My guess is, the people who have big questions around vocation, faith, and work fall into two categories: people who assume they are in a job which isn’t meaningful and people who have no idea what their vocation is.
I want to start with making meaning out of work we often communicate as not meaningful because it uncovers some assumptions we need laid bare before we start talking about finding a vocation. Perhaps you aren’t really searching for a (new) vocation, you may just need help finding meaning in your current work.
One of the things I do at my job is make labels.
We keep a fairly large amount of inventory on hand and as we get it in, I make the labels for each of the products and attach them.
I hate it so much. It is the most mind-numbing yet time-consuming activity in the world.
I want to be above it. I am almost done with course-work for a Ph.D. for crying out loud.
But let’s back up for a second…
I work for my dad. He has been doing this job for over 30 years. He built this business because it is what he is really good at. So just by being here, I am supporting someone I love in doing something they are meant to do.
But in order for the business to run, we need people to buy things from us. (You’re impressed with how economically savvy I am, I know.) If someone is going to buy something from us, we need labeled parts. The labels are a function of the business, and for me they serve a larger purpose in supporting someone I love in doing something they were meant to do. Alongside this, I am given the luxury of pursuing my vocation and having time to read and write and go to school. We support each other’s vocation every day, even if it is something as simple as making labels.
So I can complain about how much I hate peeling, printing, and posting labels. Or I can see labels as an act of love. I can see labels as a bigger part of vocation and relationship, which are actually things God is deeply concerned about.
When we try to say that some work is more important than others, we leave out a lot of important work from the conversation of vocation. We are often told label making is not work that God cares about. But maybe we need to re-think that.
An important caveat: When I am talking about “label making” I am not suggesting some work is useful because it supports the more meaningful work. It is like accountants their work is important because they can give a lot of money to the church during tax season. That is not helpful and just another way of elevating some work over others.
I use labels as an example because I think there is all sorts of work out there we have been told or we tell ourselves isn’t important, and we need to learn to reclaim it as important, meaningful, and vital.
I am not an aspiring label maker, but organization, aesthetics, and keeping things ordered is important work. And whether I aspire to it or not, doing the work competently and well is an act of love and service, and participation in the life of God. Work is a way to love our neighbors, and our work reflects the work God does in the world.
Again, it comes back to how we see God.
When we narrow the activity of God to just a few things in the world, we miss so much of what God is inviting us to participate in. We need to see work and God’s work in much broader terms. We need to see how even the most ordinary events are still part of God’s work, not just the stuff we do at church, or the charitable acts we do, or sexy social justice work. These are all good things and ways you can participate in the work God is doing, but too often we limit ourselves to one of these three options.
Tim Keller has a pretty good list of the broad nature of God’s work, but don’t let the familiar, churchy wording fool you: God does creative work, redeeming work, justice work, compassionate (comfort, healing, guiding) work, providential (conserving, sustaining, replenishing) work, and revelatory (preachers, scientists, scholars) work.
Because some of the wording here threatens to throw us off course, let’s unpack them really quick.
God is creative. But for God, creation is not a one-time event, it is an ongoing process. New things are being birthed into the world every day. People and things which didn’t exist yesterday exist today. New life, ideas, technologies are continually moving the whole thing forward.
God’s redeeming work moves towards more justice, equity, peace, and reconciliation in the world. Redeeming work takes what is broken, repairs it or makes it new. God not only repairs what it is broken and fractured in the world, but comes alongside people and offers compassion, comfort, healing, guidance, and discernment.
Providence is usually a four-letter-word in my vocabulary, but I like what Keller means here. God does work to maintain what is good in the world. God brings order out of chaos and helps continually define and expand boundaries. God is concerned about organization, maintenance, and sustainability.
We discover new things every day, and Keller puts this down as revelatory work. As we discover new things about how human beings and the world work, as we study the Bible, theology, philosophy, education, and a host of other disciplines, we come to know a little bit more about God. Scientist and scholars are showing us more about God.
God’s work is quite broad and wide and God is asking us to find our own unique place in it. We are invited to create, redeem, heal, comfort, guide, maintain, order, sustain, and discover right alongside God. The reason we so narrowly define “Christian” work is because the ways we join God in most of these areas seems tedious, boring, and mundane. But they are part of how God designed the whole thing to work.
At its core, vocation is finding the unique ways we participate in the life of God. If we narrow what kind of work God has for us down to one or two special activities, we can miss the ways God has specifically and intentionally gifted us to participate in the work God is doing right in front of us.