No Job Is a Calling (and 4 Reasons That’s Good News)
Few things in life are as frustrating as a terrible job.
Daily life, at least Monday to Friday, is roughly divided up into thirds: sleep, work, and leisure. For one third of that time—sleep—we are insensible. Which means that, for people in bad jobs, exactly one half of their waking day operates as a negative drag on their quality of life. It’s hard to feel good about life when half of it makes you feel bad about being alive.
This difficulty is compounded by two things. One is that we know that not everyone hates their job. Some people seem to have jobs that fill them with great joy and satisfaction, people who seem to have lucked into the fulfillment of that old adage “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Hmmph.
The other is that there floats in Christian circles this idea of “calling”—a sense that there are certain jobs or fields of work that God has set you apart for, purposed you for, “called” you into. The idea is that, to have a satisfying vocational life, one must first discover his or her unique calling, and then pursue it. Without either that knowledge of calling or the successful pursuit of it, one’s job will always be an impoverishing experience, a drain on spiritual joy and vitality.
Taken together, both of those ideas can be a great discouragement to those struggling in unfulfilling jobs. If a job is supposed to intrinsically satisfy me and I'm not experiencing that, what am I doing wrong? If everyone has a vocation they're called to and I'm not experiencing that, am I living at less than God’s best for me?
Job, Work, and Calling
My perception is that popular Christian rhetoric on vocation has often been shaped by upper- and middle-class cultural values such as “fulfillment,” “satisfaction,” and “passion,” as opposed to biblical reality. To paraphrase one writer (the name escapes me, but the thought is not original to me), “Would anyone who works on a factory floor feel comfortable at our ‘theology of work’ conferences?”
There is much that is useful elsewhere regarding a theology of work. I encourage you to find it and absorb it. Here, I just want to try to make a distinction that I hope will help you think about this more deeply: a distinction between your “job,” your “work,” and your “calling.”
A job is the name of the thing that you do for money, in order to earn the means to stay alive and provide for yourself and/or your family. It is the thing that the apostle Paul commanded all the believers in Thessalonica to have so that they could eat their own meals and not have to mooch food (1 Thess 4:11-12; 2 Thess 3:10).
What a job is, what it does, what one does in it, whether one likes it or hates it, whether one makes lots of money or no money at all, is (from our earthly perspective) incidental. Some people will be born wealthy, go to Harvard, and become pediatricians because they have every avenue open to them and love every second of it. Some people will be born in rural China and be subsistence farmers because they have no choice and simply work hard at a difficult job forever. Whose life gets what job is in every way a product of cosmic providence. Your sphere of vocation is mysteriously, providentially God-assigned and God-managed, yes (2 Cor 10:13), but from our perspective, mostly circumstantial.
Work, on the other hand, is something else. A good starting definition might be theoutward exertion of cultivating energy on creation. Work is a God-ordained, good part of creation (Gen 2) that was marred by the Fall and subsequent curse and made difficult and sometimes painful (Gen 3). It is the thing of which Paul can say:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Col 3:23-24)
Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. (Rom 12:11 NLT)
Furthermore, your “calling” might be best summarized in Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 1:9:
For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.
Note the distinction in the Colossians passage, with my parentheses: “Whatever you do (job), work at it (work) . . .” “Job” is a narrower category of naming (what we call our employment), while “work” is a larger category of activity which both includes our job, but is not limited to only our job. Expressed more poetically: your job is a bucket; work is the water.
Note also what we are called to in the 2 Timothy verse: not a unique, special, personal vocation which God has tasked you to identify, but the general, everyday life of a normal Christian disciple in your individual circumstances.
Why Is That Better?
I make this distinction in order to bear out this truth as clearly as possible: your calling is something fully independent of, and fully distinct from, your job situation, and that knowledge is a life-giving wellspring of glorious freedom.
You are freed by that truth in these four ways:
You can know, with 100 percent clarity, what God’s will is for your life in your job because Scripture tells you: to work hard because God sees it and is glorified by it, and to be an obedient and faithful disciple while employed (etc.).
You do not have to worry about being outside God’s favor/will for your life because you want to do something else for your job and you currently are not. If you are passionate about X, go do X. If you love Y, try to do Y. If you just hate your job but don’t know what else to do, join the club. The quality of one’s job does not define the conformity of one’s life to God’s will for you.
You are freed from worry that you are wasting your life because you are not doing something that you feel “called” to. God has called you to be a disciple. He has givenyou a job. He will never un-call you to follow him. He may, or may not, someday give you a different job to do. The distinction is a crucial one.
You do not have to worry about the amount of success you have in making lots of money or achieving an important vocational status. Your calling as a follower of Christ, and identity as a child of God, is utterly independent of any job “success” or failure to achieve vocational “achievement.”
It may be true that for some of you, a career change is indeed necessary. You are a bad fit in your position. You are not inherently skilled for it. Your passions lie elsewhere. These are all reasonable things, and you are entitled to pursue better work, to pursue something different, to follow your passion if you like.
But hear this: we are not entitled to success in those new areas simply because we feel more “called” to them. Nor are we entitled to disparage the job God has given us because it seems like less than we should have received.
A job is a job. It is a thing you do while you are alive on earth. If by God’s grace you find yourself in a job that you enjoy, savor it and give praise to God for what it is: a gift to you.
If you do not enjoy it, that is understandable because many jobs are awful. Give praise for it as a gift also, and enjoy and savor God elsewhere.
In either case, remember that your calling is not for a specific job but for a specific purpose—God’s mission—and for a specific person—God himself.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.