I was reading through Ephesians (in my KJV Bible) when a word caught my eye. Earlier, I’d been reading something about the word history of “vocation,” and learned that it wasn’t until fairly recently that it referred to anything other than an ecclesiastical calling. With that in mind, I thought the word choice in Ephesians 4:1 was intriguing:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called
Prior to the mid 1500s, the definition of vocation was always linked to a calling from God (vocation, n. Oxford English Dictionary Online). Of the 11 definitions given in the OED, 5 have to do with a religious calling. Even after the word expanded, the primary meaning continued to involve a Christian calling – there simply weren’t other employments that you could choose instead of being born into. Here are two of the definitions (1a was first recorded in 1426, and 2a was in use by 1487):
1 a. The action on the part of God of calling a person to exercise some special function, especially of a spiritual nature, or to fill a certain position; divine influence or guidance towards a definite (esp. religious) career; the fact of being so called or directed towards a special work in life; natural tendency to, or fitness for, such work.
2 a. The particular function or station to which a person is called by God; a mode of life or sphere of action regarded as so determined.
Back when the King James Bible was being readied for its publication in 1611, these are the definitions they would have had in mind when they chose to translate the Greek word klesis (G2821 κλῆσις) as “vocation” here and as “calling” in ten other places. For them, a life’s work which you were called to had to involve Christianity.
Though one of the main reasons we can use “vocation” more generally now is that we have the freedom to choose a profession other than that of our parents, I think it goes deeper than that. It is telling of our society that when we think of a vocation, we rarely (if ever) think of anything religious or spiritual.
When we talk about finding your life’s work or discovering your calling, we mean finding employment that is lucrative and enjoyable for us. Even as Christians, when people ask “what do you do?” we are more likely to respond by telling them about our job than about our faith. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But (except in a setting where we should clearly be talking about the kind of work we do) maybe we should re-think this. Our true vocation – our calling from God – should be the one that’s more interesting to talk about and more important to share.