We’ve seen a renewed focus among Christians on the deeper value and significance of our work, leading to plenty of fruitful reflection on how we might find and follow God in our economic lives.
Yet this same realization has coincided with a growing cultural emphasis on self-actualization and the supposed glories of “doing what you love and loving what you do.” While we may be growing more attentive to the power of “vocation,” we’ve also begun to confuse and conflate it with our personal “dreams” and “passions.”
It’s a problem of modernity, to be sure. We live in an age of abounding freedom and opportunity, offering extraordinary levels of individual choice. Given the blind spots that accompany it, we’d do well to broaden our theology of work beyond the constraints of our own personal wants and needs.
In an essay for Comment Magazine, Gustavo H. R. Santos prods our imaginations in this direction, challenging our popular notions about “vocation” by focusing on those who still experience something closer to the historical norm: a world wherein work and career choices are limited.
We have “a theology of work that encourages a kind of Christianized self-actualization,” he writes, “one that assumes there is always a career choice available. This may be the luxurious burden for those professionals with the social autonomy to ponder the particularities of their contribution to the common good and change jobs accordingly, but it’s almost impossible to think about a larger purpose when you need to fight for survival.”
More specifically, Santos observes some common distinctions between the “modern-professional” worker (“those who give jobs”) and the “working-class” laborer (“those who take jobs”):
Modern professionals can discern their occupational options not only because they are well positioned socially but also because, over the past few decades, they have been given the power to craft jobs—first for themselves and then for others. In practice, the so-called gig economy is perceived by many labourers as a hipster version of the every-man-for-himself philosophy, pushing us toward individualism and ultimately benefiting only a small group of workers. The working class often accepts jobs simply to keep their budgets afloat, with little perspective of social mobility or mental space to reflect on moral questions related to their vocation.
The effects, he continues, have turned our attentions inward. “Contemporary theology’s obsession with externalized agency has fuelled a narrative in which our vocation in the world is something to be grasped, not received,” Santos writes. “The illusion of control causes us to forget that life usually happens to us—regardless of the power we believe we have.”
For a case study in what a “broader paradigm of labour” might look like, Santos points to the story of Ruth, whose life runs counter to much of what we’ve come to value in our “performance-based society.” Ruth is a widow and immigrant in a new land, working in the fields not as part of some personal passion for agriculture or journey of self-discovery, but out of mundane, faithful obedience to God and selfless love for her mother-in-law. She joyfully rides the tension between personal choice and moral/spiritual obligation, freely aligning her heart and hands toward God and neighbor.
“The environment was shaping her decisions and character, but she was shaping the environment too,” Santos explains. “Her decision to provide for Naomi, her diligence at work, and her moral steadfastness changed that place forever. And interestingly, her influence was not the expression of a master plan to change the culture. Rather, she was ‘simply’ faithful to the opportunities she received.”
Through that simple obedience, Ruth not only loved and served those around her, but she became an integral part of God’s redemptive plan. “The lineage of David is established and the providence of God takes another step as daily, wise, and diligent work is undertaken by one pair of human hands in an interconnected web of thousands,” Santos concludes.
In his recent book, The Road to Character, David Brooks promotes a similar view, encouraging us to align our imaginations around an others-oriented ethic of vocation and economic service:
In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?
In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside; they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded…
Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?
For the Christian, in particular, such an approach requires quite the opposite of the typical cultural requirements: self-denial, self-sacrifice, and the cultivation of an abiding, genuine love for others.
As Benjamin Mann puts it, vocation is “a school of charity” and “a means of crucifixion.” Its core defining features do not depend on whether we “choose our path,” whether we choose “the right path,” or whether we somehow get to “do what we love and love what we do.” Rather, vocation, at its core, is about finding love in the service of others.
That doesn’t mean we ought to rashly surrender all of our “dreams” and “passions,” but it does mean that we ought to balance our perspectives in our age of individual autonomy—putting our priorities in order and tuning our ears and discernment to sources outside of our fleeting feelings.
More importantly, it simply means we ought to be faithful in our daily creative service, pointing our hearts and hands outward, wherever and whatever the work may be.
Image: Landscape with Ruth and Boaz (cropped), Joseph Anton Koch (CC BY 3.0)