Is it possible for Christians to experience a sense of vocation in the contemporary world of work? This is the question French philosopher and Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul tries to answer. Departing from what it can be considered a majority consensus in the Reformed tradition, Ellul rejects, in his view of vocation, the idea that in the Scriptures we can understand the terms vocation and work as having the same meaning. Rather, he argues that both terms must be understood differently, and for this reason, Christians cannot experience their sense of vocation in the same way people in mainstream society understand the notion of work.
For Ellul work can be defined as the means by which we earn our daily sustenance in order to survive. In this respect, the modern notion of work lacks two important characteristics: service and meaning. Vocation, in contrast, is a calling made by God to serve the neighbor. Because callings come from God, they have a divine origin and only God can grant them. Ellul holds this position not only because he believes it represents the biblical view but also because he thinks modern societies have made irreconcilable the identification of work with vocation. In part, modern societies have redefined the concept of work by the influence of the process of industrialization and the promotion of efficiency.
Ellul identifies two main historical reasons that have contributed to the modern misidentification of work with vocation. The first reason he offers is the Greek philosophers’ perspective on unity. The Greeks thought that what happened in the world resulted from the will of the gods so there was not a difference between a divine calling and a human need to work. The second and more important reason is the belief that the industrialized societies and their capitalist worldview have reduced work to a mere commodity, even a means in itself. In this respect, Ellul sees work as something that it has been imposed on human beings.
Besides, Ellul associates the concept of work with the order of necessity. Human begins work because they need to survive and earn their sustenance. One also notes that vocation belongs to the order of freedom where God freely calls humans beings to be obedient and serving him through. If they obey, Christians can serve the world through their gifts. This divine calling, in contrast to work, is particular and given to a person by God serving as a means to join God in his providential work in the world.
In order to find their vocations Christians should engage the world through activities that promote the common good. In this way they might discern and discover the will of God. This is so because vocation, by belonging to the order of freedom, cannot be imposed. For example, a person might feel pressured to work as a driver. However, his or her vocation can be teaching (if it is not a form of employment), a vocation that perhaps it was discovered while this person was volunteering in a school or in the church. Even at work a person can discover his/her vocation. Probably a person starts working in something that at the beginning he/she did not like. But later this person discovers God was calling him/her to perform that particular work. In this respect, something important to emphasize is that for Ellul, vocation can only be found outside of paid employment.
Although Ellul contrasts significantly the concept of work vs. calling, this does not mean he rejects the value of work. What it seems he tries to do is creating more awareness in Christians about the potential dangers of overemphasizing work and downplaying a person’s divine calling. As one sees in Ellul’s understanding of vocation, by establishing clear boundaries in the definition of work and vocation, Christians might discern God’s will better and serve him in the best way as possible without succumbing to alienation factors such as the overemphasis of technique and efficiency found in the modern concept of work. At the end, vocation has for Ellul a communal dimension. Christian do not find their vocation in isolation but midst of a community they are serving.