First Press February/March 2020

an early modern sketch of John Calvin

John Calvin (Part 2): A Job or a Calling?
By Rev. Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner, with Lisa Justice

This is the second installment in a series by Pastor Johanna on one of her favorite theologians–John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, and on his instruction manual on the fundamentals of the faith–Institutes of the Christian Religion.

What’s the difference between a job and a calling? Is there a difference? In our contemporary 24/7 work world, we are obsessed with achievement, keep working after hours and on vacation, and measure our personal worth by how much we can get done.

What can a 16th-century theologian possibly have to say to help us navigate the frenetic pace of our modern lives? In the case of John Calvin, quite a bit. Calvin would tell us to pay attention to our vocations.

When we think of the word “vocation,” we may think about a person’s profession—the job to which their education, training, and aptitudes have fit them. But for Calvin this word means something more. It’s the work God has given a person to focus on as a means of controlling the human appetite to have a hand in every pie, to quote an old adage.

Calvin writes, “God knows the boiling restlessness of the human mind, the fickleness with which it is borne hither and thither, its eagerness to hold opposites at one time in its grasp, its ambition. Therefore, lest all things should be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life.”

God knows that trying to do it all is an inherent part of being human. So Calvin says God has given each one of us “distinct duties,” a calling, a vocation. God has set us up not for scattered chaos, but for focused success.

Calvin is not primarily concerned with the modern idea of finding fulfillment through work. He’s more interested in the way our work can function to slow us down, to relieve our anxieties, to prevent us from being “always driven about at random.”

Sound unfamiliar? We typically think of work as a source of stress, something that’s hard. But for Calvin, if we are employing our God-given vocation, work should be the opposite, a source of peace and assurance.

Calvin would have us remember that we live in a world full of other people, each with their own efforts to make on behalf of their fellow human beings. We don’t have to do everything!

Calvin would also have us remember that this world is ultimately God’s responsibility. More often than we realize, it’s more needful that we get out of His way than that we take on that one extra thing.

The cover of the February/March 2020 edition of the First Press with a sketch of John Calvin