Work vs. Vocation: What’s the Difference, and Why Does It Matter?

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If you take a quick glance at the title of our new book, you might think we’re unnecessarily repeating ourselves:

Every Waking Hour: An Introduction to Work and Vocation for Christians

“Work” and “vocation”? Aren’t they the same thing?

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, we define them differently.

Work is what creatures do with God’s creation.

Is that definition broad? Yes, but think about it: When I walked into my office this morning, did “work” happen when I flipped on the light switch, pulled out my laptop, answered the first email or sat down to start writing? We might say work began when I started doing something that pertained to my paycheck. But I’ve never received a paycheck for cutting my grass, and we can all agree that’s work.

So where does work take place? Wherever people interact with God’s world — whether planting bulbs or planting churches, raising children at home or driving to the office, writing a song or writing an amicus brief — it is all work.

Further, we understand work as inherently good. In Genesis 1-2, God gave work to Adam and Eve as part of their image-bearing opportunity and responsibility before sin entered into the picture. After the fall in Genesis 3, however, work neither stopped nor was rendered bad. Work remained good as God designed it, though it became difficult and painful and leaned away from God’s intended ends; via misdirection, it tends away from God’s original ends. Work now works against God’s creatures in many ways. In addition to our labor, then, we must attend to the toilsome task of redirecting all things back to God through our work — yes, all things!

Does it feel a bit overwhelming? Indeed it does, but in Christ and by the Spirit, we join God in restoring all things to him, things both seen and unseen, which injects meaning and purpose into everything we do, from coaching to dog-walking.

Vocation is the way or ways in which we make ourselves useful to others.

First, notice the term others in this definition. We were not created to live for self. We were created to live for others. The first “other” is God himself. This is why the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40) begins with “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” To begin any other way would be idolatry. But, as Jesus taught, the second is like the first; we are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” “Self” simply serves as the pivot point from which we direct our love and energy upward, then outward.

Second, consider the words way or ways from our definition. The first thing to notice is the plural, ways. Despite the grammar, “vocation” is not singular. Often when we hear the word “vocation” we immediately think of our place of employment, and indeed this is a vocation. But it isn’t the only one. “Vocation” simply means “calling,” and each of us inhabits multiple callings. For a Christian, the first and most important calling is to trust and obey Jesus. Through our union with him, we live out other callings in the arenas of family, church community, neighborhood, and occupation or place of employment. There may be more vocations for some, but likely not fewer.

Each of these arenas, then, is a vocation wherein we are called to love God and love others, though only one (for most people) provides a paycheck.

How Work and Vocation Intersect

Work is the hand that animates the glove of vocation. Picture a leather glove lying on your kitchen table. For it to be useful, you must slip your hand inside. But you can’t simply shove your hand into the glove however you choose; you must place each finger in the proper sleeve for the glove to be useful at all.

We should understand work and vocation as relating in a similar fashion. We are called to multiple arenas in life and, thus, to occupy multiple vocations. The proper way to work out our vocations is by always striving for the double love of God and neighbor. But these vocations do not exercise love for God and his world until we put on our vocational gloves and get to work.

To be sure, all work is vocational, but the doing of the work looks different in each vocation. Changing diapers at home is as much an exercise in double love of God and neighbor as is delivering meals on wheels, printing the bulletins at church, or spending extra time editing tomorrow’s sports column. Each is important and demands faithfulness.

This post is a modified excerpt from the new book, Every Waking Hour. Learn more>>

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Benjamin Quinn

Associate Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture

Dr. Quinn is an Associate Professor of Theology and History of Ideas. He also serves as the Associate Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. He is the author of Christ, the Way: Augustine's Theology of Wisdom (2022), Walking in God's Wisdom (2021), and the co-author of Every Waking Hour (2016).

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