higher calling?

The most difficult part to write of Becoming Worldly Saints was p. 104-5. Throughout the book I emphasize how the unified story of Scripture means that all callings matter. Every wholesome task, regardless how small it seems, can be done unto the Lord and receive his reward (Col. 3:23-24).

And yet, there are two distinctions within the story that indicate that some things matter more. The supernatural (God) trumps the natural and redemption trumps creation, though not at the expense of either. This priority on God and redemption seems to give special priority to gospel ministry. Paul calls it “a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1); Peter says those who shepherd well will receive a “crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:1-4); James says they will be “judged more strictly” (Jam. 3:1); and Jesus said the task requires a special act of God to perform (Matt. 19:25-26).

In the book I call the Christian ministry a “higher calling,” though emphasizing that this does not mean better. God rewards our heart, not the height of our work. Last month, when I opened the floor to questions from a group of pastors, this was the area they wanted to talk about most. None of us wanted to call the gospel ministry “higher,” but every term we used in its place (“weightier,” “heavier,” “special,” “unique”), seemed to indicate the same thing.

I said the main difference between gospel ministry and valuable ordinary callings is that I cannot do the former without a special anointing from God. I pray before I preach because without the work of God my words will fall flatter than a joke told by a German accountant. Conversely, I don’t prepare spiritually to change the oil in my car. I just do it. One pastor said this is the reason he would fire his associate pastor for having an affair but not his employee at Jiffy Lube. The weightier responsibility of gospel ministry requires higher ethical standards.

This distinction among callings is also evident among those who are not called to be pastors. All callings count, but not all count the same. I asked one of our panelists if she thought being a mother was a higher calling than being a college professor. She said no, but I suspect her children would disagree. If it were necessary, I’m sure she would quit her teaching job to spend more time with the ailing child that needed her. She may not want to say that being a mom is higher, but she does think it’s more important, which is about the same thing.

Becoming Worldly Saints encourages us to embrace life’s tensions. I’m not looking to be balanced, but to grasp both extremes with both hands. I want to enjoy as much earthly pleasure as possible and live for as much heavenly purpose too. I want to emphasize that all callings count and yet, if I’m faithful to Scripture, confess that some aspects of life count more than others.

Have you thought about this tension? How do you privilege gospel ministry without minimizing the contributions of chefs, doctors, and construction workers?

Update:  In discussing this post on Facebook, I realized that it’s also important to say that every calling will matter more at one time or another. If my garbage is piling up in the street, then I need the work of the refuse company more than I need another sermon. If my car isn’t starting, I need a mechanic more than I need my pastor. So while in the objective sense, those callings that touch most directly on God may carry special weight, yet in everyday life we often need the service of ordinary callings more than the “religious” ones.

Photo by George Bannister. Used by permission. Sourced via Flickr.

3 Comments

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  1. I think part of the struggle for me, is that in the very process of bringing down the sacred and secular distinctions that have been carried too far by Platonism . . . we come back around to verifying that there is indeed a distinction. And ultimately I struggle to speak of this distinction. And without words to speak of this distinction the church falls back into using the terms “sacred/spiritual” and “secular” . . . And the misunderstandings are recycled.

  2. We just need to use the right distinctions. It’s God/creation, not Plato’s immaterial/material (or spiritual/physical).

  3. Elden stielstra March 24, 2015 — 10:46 am

    For two years I served as chaplain in the ER and ICU units of a large hospital. One day I knew this was not my calling and I went back my true calling of over seeing 3500 truck drivers. Being used by God can take on many colors and shapes.

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