“The goal of work is not to gain wealth and possessions, but to serve the common good and bring glory to God.” Richard J. Foster
“…I’m a musician. I write songs. I just hope when the day is done, I’ve been able to tear a little corner off of the darkness…” Bono, U2
Calling/vocation is bigger than we are. Working for the common good (loving your neighbor) is a way to love God also.
“To give one’s office proper care is not selfishness. Devotion to office is devotion to love because it is by God’s own ordering that the work of the office is always dedicated to the well-being of one’s neighbor. Care for one’s office is, in its very frame of reference on earth, participation in God’s own care for human beings.”
“…we know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.”
BEGINNING WITH VISION
What is your vision for the world and how does your work contribute to it? Author and professor, Steven Garber, says that we need a sense of accountability and responsibility for the knowledge we have and how it is used, i.e., how we will affect history by the goods and services we create.
“But it is also true that whether our vocations are as butchers, bakers or candlestick makers–or people drawn into the worlds of business or law, agriculture or education, architecture or construction, journalism or international development, health care or the arts–in our own ways we are responsible, for love’s sake, for the way the world is and ought to be. We are called to be common grace for the common good.”
As you consider your own answer to the question– what is your vision for the world and how does your work contribute to it? –hear a few stories of some ordinary people who are seeking to live out their vocation faithfully and see themselves as contributing to the good of all.
Meet Mfon, a first-year PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering. She has a passion for public health and feels called by God to pursue a doctorate to help with the world’s water crisis. “By helping to provide clean water, we can improve society as a whole.” Climate change is a complex problem that is affecting people around the globe. By studying the effects of climate change on source (drinking) water at the local level, Mfon believes we can take steps to help low-income rural communities improve infrastructure to provide the healthiest drinking water. This knowledge can directly impact communities in third world counties.
Abby has a Masters in Collaborative Piano. She views music as a way to bless people. “Music is something we all have in common. God gave us the ability to create, hear and appreciate music. God uses music to touch people and bring healing.” Music is her unique way to express her God-given creativity and like Bono “to tear a little corner off of the darkness”.
Dr. Michael D. Smith is a professor of Information, Technology and Marketing at Carnegie Mellon University. He has won several research and teaching awards in his career, is open about being a believer in Jesus Christ, and recently participated in a “Professors Who Believe” event. Dr. Smith is very public about his faith in the introduction of each new class. Because he grounds his identity in Christ and not in his career, he has the freedom to tell each class of students, “I’m here as your servant. I want to know how I can help you succeed, not how you can help me to succeed.” He wants students to see they are created for amazing things.
His primary field of research “uses economic and statistical techniques to analyze firm and consumer behavior in online markets—specifically markets for digital information and digital media products”. His opportunity to “tear off a corner of the darkness” looks different than what Abby or Mfon do.
It was through his research on data piracy that he met the former CEO of 20th Century Fox, also a Christ-follower. He asked Mike if the same research methods could be used to mine data from websites to detect and stop human sex trafficking activity, through shutting down sites that advertise using images of children. Mike was all in from the beginning.
During an interview with me, Mike explained that according to a September 2019 NY Times article, (warning: some details are disturbing to read), there are approximately 18.4 million reports per year of missing and exploited children and 45 million images and videos on the internet of child sexual abuse and explicit imagery! The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the FBI are overrun with cases and can only concentrate on victims who are 6 years old and younger! Tech companies, search engines, and social media platforms, are all places where these disturbing images have been found.
Developing algorithms to detect potential threats and using artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition would allow authorities to match images on the internet with those in the database of missing and exploited children. This data could be used to facilitate the rescue of children and prosecution of perpetrators.
This seems like a helpful and straightforward solution, but with all the concerns about protecting the privacy of users, it presents a huge dilemma. While technology such as “end to end encryption” may protect the privacy of everyday citizen users, it also “protects” the anonymity of pedophiles and others who intend harm to children or others, allowing them to continue operating invisibly to law enforcement and internet oversight.
There is sometimes a cost in working for the common good. While Mike and his grad student continue their research to develop algorithms to penetrate design systems to detect exploitive activity, “consensual activity” advocacy groups have been critical of their work. In the fall of 2019, Mike arranged for a speaker to come to campus to explain the background of this research and the ethical issues involved. An advocacy group that protects the rights of those who work in the sex industry, protested and demanded the speaker be disinvited. Posters were torn down or defaced. In the end, the university supported the right to have the speaker come to campus, but it underscores the complex nature of the issues.
This is not just a technology/data science problem, but an ethics problem and a legal problem as well. Mike has been utilizing his research and influence to inform senators to pass legislation that can protect vulnerable children from being exploited using the internet.
As you can see from these brief stories, there are a myriad of ways we can view our work as service to the common good. “Why we do what we do” is rooted in our Christian notion of vocation–– it’s something that goes well beyond the profit motive of private enterprise.
WHEN THINGS DON’T GO AS WE’D PLANNED
And yet, it may not always look like we think it should…Most of us were brought up to believe we could do anything if we tried long enough and worked hard enough (under the right professor). But what if life isn’t turning out the way we planned, with respect to our academic calling and aspirations? Or what if it feels like there is so much more that could be done? Rather than living in discontentment or in the comparison trap, we can learn that our circumstances and efforts to live out our calling will be proximate, not perfect. “It is in making peace with the proximate that we can find a way to live, to keep on keeping on with gladness and singleness of heart, yearning as we do for the hurts to be healed, for the wrongs to be righted.” 
Wendell Berry wrote, “The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, …but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks’.”
It means we don’t live in regret over what didn’t happen, but say, “it’s OK that I did not turn out to be the next Nobel prize winner.” It’s not settling for mediocrity or giving up but coming to terms with reality and knowing it is enough. At the end of our lives, God will not ask you “why weren’t you more like Einstein (or whoever is esteemed in your field)?” He’s going to wonder “why didn’t you want to be you and follow the path I set out for you?”
Clayton Rothwell is one such person. Clayton met Jesus during his freshman year in college. He began asking “what can I contribute to help better people and society?” He realized he was an intellectual at heart and that God could use his curious mind for research and as a professor at a research-driven university to reach both students and faculty with the Gospel. He was totally committed to this goal. He spent the next twelve years preparing for that role by getting a master’s degree at a seminary before embarking on a combined Master’s/ PhD in psychology. Along the way he got married and started a family. At times, his wife was the primary breadwinner and main parent while he pursued his studies toward the end-goal they both felt God had marked out for him.
Shortly after graduation he landed a job at a major university.
“It was unusual to get this offer right after graduation without a post-doc and it seemed like a perfect realization of the calling we’d been working towards since 2006. Shortly into the job, I began to sense some problems. Investigating only revealed deeper and more concerning issues. There were structural, procedural and cultural issues in my immediate work environment and in the college which I was struggling to navigate. After 6 months, I felt completely embattled. Every day I would come home stressed out. I had used up all my patience for the day and had none left over for my young kids and was too distracted to be much of a partner or friend to my wife. Furthermore, my ambitions to connect with students and build relationships to give advice and share Jesus were unrealized because of the demands on my schedule. Even though I was right there on campus, surrounded by thousands of students, I actually rarely interacted with them.
So how could this be? How was it that the calling I had, which led me to push through and complete the PhD, to move my whole family, and this job God had provided, be such a disaster? How could I be so miserable? I wrestled with this and sought counsel from godly people. What I realized is that I had two things which I had conflated to one. I had conflated my calling and my job. The calling was the overall goal to reach intellectuals in academia, the job was faculty member. There are a lot of ways to reach intellectuals in academia while not a faculty member. What prompted me to see this and eventually see it clearly is that I had other callings and responsibilities, God-given responsibilities, as husband and father, that I was not meeting with the demands of this job.”
So, for the sake of these other callings, he left his position and took a job doing research and development on human-centered artificial intelligence with a government contracting company. Clayton now happily volunteers with the local Christian Graduate Fellowship and can interact with and minister to graduate students.
We are called to live faithfully in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. “That is what matters most in life, for all of us. The long obedience in the same direction. Keeping at it. Finding honest happiness in living within the contour of our choices.” I would add, believing with the psalmist “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.”
- Can you identify with any of the examples in this module/ chapter?
- How do you see your work as service for the common good?
- Could your choice of research topics make a difference in the world?
- How can you use your studies or work at the university to serve others?
- How does God want to use your expertise to “tear a little corner off of the darkness”?
- Are you in circumstances that you need to “re-frame” to “make peace with the proximate”?
- Pray the Collect For Vocation in Daily Work
(Praying this prayer or something similar each day can gradually shape you spiritually for God’s glory.)
Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
- Look around you and see the ways you are served by the work of others. Let that lead you to gratitude. How can you express that gratitude today?
 Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World, by Richard J. Foster, HarperOne: San Francisco, CA, 2005.
 Luther on Vocation, by Gustaf Wingren, Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, OR, 2004, p. 9.
 Commentary on Luke 10:38-42, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, by John Calvin, tr. by John King, [1847-50], https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc32/cc32025.htm, accessed 10/6/20.
 Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber, IVP: Downers Grove, IL, 2014, p.18.
 Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, Shoemaker & Hoard (or Counterpoint): Berkley, CA, 2004, pp. 112-113.
 Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber, IVP: Downers Grove, IL, 2014, p. 196.
 Psalm 16: 5-6, NIV
 The Book of Common Prayer, The Church Hymnal Corporation: New York, 1979, p. 261
Previous articles in this series:
Kathy McCready serves on InterVarsity staff with graduate and MBA students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. She has a passion to see people pursue their vocation fully integrated with their spiritual formation. One of her hobbies is to find local coffee shops wherever she travels.