The Three Callings of a Christian

Get the first two right, and the third will almost surely follow.

During January 2015, I had several opportunities to speak to different groups on the topic of work and calling, and some ideas came together that have been bouncing around for a while now. They are offered here in all their glorious incompleteness!

If you’re a Christian, you don’t have “a calling.” You have three. Two of the three are fundamental and universal—that is, they aren’t optional and they aren’t individual, but they are by far the most important callings in your life. The good news (and hard news, actually) is they each come with a community who can help you fulfill them—in fact, without that community you won’t fulfill them at all.

Your first fundamental calling is shared with every other human being: to bear the image of God. We are here to reflect the Creator into the creation, and to reflect the creation’s praise and lament back to the Creator. To bear the image is to exercise dominion, caring for and cultivating the good world and making it very good through our creative attention. Most human work falls under this heading, which is why Christians work gladly alongside neighbors who don’t share our faith, and also why almost all human work is perfectly appropriate for Christians. It requires no more justification than this: bearing the image by working fruitfully in the good world is what we were always meant to do.

For the great majority of human beings, this calling is fulfilled primarily in the first and most fundamental human community: the family. The image bearers are called to be fruitful and multiply. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” From that union come every one of us image bearers, always already immersed in a human community, whose faces we sought as soon as we were born. This is not the “nuclear family” of the late industrial West, but the extended family that has known us since our birth and will, if we are blessed, surround and provide for us at our death. Whether or not we go on to form new families of our own, our human calling is inextricably linked with the family where we first found our name, language, identity, and home.

Your second fundamental calling is shared with every other member of the family of God: to restore the image of God. The entire story of God’s people—beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and now extending to all nations through the reconciling power of the Cross—is a vast, world-historical rescue mission to restore the capacity for true image bearing. Our distinctive calling as Christians is not just to till and keep the world as image bearers, but to actively seek out the places where that image has been lost, to place ourselves at particular risk on behalf of the victims of idolatry and injustice. So in every workplace, Christians should be those who speak up most quickly, and sacrifice their own privileges most readily, for those whose image-bearing has been compromised by that organization’s patterns of neglect. In every society, Christians should be the most active in using their talents on behalf of those the society considers marginal or unworthy. In every place where the gospel isn’t known, Christians should be finding ways to proclaim Jesus as the world’s true Lord and “the image of the invisible God.”

This image-restoring calling comes with, and requires, a new family: the church. No one can restore the image alone—only a people can do that, mirroring the original creation of human beings as male and female, the divine communion foreshadowed in the words “let us make,” and the revelation of God as three in one. Whatever our family of origin, the church becomes our “first family,” bound together in the creative love of the one from whom every family takes its name (Eph. 3:15). And the church is especially for those who, in the twists and turns of a broken world, have lost their human family—widows, orphans, refugees, strangers. They above all are our brothers and sisters, our companions in discovering our new identity in Christ. Our image-restoring calling cannot happen without the church—without each other.

So what is your calling? It’s really pretty easy: to bear the image and to restore the image. To engage in the kind of fruitful tending of the world that would cause the Creator to say, “behold, it is very good”; and to boldly confront idolatry and injustice wherever they are found, while gently restoring those who have been captives to idols and victims of injustice. And to do these things above all in the context of the family we were given at birth, and the family we were given at baptism. If you’re doing one or both of those things in your daily work (paid or unpaid) and your volunteer time, it’s safe to say you’re fulfilling your calling.

Oh, I almost forgot. You have a third calling—but honestly, if you get the first two right, the third is practically an afterthought.

Your third calling is your contingent calling: to make the most of today, while it is called today. “Contingent” is a word philosophers use to describe something that could be otherwise—in that sense, it’s the opposite of necessary. It’s also used, in a related sense, to describe something that depends on something else—in that sense, it’s the opposite of independent.

You are in some particular place today—maybe at school, maybe on a bus, maybe in a workplace, maybe at home. And you are there with certain resources—memory, energy, reason, attention, skill. Perhaps a certain amount of money or property is available to you, or a certain set of credentials (a college degree or professional training), or a title or a position in an organization. All these things are contingent—that is to say, they could be otherwise, and they are deeply dependent on many other things.

To ask how to fulfill our contingent calling is, frankly, to ask a question to which there is no clear biblical answer. Certainly, to single out “work” as a topic is already to divide up the world in a way that Scripture rarely does. Our modern conception of individual agency, and the affluence that enables it, are all but unknown in Scripture, and they are certainly not major themes. Furthermore, the capacity to transform the world in ways that lead to economic profit, which undergirds all work in the commercial sector, is all but unknown in Scripture and much of Christian history. Most of all, the idea that Christians might occupy a culturally central and privileged position is all but unknown in Scripture—and may be all but unknown to our grandchildren. You can find fleeting reference points in the Bible for all these realities (proverbs on work, parables of exceptionally ambitious slaves and sons, figures like Daniel or Esther in the courts of empire), but in doing so you will be skating perilously close to prooftexting, asking Scripture to speak comprehensively about topics its writers simply were not that interested in.

Indeed, there is one topic that I’m extremely interested in that the writers of Scripture do not seem interested in at all—and that topic is, actually, me. I am quite interested in the expressive individual that I call me—but Scripture turns out not to be interested in me hardly at all. It is somewhat more interested in me as a member of a community, connected to one of the “nations” of the earth—but really, what Scripture is interested in is God, God’s mission in the world, God’s commissioning of a people, and God’s gracious invitation to me to stop being so interested in me and start being absolutely fascinated by his mission.

There is another good reason to limit our interest in our contingent calling. All these contingent things may pass. They could be over tomorrow. For all their illusion of durability, they are only ours today.

Today I suppose I am known most widely as a speaker, writer, and editor. But my ability to do all of those could end tonight, in an accident or sudden illness.

Whatever industry you work in or firm you work for, its viability could drastically change over the next 18 months (just ask folks in the oil and gas business, who have endured three completely different outlooks—the constraints of “peak oil,” the euphoria of the fracking revolution, and the collapse in prices and profits—in just a few years).

Indeed, according to a National Research Council report in 2008, there is a 1 in 8 chance of a Mass Coronal Ejection from the sun between now and 2022 comparable to the Carrington Event of 1859. Relatively harmless at the time, a direct hit from such an event today could melt the core of every electrical transformer in every substation in the industrialized world, not to mention frying every single one of our glorious iDevices. A lot of contingent callings will come to an end on such a day. (Feel free to read more on this happy topic in Collin Dickey’s fascinating essay, “Is Technology Making Us More Vulnerable?”)

Should any or all of this happen, God will still be God, and his people will still have a mission in the world. 

You may fall ill tomorrow and never rise again—yet to the end of your days, however incapacitated, you will still be an image bearer and you will be part of the story of image restoration. 

The late modern capitalist system (which I personally regard as, on balance, a very good thing for human flourishing) may collapse, as it came within hours or days of doing in 2008. If (when?) it does, we will still be called to tend God’s world and restore his image.

The assumptions we have about the options open to Christians in our society, assumptions about cultural power and access that draft largely off the unexamined residue of Christendom, may be radically challenged in the next few generations. We will still be called to care for creation, to care for people, and to restore God’s image in the world.

If any or all of these things happen—and if they happen, by the way, that will simply put us on equal footing with most Christians in the world today, not to mention most Christians who have ever lived—our fundamental calling will still be the same. In fact, especially if any of these things come to pass, we will then be called especially to rise to the opportunity to bear God’s image and restore God’s image in the world.

On Saturday my friend and mentor Steve Hayner died at age 66 of complications from pancreatic cancer. Steve was one of the healthiest people I have ever met in every sense—emotionally, spiritually, physically. He had uncountable contingent blessings and served in all kinds of contingent ways as a pastor, professor, leader, and board member. No one made more of today than Steve. When he was suddenly diagnosed with cancer less than a year ago, he was very much in the middle of a significant assignment as president of a major institution, with much work left to be done, humanly speaking, and to all appearances the “calling” to do it. But all that was merely contingent—it could be otherwise, it was deeply dependent on myriad factors beyond any of our control, and now it is over.

But what really matters about Steve’s life is that wherever he went and whatever he did, he was an image bearer and image restorer. And he was so to his very last breath, as the family and friends who were closest to him can tell you. Very few people came away from even the briefest encounter with Steve, even very near the end of his life, without feeling loved, known, and heard.

At the end of this month many of us who knew him will gather to remember him and thank God for his life. We will talk very little, I suspect, about what he did—in that sense, Steve’s “vocation,” in the ordinary sense of the word, will be the most fleeting thing about him. What we will talk about is who he was, and who we are because we were touched by him. At the heart of the service will be the family that nurtured him and that was nurtured by him, and surrounding them will be Steve’s “first family,” the church.

We will sing, pray, grieve, and rejoice, and then we will go out to our calling: to bear the image and restore the image in the world, making the most of whatever is given us today. That is all, and that is more than enough.