The theme of vocation speaks to the heart of the Christian worldview. According to the Bible, Christians are already citizens of heaven. Ephesians 2:6, for example, says we are seated with Christ in the heavenly realm, and Philippians 3:20 says, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet Christians are also citizens of the world, living in the material realm, the here and now.
How can Christians be true citizens of heaven and true citizens of the world at the same time? Presuming that we have decided not to merely live for ourselves, but to live for God, what does that mean operationally?
In what follows I would like to do two things. First, I will explain how vocation is a working out of our calling. Second, I will use some instances from history and my own experience as examples of how this working out occurs.
Vocation as Calling
“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter,” says Proverbs 25:2. In various places the Bible makes clear that Christians are, in a sense, kings. The apostle Peter said that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9). In his discourse “Christians a Chosen Generation, a Royal Priesthood, a Holy Nation, a Peculiar People,” the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards declares, “When Christians are called kings, the Scriptures include both what they actually have in this world, and what they have in a future state.” Thus, it is our glory as kings to search out what God conceals.
Our understandings of God and His intentions are not intended to be fixed and stagnant, but to be expanded. “But examine everything carefully,” Paul said, “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Neither Moses, nor the prophets, nor Jesus’ disciples, nor Jesus himself revealed to us once for all everything that we are someday expected to know. Instead, we are encouraged to seek these things out. We know more today about God and the world than people did in the days of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Newton, Faraday, or Maxwell. Fortunately, God is infinite. The difference between infinity and what we have learned will always be infinite. Working and learning more about God and His creation is both our privilege and our assignment.
Christians have already passed the key watershed of choosing not to be “conformed to this world” but to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). We want to know as much of God and His world as He reveals to us.
And this is about more than just gaining knowledge. The fact that Christians have work to do, and therefore have vocations, is to carry out our calling to love God with all our hearts and our fellow man as ourselves. Those who serve their fellow man by meeting others’ needs make life better for those with whom they interact.
In the economic realm, serving others is one means to earning income. A business that buys inputs, crafts them into something that meets others’ needs, and therefore sells to others something that is more valuable, earns profit. Similarly, those whose vocations expand our knowledge of science and technology serve their fellow man by making possible higher standards of living, life-saving products, and better technology.
With all of the opportunities and means we have today, it can be a daunting matter to discern which profession to pursue. Still, if God could grab Moses off a mountainside to place him in his new vocation after he had effectively abandoned Egypt, given up on his earlier life, and ceased searching, we can take a measure of assurance that He is capable in our case. While every life is different, it is helpful to consider examples from others who have gone before us.
Choosing a Vocation
Many Christians can point to a moment or thought that caused them to know their vocation. I recall one mathematics professor showing the class a particularly interesting phase diagram of a dynamic system, which had set him on his life’s course of studying differential equations. For each of us, it will be something different.
I became an economist based on the thought that should the opportunity arise, good advice that averted just one recession could justify the value of the economist’s entire lifetime of work. It was more than two decades later that I was reminded of this forgotten thought when I calculated that the social costs to the American economy of Class III gambling over a decade would be equivalent to the lost output of the 1991-92 recession.
Some might like simply to be given the answer to the question, “What does God want me to do?” My experience is that in most cases, the answer to this question is: He wants you to figure it out. But fortunately, you are not a sole operative. Jeremiah 33:3 says, “Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.”
The book of Nehemiah outlines a pattern. In prayer (“hear the prayer of your servant which I am praying before You now,” Neh 1:6) and in the line of duty (“Now I was cupbearer to the king. … I took up the wine and gave it to the king.” Neh 1:12-2:1), Nehemiah initiated action with guidance (“the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.” Neh 2:8).
My professional work on the economics of Class III gambling was undertaken to produce an unbiased cost-benefit review of gambling for use by legislators and policy makers. As time passed, it became clear that several theoretical issues also needed correction, such as establishing a valid framework for assessing and quantifying consistently the social benefits of a new industry, in this case gambling. My work has subsequently taken me to testify in nearly half the states in the U.S., Canada, Congress, and hundreds of other speaking engagements and radio and television interviews.
When I began my research, there was little prestige or career value involved in gambling research, but there was a need for unbiased input that was not promotional in nature and not provided by the industry itself. I have accepted no honoraria and treat effort on this topic as public service because I want to distinguish my work from work supported by the gambling industry.
My work began in a manner similar to Nehemiah’s. When off-track betting was proposed for the town where I lived over twenty years ago, I learned that the city council’s enthusiasm was based solely on information that the industry provided. The council had done no other research. Supporters had been told it would bring 125 jobs to town, but a net export multiplier model suggested the opposite: the off-track operation would lead to a drain on community revenues and a reduction in jobs. The council refused my offer to work with the city to produce independent information, but I did the research anyway because public decisions should be made based on facts. I published the results of my research in a newspaper commentary. This was noticed, led to another publication that was placed into the Senate record, which led to other requests, then an assessment by me that the issue needed further objective research. The rest came of its own.
Attempting to do what was right, and what seemed to be needed in this case, meant working on a small project that tackled the ethical dilemma of misinformation for which I had the skills. This was a project that easily could have been overlooked without the Christian duty of pursuing honesty and good work as a form of devotion to God.
Discerning God’s Will
Sometimes the way forward seems clear, at other times not. This is common to God’s people as recorded in the Bible and since. A more recent instructive example is that of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War.
Though not personally a supporter of slavery, Lee, a Christian, could not bring himself to raise his hand against his fellow countrymen when Virginia seceded. He accepted his military position out of his felt duty to others. Today, it is clear that Lee made a mistake by not correctly weighing the comparative importance of liberty for all relative to loyalty toward neighbors and country.
We find it hard to stand apart from positions that are popular in our communities. Psychologists tell us that humans are strongly social. The Bible, similarly, compares humans to sheep. Moreover, while elements of the Bible seem to acknowledge slavery as an institution, we know today that this is quite different from an endorsement of the African slave trade. Indeed, Christians basing their actions on better understanding of the Bible and God’s will led the anti-slavery movements in England, the US, and elsewhere.
Abraham Lincoln also observed and deduced to discern God’s will. Writing in September 1862, just before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote:
“The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. … I am almost ready to say this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”
After the battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862, Lincoln told his cabinet that he viewed the battle as a signal. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln saying, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied that it was right, was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results.” The vow referred to was Lincoln’s intent that he would issue the proclamation if God granted the Union a victory.
Lincoln observed. He applied logic to detect God’s will. He prayed, even including a vow about the action he felt was right for him to take in the sphere that his vocation placed him, and he waited for God’s confirmation.
Just as Nehemiah, Lee, and Lincoln tried to “search out the matter” in prayer and in the line of duty, pursuing their vocations in their time, so we do also. The Christian worldview implies that our calling in life and our vocations are the means to satisfying the two great commandments. We love God by carrying out His calling; we love others and serve them through our vocations; and we become better at both by searching out matters through observation and deduction, applying what we learn, and then initiating action, always with God’s guidance.
Earl L. Grinols teaches in the Robbins Institute for Health Policy and Leadership, Baylor University, where he is the Distinguished Professor of Economics. He has served as senior economist for the Council of Economic Advisors and is the author of Health Care for Us All (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits (Cambridge University Press 2004).