vocation

Your Mission Is Tangled Up with Your Vocation

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In a recent post, we explored how work fits into the true story of the whole world.

Yet we cannot understand the conflict and resolution of the biblical drama without understanding the law. The Great Commandment is a wonderful summary of the law that contains two complementary axes. The first is vertical and highlights love of God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). We usually think about the vertical dimension of the law in terms of worship or relationship with God. Unfortunately, the vertical dimension seldom overlaps with the horizontal.

The second is horizontal and underscores love of neighbor: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). We tend to regard the horizontal dimension as relationships or social justice. And, unfortunately, we seldom connect these areas of life with the vertical dimension of the law.

An overemphasis on the vertical dimension of the law with little regard for the horizontal can be caricatured as zealous Christian fundamentalism. Overemphasis on the horizontal dimension to the detriment of the vertical can be caricatured as liberal social gospel. Both pursuits are essential to participating in God’s plan, but when one holds distinct priority over the other, it hinders our pursuit of the Great Commission. We most hold them together and in balance to be faithful to God in every area of our lives.

Throughout the history of the church, different Christian groups have favored the vertical or horizontal imperative of the Great Commandment. Generally speaking, theologically conservative Christians expend significant energy on loving God, and those who are more theologically liberal have historically focused on loving their neighbor.

The conservative Christian’s faith is characterized by spiritual formation activities that focus on personal holiness, like Scripture memorization, daily devotions, prayer, fasting, solitude and personal worship. When spiritually oriented believers look outward to engage the culture, their efforts are often evangelistic in scope, and their chief aim is to verbally proclaim the gospel — and so it is on the job-site. Vertically oriented Christians strive to cultivate deep personal communion with God, and the desire the same for their coworkers. Consequently, their efforts are aimed at enabling their coworkers to participate in “things above.”

In contrast, liberal Christians tend to see their mission as reaching out to their neighbors, to bring to earth the peace that characterizes God’s future kingdom. As a result, their expressions of following Christ include pursuing liberation for the oppressed, ending classism and eliminating hunger, to name a few. Horizontally oriented believers often seek to use their jobs to pursue admirable goals; however, if their efforts are divorced from the God whose Spirit grants transformative power, they become simply another humanitarian endeavor.

Looking to Christ as our example, we see the vertical and horizontal planes of the Christian life modeled beautifully; he demonstrated social concern and evangelistic passion. Despite the popularity of Matthew’s Great Commission narrative, John’s account holds both dimensions of a cruciform life in tension in semiveiled language. John 20:21 reads: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.'” Christ’s challenge to his followers is to live a life modeled after him as he faithfully embodied the character of the Father, who sent him.

Jesus demonstrated social concern and evangelistic passion.

Contrary to popular understanding, every believer’s restorative mission is the whole story of Scripture itself. We must give our attention to the entire biblical story to understand our mission in light of it.[1]

Our mission is tangled up in our vocation — not without careers, salaries, or 401(k) plans. The vocations to which we are called fit meaningfully somewhere into the arc of God’s story.

The biblical narrative includes far more than the eradication of our sin problem and individual spirituality; is about God’s reign, rebellion from his rule, and creation regained for his glory.[2] Since we have defined work as what people do with creation, our vocation is an avenue to demonstrate Christ’s rule now until it comes fully in his kingdom. Let’s explore the biblical drama to better understand the role of our work in God’s plan.

Work and Redemption

Christ-followers living between Christ’s first and second coming have experienced the restorative fruit of the resurrection in our salvation, and we have been commissioned to both proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom that is to come. The words and deeds of God’s people function as signposts or precursors to the reality of Christ’s reign in the midst of a world that groans for redemption — and our work is essential to this testimony. In essence, the Christian’s work, through his or her vocation, should be a seed of redemption that will bloom in God’s forever kingdom.

Vertically oriented Christians operate with the working assumption that having a job affords them relational opportunities to serve their neighbors. The underlying principle here is that taking part in God’s mission is entirely separate from their job description, and work is, at best, a setting for relationships in which they can proclaim the gospel. To take it a step further, cultivating creation as a witness to God’s sustaining hand in the world is just as essential to our work for the sake of honoring God and serving our neighbor.

Take every opportunity to demonstrate the full scope of the good news, especially at work.

To illustrate how image-bearers emulate God’s restorative work in creation, Robert J. Banks offers descriptions of six divine activities and pairs them with contemporary vocations in which God’s people work as Christ’s sustaining hand in creation.[3] First, Banks highlights God’s saving and reconciling character and equates it with the work of evangelists, pastors, and counselors who mirror this divine activity, thus offering a glimpse of God’s passion for reconciliation and hope for the future. Filmmakers, artists, songwriters and storytellers can also incorporate messages and symbols into their work that focus our gaze on God the reconciler.

We witness God’s creative genius in his fashioning of the physical world in which we live. Those who work as construction workers, painters and interior designers display craftsmanship that reflects divine creativity and beauty. Furthermore, God’s providential work of sustaining and ordering creation is captured by a set of vocations. Work that maintains order — like public policy, building inspection and wildlife preservation — participates in the sustaining ministry of God in creation (Colossians 1:17).

Justice is essential to God’s character, and judges, lawyers, paralegals, government regulators, law enforcement officers and other types of advocates work to bring t about the justice and peace that characterizes God and his kingdom (Deuteronomy 32:4; Job 37:23; Psalm 89:14). Doctors, paramedics, social workers, and counselors are God’s instruments in bringing compassion and healing to those in need (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8). Through the Holy Spirit, God enlightens people to truth (1 Corinthians 2:10-11), and teachers, writers, pastors and journalists take part in this divine work as well.

Conclusion

Each day we have openings to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Take every opportunity to demonstrate the full scope of the good news, especially where you spend most of your time working. If we fail to do so in the majority of our lives, it’s reasonable to conclude we have failed to understand what it means to integrate the gospel fully into our lives to any meaningful extent. Christ-followers are new creations, and we are simultaneously aware of sin’s grip on creation and the overcoming power of God’s redemptive plan. Christians — those inwardly transformed by the gospel — are equipped by the Spirit to proclaim and demonstrate God’s desire to reclaim his pre-fall relationship with humanity and to extend his love to their neighbors in their work.

This post is a modified excerpt from Every Waking Hour. Learn more>>

[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 39.

[2] Wright, The Mission of God’s People, 40.

[3] Robert J. Banks, Faith Goes to Work: Reflections from the Marketplace (Eugene, Wiph and Stock, 1999). My summary of the divine characteristics listed in Bank’s work is influenced by Amy Sherman’s interpretation of them in her book Kingdom Calling (103-04).

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Walter R. Strickland II

Dr. Strickland is Associate Vice President for Kingdom Diversity. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Systematic and Contextual Theology. He is the co-author of Every Waking Hour.

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