Restoring Purpose in a Workaday World

As I Was Saying
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As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone contains one of the most powerful sentences ever penned: “Harry—yer a wizard.”

For a generation of young readers, those words stirred the conviction that most of us have as children: "We are destined for significance." Someday we will find the great thing we are meant to do and do it. In Reformed circles, we call it “vocation.” 

And then, somewhere in young adulthood, so many of us lose that conviction. 

Millennials have been termed “The Burnout Generation.” Young professionals take to social media to voice their disillusionment with their jobs. And while I am most familiar with the professional discontent in my generation, I do not believe the phenomenon is unique to millennials or Gen-Z, where it manifests as anger. Baby Boomers and Gen-X have distilled their negative feelings toward work into dutiful resignation, and they vent any residual frustration through the bitter humor of comic strips and television tropes. 

Excepting the lucky few who have found their dream job—their Hogwarts acceptance letter, if you will—why do we, as a society, hate work? Why do we live for weekends? Or if we don’t hate work, why don’t we love it? Some of us are burnt out in jobs we claim to love. What is wrong with how we work that causes us to leave offices so drained we can’t go to the gym, work on our hobbies, or invest in our loved ones?  

These questions open a massive dialogue—a web of memes, pop psychology, and economic theory, strewn with labels and jargon suspended like insects in the silk. Arguably, it is a project for social scientists. But it is a problem for the church, too.

Christians should radiate purpose. Our Reformed worldview holds the belief that creation will be redeemed, and we, in small ways, are invited to take part in that work of restoration. We participate in that promise as children participate in the preparation of an enormous Christmas party—signing invitations, cleaning this or that corner of the house, stewarding various mysteries and surprises for the ultimate delight of all.

Yet Christians feel the same emptiness, discouragement, and burnout experienced by our secular culture. And while the problem might not be unique to my generation, if we do not find a way to restore purpose and joy to work, we will fail a generation of bright, compassionate, justice-minded young adults. 

For many of my Christian friends, peers, and colleagues, “vocation” and “calling” have become hollow words, a varnish smeared over mundane jobs.

“Vocation” and “calling” are beautiful concepts when defined in the Christian classroom or a sermon. But they so often break down in application. The problem is not inherent to the concepts; the problem is that the words are so often applied, not as a new guiding philosophy, but as new names on old, secular worldviews and systems. 

Fredrick Buechner defined vocation this way: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”

It’s the most common and also the most compelling definition of “vocation” I heard in my college years. It sounds lovely. But it is wildly misapplied. 

I have heard many professors and pastors broaden the definition of “vocation” to a holistic abstract, a sort of theme for one’s life. Work becomes, then, just one avenue through which one ought to express their vocation. But in this application, “vocation” becomes a platitude. And we must still pick a day job and try to find some joy in it or risk burnout and misery. 

But Beuchner is no help in deciding on a profession within our American economic and employment systems. If you try to use his quote as a rubric to identify a real-world career, you run a great risk of dressing up the old, secular riddle of supply and demand as servant-hearted virtue. In the name of practical application, Buechner’s words can be twisted to mean, “find a profession where your supply of passion meets one of society’s demands. Make your passion a product and find its market share.” 

But such an application is untrue to the spirit of Buechner’s words. His definition of “vocation” is wholly incompatible with the secular American economic and employment systems.

The secular systems are very interested in demand as it produces profit but abhor needs, which require service, generosity, and sacrifice. Buechner says vocation will produce joy and the fulfillment of the world’s greatest need. 

The world’s greatest need is redemption. But the secular American economic and employment system is a machine geared to produce profit for individuals. Profit and redemption are opposite goals. We cannot force that machine to produce redemption (or grace, or joy, or any fruit of the Spirit) by cramming our values into the machine. To attempt such a thing would be akin to cramming a sausage machine full of yarn and expecting it to knit sweaters.

We must untangle a redemptive view of work from the secular American economic and employment system. And to do so, we need to know which is which. 

The secular system is a factory. It is focused on the result, the product—an object that performs a function. An object’s function is its identity. Think about the names we give machines—coffee maker, dishwasher, fire alarm, computer. We name things for the functions they perform. When work, our function, becomes our identity, we become objects.

The redemptive worldview of work, “vocation” if you like, is a story. People are art. And our ability to work, steward, and produce is fundamentally tied to our identity as the artistic creation of God. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Our purpose is to be stories of redemption within God’s cosmic story of redemption. 

When Hagrid told Harry, "yer a wizard," he did not give the boy a function. “Wizard” is not a function. Hagrid prophesied Harry’s role in a story. 

Objects are stagnant. We are in eternal motion, becoming. We restore purpose by keeping our becoming, our story-ness, in view. And there are many things we can do that abandon functionality for story. 

We can enjoy funny movies, cultivating our receptivity to joy. Or some dedicate their whole lives to one beautiful, complex equation that is as likely as a sudoku puzzle to serve a “practical function” like launching rockets. Such a mathematician is still living a vocation, a redemptive story, because the pursuit of truth for its own sake, untainted by a desire for profit or power, is only possible in a redeemed mind. We learn to play a symphony, practicing a desire for beauty and order by practicing notes and rhythms. This might sound like vocation in the abstract, but it is not. This is virtue. 

Virtue is not a platitude we carry like a huge sack of seed on our back, sowing it painstakingly in each part of our life. Virtue is like tree rings or stalagmites; it is what is built up by many, many small actions, the story made of billions of words.

Now here the danger is that we may come to believe our vocation is to create ourselves. Or we might focus all our energies on cultivating ourselves and forget the needy world entirely. This is where Buechner finally helps us. 

Buechner’s definition makes sense if we take it as a paraphrase of Hebrew 12:1-3:

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” 

Sacrifice is the key ingredient of redemption, the goal of our vocation. So, vocation is sacrifice, But it is sacrifice in the Old Testament sense and the Priestly Messiah sense—sacrifice as worship—an act intended to glorify God. Jesus’ purpose, his vocation, was worship. He fulfilled that purpose through sacrifice, the intersection of “the joy set before him” and the world’s greatest need. And our vocation is to imitate Christ, to sacrificially participate in the story of redemption as an act of worship. 

About the Author

Emily Joy Stroble is a graduate of Calvin College, art maker, mocha drinker, and reader of many books. A regular contributor to The Banner and perpetual student of the world, Emily lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

Beautiful article, Emily! Thank you for your thoughtful words. And thank you for pointing out the limitations of Buechner's definition of vocation...I was just mulling that over the other day, and you helped clarify why it has always bothered me.

Thanks for putting into words some of the insights into "vocation" that have plagued me for several years!  

The problem, as you have stated, is the way the American way of life has made commodities out of everything--including people and their work.  It's all about the money and what money can buy.  Over and over again, studies show that mere money (beyond what is needed to sustain life) rarely brings joy or life satisfaction or happiness.  

In addition, I find that people use the concept of "vocation" and "everything belongs to God" as a cover statement when making their career choices, increasing earning capacity, and participating in the American good life.

What is lacking in the concept of "vocation" is the overarching vision of the Kingdom of God.  That is the story to which we attach ourselves when we talk about our own small story.  When that bigger story is in view, our choices and lives might more easily find places to fit.  Never perfectly, of course, as sin always puts cracks in what might be good.  Sin also had broken the economic system in which we currently struggle to find a meaning to "vocation".

Meanwhile, I understand why you give as a remedy the concept of "story" and "art".  To a certain extent I agree with your solution.  As an artist, those spheres of life are where you have found your vocation.  However, not all of God's people will find guidance toward their own vocation in either the practice or metaphor of art.  We are gifted in all kinds of ways and all those ways are realized God's Kingdom.  So I think a much more nuanced discussion of how our work fits into the Kingdom story is in order!

 I hope that your article will begin such a conversation...

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