“Mission without spiritual formation and virtue is impossible. But spiritual formation without mission is solipsistic.” – Greg Thompson, heard by author
In my last post I suggested that vocation is God’s invitation for us to join Him in His mission of restoring the world’s ecology of shalom by using our gifts, talents, credentials, resources, and opportunities to make culture that is rightly ordered by love of God and love of neighbor. If this is the case, how then should we think of our distinct callings as scholars and professionals? What are the implications of such an understanding of vocation for our spiritual formation and for our life together in community?
The Call of Christ
“Follow me.” With these two simple words Jesus turned the worlds of Peter, Andrew, James and John upside down. Jesus called them away from the life that they knew in order to be apprenticed into a new Way, a new Truth, a new Life. He extended this call to Matthew the tax collector, to a rich young ruler, and to many, many more. Some followed. Some didn’t.
He extends this call to follow Him to us today, as well. Following Jesus was not fundamentally about traipsing about the desert paths of ancient Palestine. It was about being apprenticed in the way of Jesus, learning from His teaching, His character, His relationship with the Father, His interactions with others; the whole pattern of His life. Answering Jesus’s call to follow Him is fundamentally about imitating His pattern of life (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21) and abiding by His teachings. (cf. Matt. 28:19)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment,” Jesus taught. “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40, par.; cf. Matt 7:12; Matt 23:23; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8) He does not say to you or me, as Socrates did, “Know thyself.” Nor does He call us to “find ourselves.” On the contrary, He says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Instead, He calls us out of ourselves to love God and to love others. These twin commandments constitute both the burning center and the outer limit of Christ’s call upon our lives, of our vocations. First, a word about the outer limit.
Vocation as Concrete Responsibility
In their landmark exploration of modern Americans values, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a team of sociologists led by Robert Bellah at UC Berkeley analyze a central feature of the American psyche: Expressive individualism. Bellah et al define expressive individualism as follows:
Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized. This core, though unique, is not necessarily alien to other persons or to nature. Under certain conditions, the expressive individualist may find it possible through intuitive feeling to “merge” with other persons, with nature, or with the cosmos as a whole.
Expressive individualism, in short, is the intuition that each of us is a unique snowflake and that our summum bonum is the unhindered expression of our unique snowy flakiness.
In discussions about vocation we evangelicals often like to quote this one line from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We love this line. It strikes a powerful chord within us. It is profoundly American. It caters precisely to our expressive individualist frame of reference. But taken alone without a great deal of qualification, this line communicates, at best, only a half-truth.
Taken by itself, this aphorism’s chirpy, romantic optimism fails to describe the reality of God’s calling upon our lives. The saying fails to account for Mother Theresa’s tireless labor on behalf of the poorest of the poor while for decades she herself privately endured the dark night of the soul. It fails to account for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reluctant return to Germany in the midst of the Second World War. It fails to account for people who lay aside their own aspirations in order to care for a disabled child or declining parents. It fails to account for spouses who stick it out through poverty, illness, and “irreconcilable differences.” And it fails to account for Jesus’s agonized, terrified prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. In short, it fails to account for callings that are hard: the callings nobody asks for, the callings you wouldn’t wish upon anyone. It is telling that a recurring motif in the Bible is that of the prophet who tries to escape his vocation. (e.g., Exod. 3:11; 4:1, 10; Jer. 1:6; 20:7ff; Jonah, etc.) These vocations were not sources of “deep gladness,” at least not at first.
Talk of “vocation” that makes no reference to our responsibility is likely just self-justifying, self-indulgent fantasy. In a world where roughly a billion people live in dire poverty,[i] where 20.9 million people are victims of human trafficking,[ii] where 800,000 commit suicide every year,[iii] and where ecological, social, political, and moral crises continue to mount, Christians must ask “What is our responsibility?” before asking “Where do I find my deep gladness?” Our true vocation comes to us not as God’s unqualified endorsement of our hopes and dreams, but as Jesus’s call to take up our crosses and to follow Him into God’s mission of self-sacrificial love to a hurting world.
In his book Ethics, which remained unfinished at his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued well that “Vocation is responsibility and responsibility is a total response of the whole man to the whole of reality….” Vocation, according to Bonhoeffer, looks outward at a fallen and fractured world, looking through the lens of Jesus Christ, who embodies God’s mission to heal, save, and redeem, and asks, ‘What can I do? What is my part in God’s mission to the world?’
Bonhoeffer hauntingly offers as an example the lynching of nine young black men in the American south. He raises (and leaves open) the question of what responsibility German Christians, living half a world away, bear in light of the oppression of African Americans in the United States. While he concedes that they are distant neighbors, he points out that they are neighbors nonetheless and, what’s more, in many cases Christian brothers and sisters. He asks, too, whether the Lutheran pastors of Germany could be said in any sense to have acted responsibly (i.e., to have been faithful to Christ’s calling) when they failed to stand up against the Nazis’ persecution of their Jewish neighbors.
Bonhoeffer does not offer easy answers to these haunting questions, but he makes one thing clear: One’s vocation is not discovered through a navel-gazing search for one’s “deep gladness.” Rather, Bonhoeffer argues, vocation is discovered by soberly assessing our concrete responsibility before Jesus Christ who bids us to take up our crosses and to follow Him in loving God above all else and loving our neighbors—especially our oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, sick, lost neighbors—as ourselves. At bottom, it just is not about us. As Bonhoeffer says, “…[It] is never in thinking of myself, but it is always in thinking of the call of Christ, that I shall be set free for genuine responsibility.”
Love: The Burning Center of Our Callings
Talk about “concrete responsibility” inevitably feels heavy and, for most of us, arouses feelings of guilt (or worse, self-righteous indignation). We typically only speak of “responsibility” when our love is too cool to get us out of bed in the morning. But Jesus does not command us to be merely responsible, He commands us to love. He wants us to be animated by more than a sense of duty, lest we become no more than clanging gongs and noisy cymbals. (1 Cor. 13:1) Responsible action, if it is not to devolve into poisonous self-righteousness, must be a means whereby we grow into the sort authentic Christian love that God wants to be the burning center of our callings.
In his Seventh Homily on the First Epistle of John, Saint Augustine boils the duty of the Christian down to one “short precept,” namely, “Love, and do what thou wilt.” He continues:
…[Whether] thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.
So long as rightly ordered love for God and for neighbor is the driving force in our actions, we shall not fail to fulfill our concrete responsibilities, that is to say, to live out our callings. On the other hand, if we consistently fail in our concrete responsibilities to God and neighbor (to say nothing of our responsibilities to our friends and families!), we can be sure that our loves are failing or are misplaced as well.
Fundamentally, Christ’s call is the call to join God’s mission. Answering His call entails endeavoring, with the help of the Spirit, to align our lives, our thinking, and our work with wholehearted love for God and sacrificial love for our global neighbors. It will inevitably involve us in the work of integrating our faith and our work, of being spiritually formed, and of bearing witness in word and deed to Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of God, the great missionary.
In my next post, we will explore how the vocatio Christi and the missio Dei bear upon life in the university in particular.
Where is God calling me to take up the cross in my vocation?
Oh Lord who carried our sin and suffering to Calvary, let us follow You. As You heal, transform, and renew, let us seek Your ways, even and especially when they mean sacrifice and suffering. And in that suffering let us find the power of Your resurrection, and the deep knowledge of You that makes us anew in Your image. Amen.
About the author:
David Williams serves part-time as an InterVarsity/Link staff on loan to the Oxford Pastorate, an independent evangelical chaplaincy that ministers to graduate students at the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford, writing on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s, John Henry Newman’s, and Abraham Kuyper’s divergent theologies of higher education and their potential applications to the modern research university. Before moving to England, David served for five years with InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty ministries at New York University. David resides in Oxford, England with his wife Alissa and son Charlie.