most important point is that all spheres of culture are acceptable for believers because the creation we are developing was created good.  I Timothy 4:4 provides Biblical proof for this idea: “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it is received with thanksgiving.”  From this text we find that the evil of ungodly culture is not in the creation itself, but in how the creation has been developed by humans.  For example, the development of music is a kind of culture, but music can be used for God-glorifying culture or for ungodly culture.  There is an appropriate vocation for Christians in music, even though this sphere of culture can be used to blaspheme God as well.

The second point that Prof. Engelsma develops in his article helps us to discern better when a specific vocation within a given sphere of culture is acceptable for a Christian.  He contends that our choice of vocation is limited specifically by the covenantal nature of the cultural mandate.  What Prof. Engelsma intends by use of the word covenantal is to remind us that God gave the physical creation to mankind for use and development with the one purpose of bringing glory to his name.  Any vocation that is unable to bring glory to God is therefore inappropriate.  This concept can be expanded to include professions that bring the believer into conflict with other aspects of God’s law, such as Sabbath observance or the command to be joined to a faithful body of believers for worship.  Vocations that are at odds with these and other commands of Scripture, though perhaps not improper by themselves, should be avoided by the believer.

It is here that each and every student preparing for a specific vocation should pause to consider whether and how that vocation can glorify God. I challenge students to spend time meditating on God’s word and in prayer to discern how they will honor God in their profession.  This type of consideration benefits from the insight and wisdom that comes with age, so I also encourage students to discuss this matter with their parents and other adults, particularly those who might already serve in the profession they aspire to.  By searching out the wisdom of Scripture and other believers, Christian young people will not only be able to find out what they are called to do as a vocation, but also to determine how they will use that specific vocation in God’s service to his glory.

The practical benefits of seeking God’s calling in your vocation

When honoring God becomes the central concern in choosing a vocation, it is inevitable that the believer will seek out ways to mold the creation into a fitting anthem of praise to its Creator.  This is not, however, the only way in which following the divine calling to work serves God.  Part of following a calling also involves developing the talents one has been given in the service of that calling.  Even more importantly, Scripture makes clear that the main reason for which God has given us gifts is “the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:7–12).  And as the parable of the talents reminds us, these gifts are given to be used and developed in service of our Lord, not simply held onto as our own possession (Matthew 25:14–30).

In some vocations, service to the body of Christ is a direct and singular calling.  Vocations such as the gospel ministry, teaching, and serving as a mother in the home are specifically mandated by God to maintain and nurture the body of Christ; therefore the talents used in these vocations obviously serve that purpose.  At the same time, however, many of the talents or skills that one may develop in a secular profession can also be used in service of the church.  For example, leadership skills developed in the business world are often useful for office bearers, and writing skills developed in a career such as journalism may be of great profit to the church when put to use in the various print materials published for evangelism and education.  With careful consideration it becomes clear that nearly all professional skills—writing, speaking, organizing and leading, to name a few—are of great use in service of the body of Christ.

Involvement of Reformed Christians in all spheres of culture and society also provides an important voice in the events and decisions that shape our world.  While we should never fall for the illusion that our labors will create an earthly kingdom for Christ, we may—and should—nonetheless provide a voice of Godly wisdom in directing policies that have an impact on the church.  In this aspect a vocation in government or law may well be one that can serve the body of Christ greatly.  Even when the voice of Biblical wisdom is not heeded, involvement of Reformed Christians in these spheres serves to issue God’s own warning against using his creation for something other than his glory.

Another practical benefit gained from the involvement of believers in different vocational spheres is that they gain the knowledge and insights required to offer informed answers to ethical and moral questions that often arise in our modern world.  I Chronicles 12:32 speaks of such men in Old Testament Israel—the children of Issachar—who were able capably to lead their brethren because of their “understanding of the times.”  While these insights into the times may certainly be of benefit in many different spheres of culture, they are especially important in the spheres of science, technology and medicine.  It is nearly impossible for Reformed believers to know whether a given technology or treatment is appropriate to use if they don’t understand what these technologies are and how they work.  A good example of this is the confusion regarding stem cells and reproductive technologies used in modern medicine.  Involvement of Reformed believers in the spheres of science and medicine can provide a resource for others to understand and discern the use of these technologies appropriately.

In summary, there is much to consider in choosing a vocation.  But when we keep in mind the purpose of work—to glorify God—this choice becomes a cause for joy and excitement, not anxiety, for the believer.  God has shaped and equipped every one of his children for a specific calling in this world, and finding this calling according to his will should be foremost on the mind of young people.  As you go forward, be deliberate in considering how your vocation can be used as “reasonable service” to God (Romans 12:1).  Think about how your gifts and talents can be developed for service of the body of Christ, and how you will create Godly culture with these skills.  Following God’s will in your vocational calling will provide a lifetime of fulfillment, contentment, and peace that will make your forty plus years of work life much more enjoyable.

In upcoming issues, Lord willing, examples of how various Reformed believers view and use their different vocations as service to God will be considered in greater depth.  Are you interested in science or medicine, in business or finance, in the skilled trades or the field of computers, or in any other of the many available spheres of labor?  Keep an eye out for Reformed perspectives on these (and more) vocations for the believer.