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In the Image of the Son: An Orthodox Meditation on Vocation

“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called…” (Romans 8:29–30a)


Vocation is a much-demeaned word in this modern age. In common parlance it has come to mean simply a career — for the vast majority of Americans, their vocation is no more than their particular lane in the busy traffic jam of the rat race.

Historically, the word meant something very different. Its etymological roots are in the Latin verb voco, to call or to name. It should be noted, however, that the Anglicized word vocation is used only once (Ephesians 4:1) in the English King James Version of the Bible, as a translation of the very frequently used klesis. The translators much preferred to render the word more accessibly as calling. And it is this, the literal meaning of vocation, which has been so demeaned in modern usage.

For the use of the term calling for a person's life work ought to imply that a person has been chosen for and directed to a particular line of work, or rather, to a unique manner of life. And that, in turn, implies that Someone is doing the calling.

As understood by the earliest Christians, the recipients of the epistles in which the apostles Paul and Peter so frequently used the word, their calling was not a matter of occupation — whether they were butchers, bakers or candlestick-makers — but rather one of direction, to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), a calling to be “conformed to the image of [the] Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). Their calling was, on the most fundamental level, simply a summons to live the Christian life in its fullness, to become like Christ. A new Christian in that heady era was not worried about what job he should do in order to please God — his concern was to fulfill the calling of Christ upon his life in whatever occupation he found himself. As Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called” (I Corinthians 7:20).

The Christian Calling

It is fitting at this point to turn to the Fathers of the Church, beginning with St. John Chrysostom's commentary upon this passage. His exegesis sheds further light upon the Orthodox understanding of the Christian vocation and its relation to one's secular career. The key portion of the homily is quoted below, courtesy of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection hosted at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-12/npnf1-12-24.htm.

Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called. Hast thou been called, having an unbelieving wife? Continue to have her. Cast not out thy wife for the faith's sake. Hast thou been called, being a slave? Care not for it. Continue to be a slave. Hast thou been called, being in uncircumcision? Remain uncircumcised. Being circumcised, didst thou become a believer? Continue circumcised. For this is the meaning of, “As God hath distributed unto each man.” For these are no hindrances to piety. Thou art called, being a slave; another, with an unbelieving wife; another, being circumcised.

Astonishing! where has he put slavery? As circumcision profits not: and uncircumcision does no harm; so neither doth slavery, nor yet liberty. And that he might point out this with surpassing clearness, he says, “But even (All eikai dunasai) if thou canst become free, use it rather:” that is, rather continue a slave. Now Upon what possible ground does he tell the person who might be set free to remain a slave? He means to point out that slavery is no harm but rather an advantage.

Now we are not ignorant that some say, the words, “use it rather,” are spoken with regard to liberty: interpreting it, “if thou canst become free, become free.” But the expression would be very contrary to Paul's manner if he intended this. For he would not, when consoling the slave and signifying that he was in no respect injured, have told him to get free. Since perhaps some one might say, “What then, if I am not able? I am an injured and degraded person.” This then is not what he says: but as I said, meaning to point out that a man gets nothing by being made free, he says, “Though thou hast it in thy power to be made free, remain rather in slavery.”

Next he adds also the cause; “For he that was called in the Lord being a bondservant, is the Lord's free man: likewise he that was called, being free, is Christ's bondservant.” “For,” saith he, “in the things that relate to Christ, both are equal: and like as thou art the slave of Christ, so also is thy master. How then is the slave a free man? Because He has freed thee not only from sin, but also from outward slavery while continuing a slave. For he suffers not the slave to be a slave, not even though he be a man abiding in slavery: and this is the great wonder.

But how is the slave a free man while continuing a slave? When he is freed from passions and the diseases of the mind: when he looks down upon riches and wrath and all other the like passions.

Ver. 23. “Ye were bought with a price: become not bondservants of men.” This saying is addressed not to slaves only but also to free men. For it is possible for one who is a slave not to be a slave; and for one who is a freeman to be a slave. “And how can one be a slave and not a slave?” When he doeth all for God: when he feigns nothing, and doeth nothing out of eye-service towards men: that is how one that is a slave to men can be free. Or again, how doth one that is free become a slave? When he serves men in any evil service, either for gluttony or desire of wealth or for office' sake. For such an one, though he be free, is more of a slave than any man.

This passage, and St. John's exegesis thereof sets the tone for the general Orthodox patristic attitude towards vocation — the key issue is not what one does, but how one does it, indeed, who one is. Even the meanest occupation cannot quench our calling to become like Christ. Rather, sometimes they enhance it. All this indicates quite clearly that the first concern for one faced with the choice of occupation (whether a high school or college student or even a older person dissatisfied with his past career) must be that it not interfere with his pursuit of the Christian calling. In the final analysis, the question of where one may find happiness is purely a matter of whether one lives in all things to the glory of God.

The Choice of a Calling

The Christian calling, then, is truly the same for all who are called — a renewal of life in and with and through Christ — but this truth does not itself answer the question which most people ask when seeking the “right” occupation. If a person has the option to choose it, he needs a criterion by which to decide.

Nor does the New Testament speak directly to this question. The earliest Christian converts were already set in their careers — slave or free, merchant, craftsman or senator, all were occupied more with bringing the life's work which they had already chosen into line with their newfound Faith. Similarly, in the cultures of the time, a young person's path was often chosen for them before they were even born — determined usually by their parents' station in life. However, it is still possible to discern a pattern in Scripture and the Patristic writings which sheds light on the criteria according to which the choice should be made.

For a very preliminary example, let us look to the earliest Christian Church in Corinth. The Church found itself facing a disturbance from within as individuals within her grew either proud of their particular function in the Church or envious of the functions of others and began to argue and strive for higher status. St. Paul addressed the problem in his first epistle to Corinth, and his solution provides a glimpse at the way in which he understood such things as calling and occupation.

He writes: “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal...Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues” (I Corinthians 12:4–7, 27–28).

Paul's point here is that, despite the apparent superiority of one function to another, in the end all are united in the same Body, indeed all are equal, for, since each function is a gift given through the Holy Spirit, any difference in station is not a matter of superiority, but simply of a different role in God's economy. The only true superior is the Holy Spirit, without whom none of the Corinthians would have had power or honor or skill. St. John Chrysostom confirms this in his homily on the passage (http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-12/P1424_844732).

And first he attends on him that had the lesser gift, and was grieved on this account. “For wherefore,” saith he, “art thou dejected? because thou hast not received as much as another? Still, consider that it is a free gift and not a debt, and thou wilt be able to soothe thy pain.” For this cause he spake thus in the very beginning: “but there are diversities of gifts.” And he said not “of signs,” nor “of wonders,” but of “gifts,” by the name of free gifts prevailing on them not only not to grieve but even to be thankful. “And withal consider this also,” saith he, “that even if thou art made inferior in the measure of what is given; in that it hath been vouchsafed thee to receive from the same source as the other who hath received more, thou hast equal honor. For certainly thou canst not say that the Spirit bestowed the gift on him, but an angel on thee: since the Spirit bestowed it both on thee and him. Wherefore” he added, “but the same Spirit.” So that even if there be a difference in the gift, yet is there no difference in the Giver. For from the same Fountain ye are drawing, both thou and he.

The apparent lesson here is simply that pride and jealousy based on talent or function in the Church is utterly unfounded. This, of course, is a helpful lesson for the career-hunter to remember. But much more is revealed when St. Paul and St. John speak of why precisely one man is a teacher, another an apostle and a third an administrator. They are as they are because each is given certain gifts by the Holy Spirit — each chooses his function, or is chosen for it, on the basis simply of the manner in which the grace of God expressed itself in him.

If this is true within the context of the Church, it is equally true without. Just as the gifts which direct each person toward certain functions within the Church are a gift of God, so too our natural talents and proclivities, indeed, our very life, is a gift of God, who created us. Thus it is these which should guide our choice of an occupation in which to work out our salvation.

This is not to say that a person should decide their occupation on the basis of his talents alone. Many have done this and found themselves miserable years later. It is important to remember that the desires of the heart are a gift of God as much as any talent — and it is those desires and yearnings which can direct a person who has no particular aptitude in a field to excel beyond measure in it. And, conversely, a tremendous talent in music (for example) will not bring success in a musical career if one lacks the passionate love for music which has always characterized success. Success in any career, indeed, in life itself is not determined nearly so much by talent as it is by zeal. And zeal is as much a gift from God our Creator as any talent.

That said, let us not neglect to read on into 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul, having dealt with the matter of spiritual gifts, exhorts the Church at Corinth (and us with them) to seek the greatest gift of all: Love. It is this, indeed, which most perfectly characterizes the Christian calling — it is this “by which all men will know” that we are Christ's disciples. It is by this, the greatest gift of all, that we will be conformed to the image and likeness of the Son of God. All other gifts will, in the end, fade away — Love alone never fails.