Benjamin Quinn and Walter Strickland on the Doctrine of Vocation

Southeastern faculty Benjamin Quinn (Assistant Professor of Theology and History of Ideas, Associate Dean of Institutional Effectiveness for the College at Southeastern) and Walter Strickland (Special Advisor to the President for Diversity and Instructor of Theology) write about the doctrine of vocation, which they will also teach in the Spring 2015 (online). It is also a topic with relevance for every reader of this blog. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The Great Commission Magazine of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  

What is work? Does it matter to God? How do these 40 or more hours each week relate to my faith? These are the questions that occupy our attention when we consider the doctrine of vocation.

In Genesis 1, we meet God at work. When God finished His work, He instructed Adam and Eve to carry forward in like fashion. To work and keep the land was not a result of sin for our first parents. Work was good, and was basic to being human. Today, though work may be toilsome, sin has neither undone its goodness nor revoked it from human responsibility. So, if work is our responsibility, how does it intersect with our Faith?

In his book “Work: The Meaning of Your Life: A Christian Perspective,” Lester Dekoster writes, “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” Dekoster goes on to explain that this definition of work animates the shape and direction of life prescribed in Scripture. Jesus taught that the most important thing about life in His world is to love God and love others. This cruciform shape of life is directed away from self and toward others, beginning with God. With every relationship comes an opportunity to love and serve. Thus, insofar as our work loves and serves God and others, it is meaningful and it matters.

The idea of a “doctrine of vocation” may sound new to some, but there is plenty to consider as we look at what it means to work. We can take a journey through time, observing how the church exemplifies a Christian understanding of vocation through the centuries, and conclude with an extended look at the contemporary era of the “Faith at Work” movement. As we observe the ever-changing vocational landscape of history, we can examine Scripture—the fixed referent for all of life—to inform our understanding of work. An extended exegesis of Scripture unearths biblical motifs and doctrines that undergird work as a means of loving God and loving neighbor.

A theology of work begs for further consideration of vocation and calling. A robust doctrine of vocation should cover a wide spectrum—farming, education, politics, art, homemaking, medicine and vocational ministry and more.

As our increasingly secular culture groans for divine intervention, the divide between sacred and secular work must fall and God’s people need to utilize their vocational callings to uphold God’s mission of restoration. As Christians, when we love God and love our neighbor in our vocations, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment intersect to proclaim Christ’s supremacy in everything we put our hand to for the sake of everyone in God’s world.

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On Going Home at the End of the Day: A Theology of Leaving

There are times when teachers teach lessons that they have not themselves fully learned. Most who know me will read this essay and probably retort, “physician heal thyself” due to the schedule I keep. To them I’ll offer no rebuttal, but I will try harder to take my own advice, which I hope is good medicine for us all.

Human labor is a task inherently unfinished. Some work, like farming, building, and sundry domestic tasks, ebb and flow with the rhythm of life. Seasons come and go, and planting and harvesting are ongoing within that natural cycle. Builders build buildings, and they are occupied and used, repaired and renovated, and eventually replaced – the labor of building appears ceaseless. As long as there is human life there is laundering, cleaning, and cooking – little seems truly completed.

There are some tasks that have natural endings. A first grade teacher teaches a group of youngsters over a given period of time, and then that task ends. Yet, the training of these youngsters continues, grade by grade until their education is complete. The boat builder doesn’t work on the same boat forever; a boat is built, put into service, and the builder moves along to the next boat. In this instance, while a task is completed, labor does not cease. Even in what we moderns call “retirement” there are labors that continue, and the need for the work that supports human existence is interminable.

These realities put some humans in a bit of a quandary, since bringing something to completion is necessary for their happiness. I don’t consider happiness a bad thing; I believe we were made to be happy. In fact, “blessedness” – being in the presence of God and his good for us – is “happiness.” And if finishing tasks, as a part of ordering the world God has created, is a part of one’s happiness, then unfinished work is bound to be a frustration to some at times. So, at the end of day, one may be confronted with the prospect of either leaving the office with tasks yet unfinished, or staying, forsaking other obligations and other goods, in order to finish a task. This essay is written to help sort out this very real, very common matter of life. I want to suggest three reasons the laborer should be content to turn out the lights at day’s end and happily journey home.

First, the Christian doctrine of creation indicates a rhythm of work and rest that is rooted in divine creation itself. The Genesis narrative is a story of divine work and divine rest. It is notable that God does not create the world in one day, nor has Christian theology generally accepted a doctrine of “simultaneous” creation. Scripture reveals that God created over a period of time. God’s creation of matter itself, and his forming and filling of the earth and all that is in it, occurs over time. Time is marked by evening and morning, framing for us that basic unit of time in which is situated our “work day.” God himself works within time, both creating the natural temporal rhythm and working within that rhythm to fashion the heavens and the earth.

Admittedly, God’s labor is marked by rest at the completion of this work, a truth that may indicate the necessity to postpone the cessation of labors until a project is complete. In this case, one might find a rationale for working day and night in order to complete an important task, which may be necessary at times. But, I believe this is the wrong conclusion to draw with respect to the normal ordering of life. The divine pattern of completing creation and subsequent rest is analogous to the human lifetime in this age and rest in the age to come, a rest entered into by means of Christ’s redemption (Hebrews 4). While this does produce an analogy for our daily life, it is not that we are to postpone rest until we complete our labors, rather it is that rest will come for the one who trusts in the Creator. While there are circumstances in life that require us to work unceasingly to accomplish certain vital tasks (in one of those cases that we might properly term an “emergency” or “crisis”), the better paradigm for thinking about human existence is the clear pattern of night and day, which indicates the pattern of rest and work.

In fact, our theological reflection (in the sense of reflection upon God) should lead us to recognize that God himself has not chosen to accomplish everything in one day, one week, month, or year. Not only does God’s creative work occur over time, but His providential work of bringing all things to His good end occurs over millennia. Since God himself does not accomplish all his purposes in one day, it seems odd that His people might fret, forsake rest, and live disordered lives to do what God himself has chosen not to do. What God could do, He does not, and what we cannot do, we attempt to do, to our own detriment.

Second, we should recognize, as I stated at the outset, that human labor is by its nature mostly unfinished business. It is one of the exigencies of temporality that many of the tasks we pursue are, for the largest part of their duration, unfinished. It is true that certain work is done over the short term while other work is a long term project. If, for example I set out to grill a cheese sandwich, I have good reason to believe I will complete that labor in the short term, lest I end up with a grilled cheese blackened beyond description or usefulness. Yet other tasks are longer term propositions. Building a new house is not a task quickly completed, and it requires a series of starts and stops, day by day, in which workers determine to finish certain things and leave other things to be completed in due order. Part of the process of work, therefore, is the messy “unfinishedness” of our labors that tend to keep us in the office “after hours.” Some of us will do well to learn to leave what is unfinished for another day, and to rest well in spite of our dissatisfaction with what is undone.

Finally, I suggest that leaving the office at the end of the day, and the rest that we pursue subsequent to that departure, is a sign of trust in God. It is so in that we are willing to labor hard during the day, and then leave what is unfinished for the day following, trusting that God will sustain us to do so, or indicate that there is other work to be done or, ultimately, that our labors in this age have come to an end. I am not suggesting, of course, that this way of thinking be used as an excuse for laziness. I am suggesting that an honest day’s work deserves to be followed by genuine rest, because that is the way God designed His world in which we live. At the very least, our other callings, beyond our “job”, await us at the end of the work day, and they deserve our attention. Otherwise, the laborer may forsake the calling to family, to church, to friendship, etc. in order to complete that project at work. While there may be certain situations that require us to work long into the night to complete a task, the pattern of our work should be consistent with the rhythm of day and night, of work and rest, that is implicit in creation. To do otherwise could constitute a lack of faith and could be an act of disobedience. In the end, conscience will be the guide for each person, but we should not fail to give careful thought to some of these theological considerations as we contemplate going home at end of day.