Gifts that differ; callings that unite

A voice from heaven, a descending dove, an announcement from God: that picture of Jesus’ baptism looms large in the mind of those who open the Bible looking for words about vocation. Or if not the dove, then Moses at the burning bush, shoeless before the voice of God. Calling: clear, unmistakable, dramatic. And probably to something very special. Was Moses called to herd sheep? Was Jesus called to make tables? Will Messenger, executive editor at the Theology of Work Project (, talks to Christian History about what vocation looked like to Biblical writers. 

CH: Why is the true story larger than the dove and the bush? 

WM: The stories the Bible tells can be interpreted to give us three overarching guidelines about calling. First, everyone is called to belong to Christ and to participate in his creative and redemptive work. Second, it is rare for God to call someone directly and unmistakably to particular work. Third, everyone is commanded to work to the degree they are able, but God does not usually provide a particular “job offer.” In any case, God frequently calls people to a whole life, not just to a job. 

CH: How often does God call people directly and unmistakably to take up a particular task, job, profession, or type of work in the Bible?

WM: That kind of calling is actually very rare in the Bible. In Biblical times and in fact throughout history, most people had the job of slave, farmer, or homemaker—still the case in much of the world even in the twenty-first century. 

No more than a hundred or so people were called by God in the Bible in a direct, unmistakable way. God called Noah to build the ark. God called Moses and Aaron to their tasks (Ex. 3:4; 28:1). He called prophets like Samuel (1 Sam. 3:10), Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4–5), and Amos (Amos 7:15). He called Abram and Sarai and a few others to undertake journeys or to relocate. He placed people in political leadership, including Joseph, Gideon, Saul, David, and David’s descendants. God chose Bezalel and Oholiab as chief craftsmen for the tabernacle (Ex. 31:1–6). Jesus called the apostles and other disciples (Mark 3:14–14), and the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul to be missionaries (Acts 13:2). The word “call” is not always used, but the unmistakable direction of God for a particular person to do a particular job shines clearly. 

CH: So what does calling look like if it doesn’t look like that?

WM: In the Bible God guides and empowers people for all kinds of work. At the very beginning of the Bible, God chose to involve human beings in the work of creation, production, and sustenance. Work continues through to the very end of the Bible: there is work from the Garden of Eden to the new heaven and new earth (Gen. 1:27–28, Gen. 2:15, Rev. 21:24–26). For most of us, calling means going about our so-called ordinary work, guided by Scripture and prayer rather than by dramatic pronouncements or events in our lives. 

CH: Absent doves and burning bushes, how did people in the Bible determine God’s calling? 

WM: One way was through seeing what needed to be done to make the world more like what God intends. In many cases this involved earning a living to support oneself and one’s family (Prov. 13:22), or working to meet the needs of individuals beyond family (Prov. 14:21, Luke 3:10–11). 

People were also called to serve the good of the larger society, as when Jeremiah told the exiles in Babylon to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jer. 29:5–7).

The Spirit also guided, and guides, people as they pay attention to their skills and gifts. Paul famously claimed that God gives people gifts for accomplishing the work he wants them to do, and he named some of the gifts and skills that God imparts: “prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (Rom. 12:6–8).

When Paul discusses the gifts of the Spirit, he is usually referring to their use in the church, but if all work done by Christians is done for the Lord (Col. 3:23), then the Spirit’s gifts are also given for use in any workplace. We do need to be careful here. The present generation of Westerners is the most gift-analyzed in human history, yet this can lead to self-absorption, crowding out attention to the needs of the world. These passages say that God gives gifts for the common good; they say nothing about work being for our personal satisfaction. 

Besides, in many cases, God gives gifts only after you take the job in which you will need them. Paying too much attention to the gifts you already have can keep you from receiving the gifts God wants to give you.

To return for a moment to the role of personal satisfaction in discovering our vocations: God clearly considers people’s truest, deepest desires important in determining their calling (Ps. 37:4 and 145:19; Matt. 5:6). But human motivations often become confused by the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. What makes a person happy—or seems to—might be far from meeting the needs of the world, or  from using skills and gifts for the common good, or even from fulfilling true desires. Knowing what we truly desire requires spiritual maturity—not to mention the discernment of the Christian community, the body of Christ on earth (Rom. 12:5). 

CH: What about callings to church work?

WM: Many Christians through the ages have had the impression that church workers—evangelists, missionaries, pastors, priests, and the like—have a higher calling than other workers. But in the Bible, God called individuals to both kinds of work. 

In Exodus he called out Aaron and his descendants to serve as priests of the Israelites (Ex. 28:1). In the New Testament, he called certain fishermen, tax collectors, and the like to spend time traveling and ministering with him (Mark 1:16–17). After Jesus’ death the early church began to call its leadership, for example setting apart Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:2, 5).

But the Bible also gives stories of calls to leadership in the world. For example, God commissioned Joshua to take up the leadership of the Israelites after Moses’ death (Deut. 31:14). He also, through the prophet Samuel, anointed Israel’s first kings—Saul and then David (1 Sam. 16:12–13). 

CH: Does the Bible forbid jobs? Does it forbid changing jobs?

WM: The only jobs the Bible explicitly forbids are those incompatible with its values: for example, jobs requiring murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, greed (Ex. 20:13–17), usury (Lev. 25:26), damage to health (Matt. 10:8), or harm to the environment
(Gen. 2:15). 

One question people over the years have sought to answer through Scripture is: if God leads or guides people to their work, could it ever be legitimate to change jobs? Would that be rejecting God’s guidance? Martin Luther famously argued against changing jobs, based largely on his understanding of the passage “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called” (1 Cor. 7:20) (see “Liberating those who work,” pp. 20–22). 

Luther equated “condition” with “profession” and concluded that it was not legitimate for Christians to change professions. However, Luther’s contemporary, John Calvin, did not accept this interpretation—and most modern scholars do not either. For one thing, it does not seem to take into sufficient account the very next verse, 1 Cor. 7:21: “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”

Because there is no hierarchy of professions, it is generally a mistake to think God wants people to find a higher calling if they become a Christian later in life—unless the Bible forbids their current job or the situation encourages un-Christian habits. But the Bible witnesses that the new Christian needs to work differently than before, paying attention now to Biblical commands, values, and virtues—as happened with Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:5–9).

The Bible says that how people work is at least as important to God as what job or profession they have. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” said Jesus (Luke 16:10). Over a lifetime people can serve Christ best by making the most of every job for his purposes, whether they feel called to every job or not. 

In the end the Bible seems to clearly say that God calls and guides people to various kinds of ordinary work—in various kinds of ordinary ways. But the stories in the Bible also tell us that getting the right job does not bring salvation, nor even (necessarily) happiness. 

Moreover, the truest aim of work for the Christian is to serve the common good. Over a lifetime, that comes from doing each day’s work to the best of one’s ability in Christ. At the end, the Bible makes clear, people will not be judged on getting the right job or fulfilling their potential. The calling to belong to Christ is God’s only indispensable calling. CH

By Will Messenger

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #110 in 2014]

Will Messenger is executive editor at the Theology of Work Project.
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