by Hugh Welchel
When we are introduced to someone, what is one of the first questions we ask?
“What do you do?”
When we ask this question, what we really mean is, “What is your job?”
We define ourselves by our careers. Even most Christians find their identities in their vocations. Our work no longer serves God. It serves us.
In his article “Careerism and the Ethics of Autonomy: A Theological Response,” J.A. Donahue writes,
As a secular perversion of calling, careerism invites people to seek financial success, security, access to power and privilege, and the guarantee of leisure, satisfaction, and prestige.
Avoiding this “secular perversion of calling” is essential to integrating faith and work. Many Christians desire a deeper, more integrated approach to serving God in their work, but they struggle with how to do this. Understanding the difference between work and calling can help.
The Difference between Work and Calling
In an interview with Fast Company, Harvard Business School psychologist Timothy Butler offers the following advice about how vocation differs from career or job:
There are three words that tend to be used interchangeably—and shouldn’t be. They are “vocation,” career,” and “job.” Vocation is the most profound of the three, and it has to do with your calling. It’s what you’re doing in life that makes a difference for you, that builds meaning for you, that you can look back on in your later years to see the impact you’ve made in the world. A calling is something you have to listen for. You don’t hear it once and then immediately recognize it. You’ve got to attune yourself to the message.
Christians today have the same difficulty understanding the differences between vocation, career, and job. We also throw in the word “calling,” which further complicates things. Calling may or may not mean the same thing as vocation.
If we look at the origins of the words career and vocation, we immediately get a feel for the difference between them.
Vocation comes from the Latin verb vocare, which means “to call.” This explains why Butler equates vocation and calling. The definition suggests that a person listens for something which calls out to him. The calling is something that comes to someone and is particular to someone.
In the secular world, career is the term we most often hear regarding work. it originates from the medieval Latin noun carraria, which means “a road for vehicles.” Hence the term career path.
A career is usually associated with an occupation. Becoming a lawyer or a securities analyst is a career choice. It is not usually the same thing as a calling.
The most specific and immediate of the three terms is job. It has to do with current employment and a specific job description.
We will cover "calling" in the next devotional (part II), but as you read this, do you see yourself in a career or vocation?
Does your work serve God or does it serve you?
Dear God, Thank you for the blessing of a job. Remind me daily that the work I do is a vocation and a calling from you, meant to serve You and not me. And remind me that those I work for and with are those you have called me to serve. Amen.
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Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (www.tifwe.org) and author of How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. CLS often works with the Institue for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE) to provide thoughtful and inspiring devotionals to CLS members. IFWE is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) Christian research organization committed to promoting biblical and economic principles that help individuals find fulfillment in their work and contribute to a free and flourishing society.