Is my vocation a spiritual gift?
Stand-up comedian Chris Rock has a routine about the difference between a 'job' and a 'career'. He jokes that a job is something to be endured, like washing dishes at the back of a restaurant. A career, on the other hand, is fulfilling, a mark of status and arrival.
If you feel as though you work a 'job', you might never ask if it's a spiritual gift. As far as you're concerned, it pays the bills. You might quit and do something else if you could, but this is where God has you right now.
In contrast, Christians with 'careers' are sometimes so in love with their work that they even ask questions like, 'Will my spreadsheets be framed and put on display in heaven?' (I'm only slightly exaggerating).
The latter might be very open to the idea that their work is a spiritual gift and might even feel a bit miffed if the answer is 'No'. The former may never even ask the question in the first place.
It is a good question though because it likely comes from a desire to integrate the different spheres of our lives into a coherent whole. We don't live in a split universe, with the 'spiritual' over here and the 'secular' over there. For the Christian, all of life, both inside and outside the church gathering, is to be lived in worship to God (Romans 12:1).
Now, given that spiritual gifts can be so diverse, covering everything from speaking in tongues to managing the church database, where do they stop? If I have a spiritual gift in administration, and I also work in administration nine-to-five, is my church work somehow empowered by the Spirit in a way that my employed work isn't?
Here's a principle for reflection: your whole life witnesses to the kingdom, but your spiritual gifts actually build it.
Here’s the groundwork for why I believe this. God is on mission. His mission has a kingdom. Jesus is building God's kingdom with his mission partner, the church. To equip us for this partnership the Holy Spirit has given us gifts, which are Spirit-empowered abilities that enable us to work effectively with Jesus.
God puts us together in a worshipping community in order to build his church in that place.
But the church doesn't only gather in worship, it also scatters throughout the week. God has a purpose for us while we're scattered. He assigns us to different stations of life. Have a look at 1 Corinthians 7:17-24:
Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Speaking in the language of first-century stations of life, Paul teaches that God assigns each of us to certain spheres where we are to live out our Christian witness: Jew, Gentile, slave, free, married, single, etc. Our lives are not accidents. God places us where he wants us.
It's interesting too, that this doesn't mean that every circumstance is ideal. Slaves (who obviously had 'jobs' rather than 'careers'!) are told to win their freedom if they can, but not to be worried otherwise, because their life of service still counts as acceptable worship to God even in a broken and unjust system. But there's flexibility. We are assigned, not locked in without the possibility of change.
We live out our witness to the kingdom not only in the church but also in the world, in the places God has assigned us to. He has a purpose for us there, so we should lean into it, ask the Spirit to open our eyes to it, and see what God wants to do through us.
That sphere itself might not properly be called a spiritual gift, although it might be. Paul saw singleness as a gift (1 Corinthians 7:7). On the other hand, slavery was not a gift but a sinful institution resulting from a fallen world. Being a Jew or a Gentile was not a matter of gifting in Paul's sense of the term, but Jewish heritage carried with it many spiritual privileges (Romans 3:1-2).
The best way to describe our vocational sphere, I think, is as a context for witness to the coming kingdom. But in order to make that witness effective in changing lives, we need to add spiritual gifts to the mix. Our whole life, including our vocational life, witnesses to the kingdom, but it's our spiritual gifts that actually build it.
Let's return to the thorny question of admin. Your administrative skills might function as a spiritual gift in the context of the church community, because of the way they help to support the church in its worship and mission.
Once your admin skills are removed from that context, however, and deployed in the secular workforce, they don't have the effect of making or growing disciples, or directly supporting the work of doing so. This means that from nine-to-five your admin skills are functioning outside of that 'charismatic' or Spirit-empowered, mission-driven domain. These skills function as a spiritual gift inside the church community, but not outside of it.
This contrasts with the gift of evangelism, which might function more effectively outside of the church community than within it. I even know of Christians who have a ministry of praying with sick people at work, and God has answered their prayers on a number of occasions! Their actual employment may not be a spiritual gift in and of itself, but it functions as a context in which their spiritual gifts can be deployed to build the kingdom by bringing people to Christ through witness in word and deed.
Now let me complicate things. Suppose you work in admin, but you pray for the ability to share the gospel and God gives you that gift. You evangelise in word, and you back it up in deed by doing quality admin. Then one day a colleague says to you, "I know you're a Christian, and the way you go about your work demonstrates that there's something real about your faith. I'm interested in learning more. Can we have coffee?"
Now, are we going to say that the verbal witness was the spiritual gift, and the admin wasn't? Weren't both working in such a way that together they were effective in drawing someone to Christ? If so, then doesn't the admin itself start to take on the character of a spiritual gift?
Spiritual gifts can be identified by their function, which is to build up the kingdom of God in numbers and in maturity.
To the extent that your vocational life (including broader community involvement, marriage or singleness, friendship networks) intersects with this function, it takes on the character of spiritual gifting. When it is combined with the gospel message and becomes part of effective witness, it can be described as a spiritual gift.
So think of your vocational life as a context for witness to the kingdom. In order to make that witness effective such that lives are transformed, pray for spiritual gifts, such as evangelism, and pray that your work itself may take on the character of a spiritual gift as it melds with the gospel message to effectively lead people to Christ, not only witnessing to the coming kingdom, but building it too.
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