God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. By Gene Edward Veith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002, 2011. 176 pages. Paper, $15.99.
In God at Work, Gene Edward Veith introduces the Lutheran doctrine of vocation and thereby presents a different way of understanding the meaning and purpose of the Christian life.
The term “vocation” comes from the Latin vocatio meaning “calling.” The medieval church thought of vocation in a strictly monastic sense. The only God-given callings were to become a nun, monk, or a priest. Every other way of life was thought of as being of lesser importance.
Luther changed that perspective by drastically expanding the nature of God’s calling. He taught that not every God-given vocation was explicitly pastoral (e.g. the calling to be a pastor, missionary, or teacher). Even the most mundane of “wordly” vocations were given to us from God and could accomplish an important spiritual work (p. 19). According to Luther, ordinary human labor (which the church had implicitly denigrated) could be spiritually satisfying and fulfilling because peasants, craftsmen, doctors, bakers, fathers, mothers, and children all had their proper vocation from God. A pastor preaching from the pulpit was no more spiritual than a father changing a diaper. Both activities pleased God and served His purposes:
Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools (Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage”).
Although Luther’s emphasis on the spiritual benefit of ordinary human work was itself a major transformation of the medieval approach, Luther’s understanding of how God’s providence was accomplished through our ordinary vocations was even more radical.
Many people have an overly supernatural view of how God operates in the world. They think that God only rarely intervenes in human affairs, usually through miracles. Otherwise, God seems absent. But Luther’s doctrine of vocation brought God down to earth. Instead of rarely acting in the world, Luther taught that God was continuously working in and through our normal lives. He challenged people to see that God accomplishes His providential care for the world through our vocations (p. 23). According to Luther, vocation is a “mask of God.” That is to say, God hides Himself in the work that we do. It is not obvious that is God is at work. But no matter how mundane our vocations may appear, God uses it work out His purposes.
To take just one example, consider how this changes the meaning of modern medicine. There are many religious groups who consider it a lack of faith to take someone to see a doctor. They want God to heal, and they understand God’s healing solely in miraculous terms. Even Evangelicals who are cessationists often think that being healed through normal medical practices is somehow less wondrous and spiritual than experiencing a healing during a revival meeting. But on the Lutheran view, this whole approach to miracle healing vs. modern medicine is tantamount to superstition. Once we understand that ordinary vocations are callings from God and that He uses them to accomplish His purposes, we will see modern medicine as part of God’s providential care for the world. If a Pentecostal wants the gift of healing, he will fast, pray, repent, and implore God to give it to him. If a Lutheran wants the gift of healing, she will go to school to become a nurse or a doctor.
What holds true for healing is also true for most other vocations. God provides for us through ordinary means. Instead of speaking to us through eerie voices and visions, He uses Bibles and pastors who teach us His Word. Instead of dropping our daily bread from the sky, God feeds us through farmers, millers, bakers, and grocers. Instead of shirts and pants magically appearing in our closets, God clothes us through our employers, tailors, and department stores. If we are disappointed when we do not see miracles, it is not because God is absent from our lives, but because we lack the faith to see God at work in the ordinary things (p. 26).
This is a powerful book. It serves as a strong antidote to the danger of over-spiritualizing the Christian life. There are chapters describing what vocations are, God’s purpose for them, and about how to discover the vocations we have as workers, family members, citizens, and church members. I personally benefited from reading it. As a new father, I was concerned that all the time I had to spend with my newborns was taking away from more “spiritual” pursuits like studying the Bible, spending quiet time with God, and writing theology. But Veith encouraged me to see that taking care of my children is one of my vocations from God and it is spiritually valuable in its own right. God is using me to care for my wife and children, and using them to minister to me. Being spiritual does not mean having to choose devotionals over diapers. Both are from God. Highly recommended.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society