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Gifts, vocation and work

Sunday, 27 August 2017  | Ian Hore-Lacy

An essential outworking of Christian faith is utilising the gifts God has given us to fulfill His purposes in the world – not only through church-related ministry, but also through our paid and unpaid work and other activities. As disciples, we need to perceive purpose, significance and real meaning in each day's activities throughout our lives. And we need to understand that work is a characteristic of God who is creator and is part of His commission to all of us. The Bible has much to say about work as a normal human activity and its purposes.

There is a much-recounted story of someone visiting a big cathedral construction project and talking with three workers who were shaping stones for it. When asked what they were doing, the first said that he was shaping a stone - his 20th for the day. The second said he was helping build a wall. The third said he was building a wonderful cathedral for the glory of God, and was excited by that. This is very relevant to how any of us sees our work. While any job has its boring aspects, overall we have the option of seeing only the details or looking past those to the goal and purpose of it all.

It is important to explore the need for work from a Christian perspective, along with its purposes, meaning, motivation and rewards. A Christian will have a clearer and richer perspective on work than anyone operating without a keen awareness of being part of God's kingdom. He or she needs to understand work in the context of God's purposes in restoring His creation and the individual's own calling in relation to that. Hence work hard, fight laziness, take responsibility, and serve others with joy. This should be exciting at best, and at the very least will always lift it out of the mundane!

At the same time, beware of looking for ultimate meaning in work, or complete fulfillment in anything but the God of the bible and Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. A Christian’s work fits wonderfully in that context, but is meaningless as a substitute for it, as enigmatically outlined in Ecclesiastes 2:17-26.

One aspect of God's guidance is discerning His calling for our lives (i.e. our vocation). This means understanding what He wants us to focus on and do with our time, energy, abilities, opportunities and money. St Paul refers to the sphere of service God has assigned to him (2 Cor 10:13). Discerning this relates very much to what He has endowed us with in gifts and opportunities - most of us are hopeless at far more things than we are good at! For each of us, that vocational calling needs to be distinguished from what is more appropriate to recreation.

In assessing vocational thrust, first look at what might be God’s view of a discipline (e.g. economics, law, music, building houses) and His purposes in and through it. One’s own potential vocational role in the light of one’s gifts then becomes clearer, if not obvious, and one can go about progressively increasing both skills and theological insight on that over years of biblical reflection and workplace experience.

The Bible does not talk directly about God providing gifts and callings for secular work. But the notion of any work being entirely secular is questionable - the New Testament teaches much about serving God faithfully wherever we are. Indeed, many Christians, especially professionals and creative people, feel called to the work they do and perceive in it a ministry from God. We all should see our work in this way if we understand the implications of sharing Jesus' resurrection life. The calling is both in terms of the Christian love and witness we can show to all whom we meet through this work, and also the way we can influence work and the operation of each workplace to be more congruent with God's purposes in His world. St Paul finishes off his great exposition to the Corinthian church of the significance of the resurrection with: ‘Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’ (1 Cor 15:58).

Christians need to think big and aim high in these regards. A classic and historically significant example is the ‘Clapham Sect’, which transformed the whole of British politics. In fact most social reform movements in history have spiritual foundations, notably those tackling slavery, suffrage, child labour and civil rights. All of these were built and driven by faithful believers who were passionately (but often also patiently) committed to embodying Christian values firmly in political and economic structures. In God's purposes they were clearly equipped and enabled to do that. Their legacy lives on very powerfully in politics and the whole economic sphere, albeit with diminishing awareness of its Christian origins.

It is entirely realistic to aim to be the best in the world in your vocation. Of course that may require your role to be defined fairly specifically or even narrowly, but the point remains: if you are called and equipped for a role, there should be no mediocrity in how you fulfill it. At the same time, defining your role specifically can help save you from pride: being the best footballer, surgeon or economist in specific settings and applications is less likely to involve a high profile, and this can help us move away from the classical Greek notion of high-profile virtue to a servant-motivated approach shaped by the Holy Sprit.

The broader public agenda today is more about fighting poverty and the ingrained corruption in many countries that perpetuates it. There is no lack of challenge for Christians here, but one needs a more specific vocational target than the big picture. Indignation about those wider dehumanising wrongs must feed into effective specific work to counter them in strategic, targeted ways. Wisdom is required.

Are gifts wider than ‘spiritual’ ones? Unless we take a narrow view of God's purposes in the world and about Christian vocation in it, not to mention His concern for seven billion people inhabiting planet Earth, our understanding of those gifts should not be limited to ‘spiritual’ ones. If God is not indifferent to the welfare of all people - as any reading of the bible would suggest - then what is our role in providing for that welfare, both through our paid work and in our unpaid time? Our prayer needs to canvass broader options than church or personal ministry to people, and take in elements of all that is happening in His world, since He is sovereign Lord of it all. The parable of the talents (Matt 25: 14-30) is germane: we need to invest our gifts, not just sit on them.

Generally we can expect gifts - both those given to each of us for building up the church, and those with wider application - to become evident by early adulthood and then be developed continually through the different stages of life. Mozart wrote some of his best music while a teenager. But we also need to be effectively open to the progressive recognition and development of further gifts. The Christian fellowship has a significant role to play in this, along with prayer partnerships and more particular personal relationships. We need to be alert to how each of us can more strongly affirm and encourage the development of gifts in one another.

Vocation or hobby? We need to try to distinguish interests that are more properly pursued as recreation or hobbies throughout life from those that are truly vocational, or we risk being diverted into trivial vocations and at the same time depriving ourselves of some absorbing future recreation. This is an individual matter - what is recreational for many people may be vocational for a few.

We also need to listen to the feedback from friends and colleagues on what they think are our strengths and gifts. What is our own blend of practical and planning skills: the ability to read cultural undercurrents; leading others; etc.?

As we go through the early years of life, we will make many contacts and friendships. It becomes increasingly impossible to maintain all of these, but building and maintaining a network is important for each of us vocationally, as well as providing opportunity to give and receive hospitality (which reinforces the network). One never knows which contact may later become significant in some aspect of personal growth, guidance, ministry (e.g. mentoring) or vocational endeavour. So, a little effort in maintaining a network of friends and contacts is a good investment, and works both ways.

Becoming a parent is an important vocation for many of us – it should not be simply an inexorable consequence of marriage, let alone an inconvenience arising from that, but a privilege and calling. It requires prior thought and discussion with our spouse as it will call for a major re-ordering of priorities regarding time and money, and often also regarding our paid work - usually more so for mothers than fathers. Young women may need to think ahead and consider seeking 'family-friendly' work roles so that motherhood does not displace other vocational priorities long-term. Shared responsibility and job sharing is workable and rewarding for some.

Along with the sense of being called to serve people as a doctor, accountant, plumber, business executive or whatever comes the need to develop a specifically Christian understanding of that personal vocation and the wider consideration of work, and where it fits into God's purposes in the world. Often, this will be congruent with a range of other activities, drawing on professional skills that may serve people without remuneration, including ministry in its narrower senses. An example of this is medical doctors who use vacation or retirement time to serve in third world situations.

Whatever your gifts, and wherever you find yourself exercising them, using them diligently and energetically is important spiritually to you, is significant to those you directly or indirectly serve, and matters to God. So don't hold back!

Ian Hore-Lacy is a founding Zadok board member (1978-98), author of Responsible Dominion - a Christian approach to sustainable development, and now Senior Research Analyst with World Nuclear Association. He is co-author of Down to Earth Discipleship, a pastoral ‘book’ on the web: www.downtoearthdiscipleship.com.

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