Work dominates adult life, with most of us spending more than 92,000 hours at our place of employment. So it's not surprising that we aspire for work that has more meaning than just allowing us to pay the bills. What we hope to find is not a job, but a vocation – what the American author Frederick Buechner defines as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need". In his book, Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, the writer, teacher and activist Parker Palmer urges us to first discover who we are, and let that then shape what we do: "The deepest vocational question is not, 'What ought I to do with my life?' It is the more elemental and demanding 'Who am I? What is my nature?'".
Christians often ask other questions, along the lines of 'What is God's plan for my life? What is my calling and purpose?' fully expecting divine career guidance.
But I've come to believe that the idea of vocation can be deeply problematic. Here's why:
1. Chasing a vocation is a luxury only afforded to the most privileged on the planet
If you are angsting about what your vocation is, as I have done on many an occasion, I find it restores perspective to consider the idea in a global context. Does the man selling oranges on the side of the railway in India have a sense of calling? Does the Bangladeshi woman sewing buttons on to shirts destined for UK high streets morning to night concern herself with whether her task is fulfilling? Is the Kenyan construction worker praying about whether God's plan is actually for him to be a teacher instead? I'd imagine they are just glad to have a way to feed their families.
2. The idea of vocation can lead to dissatisfaction for those who are doing 'just a job'
If we are constantly craning to see what is over the horizon, we miss what is right in front of us. Is it time we stop dreaming of an ideal role and work on our attitude towards our current one? Gratitude leads to contentment. Discontent leads to resentment.
3. We are not what we do
There are some jobs that provide an identity to wear with pride: "I'm a doctor. I'm a pastor. I'm a photographer. I'm a lawyer." I was chatting to my sister-in-law earlier today. She's working as an assistant to a PA. "I'm not even a PA," she said. "What you are," I replied, "is a wife, a mother, a sister, an artist, a writer, a reader and a thinker." All of us are far more than the functions we are employed to fulfil. We are God's precious children. We are people with a unique set of characteristics, preferences, perspectives and relationships. We have memories and desires and stories that shape who we are. We are not our jobs.
4. There is more to life than work
As Leslie says in the TV show Parks and Recreation: "We need to remember what's important in life. Friends, waffles, and work. Or waffles, friends, work. It doesn't matter. But work is third."
5. There is value and worth in all work done for the glory of God
Eugene Peterson coins a term, 'kingwork' that he uses to represent all work that reflects God's work – ordering chaos, honouring and stewarding people, creatures and land, healing the sick, and fighting injustice. He writes: "Jobs are important. Things need to be done. But no job is perfectly suited for carrying out God's purposes. The key to living vocationally – that is, being 'God-called,' Spirit-annointed – isn't getting the right job or career but doing kingwork in whatever circumstances we find ourselves."
If you have found yourself in the happy place of being employed to do something you feel you were created to do, that has perfect synergy with your values and your passion, that gets you out of bed in the morning fired up with the knowledge you have found your true purpose, I celebrate with you. You are one of the lucky few. But I caution you not to urge others to hold out for the same good fortune. Instead, encourage and appreciate those who are slogging away to keep your streets clean, to untangle the tax code for you, to answer phones, enter data, stack shelves, unblock drains and drive trucks.
And if you are in a job no child would ever dream of growing up to do, be grateful, do it well, invest in relationships with your co-workers and use your free time creatively. Adam and Eve worked in the garden of Eden. There will be work to be done in the new heavens and earth. Let's do whatever we have to do "as if working for the Lord" (Colossians 3:23).
Jo Swinney @joswinney is an author, speaker and editor of Preach Magazine. She has a Masters in Theology from Regent College, Vancouver, and lives in South West London with her vicar husband and their two little girls.