A Theology of Work: A Seminary/MBA Student’s Take on Vocation

May 17, 2019, Written by Sue Miley

This is a guest post written by Will Sorrell, I hope you enjoy it!

How often do you think of the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther? Well, as Christians in business this critical event changed our vocation by breaking down the “secular / sacred divide.” A guy named Gustaf Wingren wrote a book titled Luther on Vocation, which masterfully summarizes much of the reformer’s writings on maximizing work for the benefit of society. This article begs three questions and attempts to answer them from a more theological perspective.

1. Do You View Your Job As A Vocation?

Luther defines vocation as an office or position that someone inherently leverages for the service of others. This can be a father rocking his child to sleep, a citizen voting her conscience, or a CEO dealing honestly with her suppliers. The key that transforms something from a job or task into a vocation is selfless submission to the wellbeing of another.

Yet we are irritatingly prone to be about ourselves, aren’t we? The temptation of self-preservation begins as a nagging whisper, then a tantalizing enticement, then an unsatiated desire, then sin against God and neighbor, then dead and hollow consequences (Jam. 1:14-15). Luther draws a “decisive contrast between God’s self-giving love and man’s egocentricity.”

Our work is an office, a position created by God for the good of others and for his glory. How we operate in our positions, however, is a matter of vocational fidelity. It is God who provides for the thirsty through the office of a farmer milking his cow. It is God who gives life through the office of childbearing. A job becomes a vocation when you treat your office with great care and with good conscience. “Devotion to office is devotion to love.” When we work well, we take part in God taking care of the world he created.

As a professor of mine once said, “Is your job a vocation? If you say no, then can it be?” Can you take your position of power and love your neighbor through it? Is there a contract worker, ungrateful customer, or slow-to-learn employee whom you need to extend grace or ask forgiveness? If Jesus really intends for it to be on earth as it is in heaven, we best start learning to see our vocations as labors of love.

2. Are You Acting In Faith And Love?

Your ultimate calling is not that of a business owner. It is not that of a husband or wife, father or mother, citizen or taxpayer. Your ultimate calling is to “faith and love,” as Luther says.

But this sounds kitsch, right? What does “faith and love” even mean or look like?

Luther argued it prudent for believers to strongly consider their position and calling before changing jobs (1 Cor. 7:20). Again, the idea is that if your office can be a vocation, then what is preventing you? If Martin Luther penned such thoughts in a society with staggeringly minimal upward mobility, then how much more seriously ought we take the notion?

Your calling is to faith and love, and this changes everything. After all, “against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:23). Considering adding a new product line? Afraid you are going to have to layoff employees? How about contemplating selling your business? Ask yourself which option requires both necessitates faith and makes you faithful in the position God is using to care for the created order. Ask yourself which action is most loving and sacrificial for the benefit of your stakeholders.

Asking and answering these questions is a community affair. What do your fellow church members, business peers, and subordinates think? If you proceed cautiously and contemplatively in your decision making, you just might find that the Lord has been and is sanctifying your soul in and through your work. Sometimes, faith simply looks like prayer for wisdom, humility, and compassion. Participate in the unity with the Trinity that Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished, and trust that you are not alone.

3. Do You Want A Vocation Or An Imitation?

At the risk of sounding unhealthily individualistic, Luther has much to say concerning our distinct roles on earth. There is great unity and complementarity in all of our work. If we all started the same kind of company, employed the same kind of person, and offered the same kind of service, the world would be a boring and unlivable place, indeed. Yet like an unrestrained thoroughbred, our eyes swiftly and naturally shift from side to side.

We want what our neighbor has. The grass seems greener in the competition’s balance sheet. At the first sign of trouble, we panic and pursue taking on debt, shredding costs, or shifting the strategy to something safe and sound. Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath illustrates how vital it is for students to not only be capable, but to feel capable if they are to succeed. We desperately want to feel capable, or at least comparable to those around us.

This is where Luther stops us in our tracks. “Vocation points toward a world which is not the same for all people… Each is to do his own work without eyeing others or trying to copy them.” Now Luther, Wingren, and I are not trying to say that you should run your business by being an island unto yourself, giving orders and making decisions without considering market forces, employee situations, or the good of society. What we are saying is that your success is not defined by the success of those around you. Perhaps your success is most defined by the success of those beneath you.

Wingren continues by saying that we cannot imitate Christ, in that we cannot be the Son of God who dies for the sins of the world. Rather, we can graciously receive from his work and share the riches of his grace with our neighbor. Your company cannot be Apple or Amazon. But it can positively and pointedly shape the souls in your community. Work hard as unto the Lord, but do not pressure yourself into making perfection the standard of success.

Which of these 3 questions is most challenging to you? If you are struggling to navigate or reconcile your theology of work vs. vocation, we’d love to discuss it with you. Schedule a phone call or appointment by calling Crossroads at (225) 341-4147.

Will Sorrell is a joint-MDiv and MBA student in Birmingham, Alabama, at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School and Brock School of Business. Operating in the field of faith and work, he works as a researcher, leads classes on the local church level, and hosts Ergonomy Podcast, focusing on the future of the sector. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Sue Miley

Sue Miley MBA, MA, LPC helps small business owners build successful businesses on a foundation of Christian values. After 20 years in business, and 10 years as a Christian counselor, Sue uses a combination of faith, business and psychology to help clients in business and in life.

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