Note: This article describes one of the seven Economic Wisdom Project talks on theology and economics designed to be used as class assignments.
In “Vocation? Whatever!” Chris Armstrong, director of Opus: The Art of Work at Wheaton College, shares his personal history of struggle with attitudes about rest, home and work, and presents a fresh, compelling vision of why a theology of vocation must be central to the life of faith.
For the common tension between work and rest, the standard advice to seek “work-life balance” fails both Scripturally and practically – leaving believers with anemic theological resources to fulfill our responsibility of loving God and neighbor. Armstrong reveals how the pursuit of “balance” is not the same as the faithful pursuit of God’s call in every area of life.
Armstrong looks to Christian history, specifically the stories of Martin Luther and Pope Gregory the Great, for a fuller theology of vocation and its meaning for the Christian life. Through Martin Luther’s biography and work, Armstrong details the theological shift that came with the Reformation: having a vocation was no longer the exclusive provenance of priests, all of God’s people were participants in God’s mission of redemption. Faithfulness in ordinary, everyday work was again seen as an arena for faithful way to listen to God’s call.
In his forced transition from a monk to pope, Gregory the Great lamented how his life of contemplation had been overwhelmed by work and service. After years of struggle, Gregory eventually realized that devotion and work are interwoven and mutually sustaining portions of a faithful response to God. From Gregory’s story, Armstrong discusses how Christians are called to a rhythm of serving our neighbors through our work, contemplation of God, and worship-filled rest. In this rhythm, we seek a seamless life, one that hopes work to help heal the brokenness of this world by responding to God in every portion of life.
Armstrong also relates Adam and Eve’s fall into sin to our struggles with work and rest in a powerful new way. The first couple, after they sinned, hid themselves from God and from each other. Today, we use both our work activities and our rest activities as ways of hiding ourselves from the love we owe to our creator and our fellow creatures.
Below is a brief outline of the talk, with a few sample excerpts. We hope you will find this a useful tool to provide your students with a deeper theological understanding of vocation, and what it means for living a seamless life in love of God and neighbor.
More than Work/Life Balance
SAMPLE: “Is work/life balance really our issue, or is there a deeper reality in play here? What about what Paul said to the Colossians? ‘Whatever you do, work heartily as unto the Lord.’ Paul’s ‘whatever’ – unlike my youthful, dismissive ‘whatever,’ – doesn’t set work aside or dismiss it, but it doesn’t balance it either. It doesn’t put it in a tidy list with God first and then family and then work. Instead, Paul gives us a peek into a seamless life, one that weaves together all of the things we do, at work and at home and does them all for the Lord.”
Luther and Vocation
SAMPLE: “It is through ordinary kinds of work that we love others in obedience to God. The word [Luther] used for this – and which the Christian church used for centuries, but we’ve cheapened to mean something like career or trade – is vocation. The Latin root, vocare, means calling. God is calling us to ordinary work, all kinds of work, as long as it serves our neighbor. When Luther talked about vocation, he included what we do in our homes, as well as in the marketplace.”
Hiding from God and Neighbor
SAMPLE: “At work, we hide from the hard work of fully loving that difficult coworker. At home, we also evade the hard work of loving. Hiding from our spouse with our nose in our iPad or from our struggling teen with Netflix on the screen in front of us. Don’t we? Don’t I? Don’t you? Hiding. We hear that call from God through Paul’s words. ‘Whatever you do, work heartily as unto the Lord,’ but it’s so tempting not to work as unto the Lord, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to work as unto the weekend, or work as unto the paycheck, as unto the promotion, or as unto the rush we get from having authority or being indispensable.”
Pope Gregory and Vocation
SAMPLE: “[Gregory] didn’t know it at that point, but this was going to become the defining issue of his life, the question of the relationship between the contemplative life, of devotion to God, and the active life of service to others. After years of torture and struggle, Gregory finally concluded that the two lives are actually inextricably intertwined.”
Seeking Vocational Wholeness
SAMPLE: “We miss [the memo about vocation] when we start resenting our work and idolizing our times of rest and worship, using them to hide out from the call back to neighbor loving work; and we miss it – and maybe this is the stronger temptation for many of us – when we let our work become an idol, an all-consuming flurry of activity where we hide out from God. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even in my own life, I’ve begun to live in the reality of this seamless vocation with its rhythm of God love and neighbor love.”