To understand why virtuous living matters we need to explore the concept of vocation. In particular we need to understand the difference between a general vocation and a specific vocation. Let me use life as an example of these two dimensions of vocation to help explain these concepts. I serve the Lord through a number of particular vocations. First, I work as a psychology professor at a Christian university. That’s a particular vocation at a particular place in which I serve the Kingdom of God by educating students in the discipline of psychology. In addition to my job as a psychology professor I’m an ordained minister in a particular church body. That again is a particular vocation in which I serve a particular part of the body of Christ. Yet, within all these particular vocations there is a general vocation I exercise simply because I call myself Christian. Part of this general vocation includes the idea Christians are an incarnational representation of a number of virtues within the families and communities they live. To be Christian is to be a living sign of forgiveness, gratitude, patience, etc., all the virtues Christ displayed as transforming agents in the Roman world.
For the Christian, a vocation is a response to a divine call. A vocation finds its source in God, not in the individual. It’s a God given call (Thus the english word derives its meaning from the Latin word vocare meaning to call) to which one must respond. The individual must respond but the response must be discerned through a number of channels, one in particular is the Christian community. The community in which the individual lives is part of the discernment, particularly when we talk about particular vocations. A particular vocation is always mediated through a faith community. Ministry is a perfect example of this need for community as part of its discernment because most Christians cannot simply proclaim themselves as ministers and pastor for a non-existent church. There is always a community helping an individual discern whether or not they are truly experiencing the call to minister to others. This community may be the local church, a larger church body, or the seminary faculty.
While our particular vocations are discerned through a number of channels and take time to process, our common vocation is much more evident. By surrendering to Christ we immediately say we will live out our salvation in a number of ways which identify us as Christian. This common vocation requires us to love and serve God above all else and then our neighbor. Vocation in the Christian sense has ontological implications as well functional implications. It’s a type of “being” manifested in “doing.” The Christian “takes back” his or her human dignity by choosing a life of grace instead of a natural life impacted by sin. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, a human life is best lived when it reflects the divine life in this fallen world. The Christian regains (Through grace) a special human dignity and lives in this dignified manner through acts of love toward God and neighbor. To live the general Christian vocation is to live as Christ demonstrates in Matthew 5:13-16:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way , let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
This passage is a reminder that God intends us to live lives incarnationally reflecting the divine life so the world may be transformed to more perfectly reflect the coming and present Kingdom of God. Part of the Christian’s common vocation is to live kingdom values in the world seeking what is best for it. Why is this part of the Christian vocation? Because God intended human beings to live virtuously as benevolent caretakers of creation giving him glory and praise. In our fallen state we’re content to live creaturely instead of in a grace filled supernatural way. We would rather live in darkness than in light. The virtuous life is deemed useless because it benefits others more than it does ourselves. The light of kingdom values gets covered up and never gives the world the guidance it needs, the guidance we are to provide as God’s caretakers of the created order. People give up the core of who they are choosing to be something less than God intends with every selfish and sinful act. The Christian vocation calls us to recognize through Christ we’ve been “Fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and are “Little less than the angels” (Hebrews 2:7). Sin has caused us to forget who we are causing us to embrace our creaturely, selfish, unfruitful lives instead of the grace filled lives we were originally created to have.
I encourage you to explore both your particular and the general Christian vocation so that they compliment one another in the life you live. God has called us to a new life in Christ and this changes who we are and what we do. This new life however, is lived in a particular way, and when the particular vocation you have lines up well with the general vocation you have received as a Christian, the world is transformed and God is given glory for the majesty in which he has crowed the human person.