A Call to Work

A Call to Work: Reconciling the notions of calling and vocation

The film Moana tells the tale of a Polynesian princess on a quest to save her tribe and its dying island by restoring the stolen heart of the sea, a stone of the island goddess, Te Fiti. Moana, however, fundamentally revolves not around restoring the heart of the sea back to its rightful place in the world but around searching for personal calling and finding one’s place in the world. Throughout her life, Moana experiences and struggles with the feeling of calling by the waters of the ocean despite her call by her father to stay on the island and prepare to be the next ruler of the tribe. In fact, she sings song, “How Far I’ll Go,” to contrast her feelings of being called in two directions. The song contrasts her call by the ocean to explore – “But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try… Every path I make, every road leads back// To the place I know, where I can not go, where I long to be” – with her call by society to fit into a predefined role of future chieftain – “everybody on this island has a role on this island// so maybe I can roll with mine.” Moana’s internal struggle is to find and fulfill her true calling, which she equates to finding her true self, either to explore the ocean or serve her people as their next chieftain. Moana, ultimately, chooses to follow the ocean; inadvertently, she also saves her people in the process.

Moana reflects the human desire for a grandiose purpose in life. This film suggests that we, as humans, have one life calling or lofty goal that we must attain in order to be happy – we only need to figure out what it is. Moreover, Moana supposes that our calling should take us out of the ordinary, for we can only fulfill it by defying expectations set by society or typical human limitations. It supposes that our calling must be extraordinary. The sea calls Moana to leave every single physical thing she has ever known, deny the wishes of her chieftain father, and travel into the great unknown.

The search and fulfillment of a big life calling, as found in Moana, is exciting and appealing – presumably the reason for the movie’s box office success. Such narratives, however, can set unattainable expectations. Some people may spend their lives chasing the unsatisfactory winds of a supposed calling, and others will never find a passion to chase. A great deal of us may feel unfulfilled with our lives because our daily jobs, that is, our vocation, which fill much of our time, do not meet these expectations for calling. As a result, we feel a fundamental disconnect between our calling and our vocation. But, perhaps these need not be at odds; perhaps through looking at a narrative different than the one expressed in Moana, we can reconcile calling and vocation. Through examining the biblical notions of calling and vocation, we will see how these seemingly opposites – a longing for something grand and the reality of the mundane – actually complement each other. Moreover, we will see how calling and vocation are the same and apply to all of life. Such a narrative will give meaning to all our work and provide us with a better narrative around which we can order our lives.

Moana is one expression of the way vocation and calling are set against each other in society today. Vocation tends to mean a person’s paid work and often occurs in the context of certain types of training. In the United States, “vocational training” often refers to education at a technical school which prepares a person for a specific trade such as auto mechanics or carpentry. Vocation often carries a connotation of a mundane life or one filled with drudgery.

By contrast, people refer to their calling as some great task they feel obligated to fulfill. Such tasks can be related to a profession and include starting an orphanage in Rwanda as an educator, addressing sex trafficking in Bangladesh as a social worker, or starring in a rock band as a musician. Such tasks can also include activities someone loves or does well but are not related to profession. Someone may call working as a receptionist his vocation but painting watercolors his calling.[1]

Some Christians echo this understanding of the relationship between vocation and calling as two separate things that occasionally overlap; they view Christian calling as a grandiose purpose related to the church and vocation as the specific job one holds in order to fulfill this calling. For these Christians, a job merely provides financial stability to do the important work in the church such as teaching Sunday school or organizing meals for the homeless, activities which are somehow more godly than their jobs.

For other Christians, vocation is synonymous with calling only when one’s paid work and church work directly align. In fact, this is most often the case when Christians use the term “vocation”. In the Catholic Church, vocation most specifically refers to priesthood, for it is considered a high calling from God and is also a profession. Other jobs, however, do not fulfill this definition of vocation. For example, one cannot reconcile working in a bank or grocery store with a specifically Christian calling such as pastoral care, so these jobs are not considered vocations.

While some Christians may think of vocation and calling as different or limit vocation to a select handful of occupations, both the Catholic and Protestant traditions have supported a secondary view of the relationship between vocation and calling in which calling applies to any area in life including vocation or profession. In this sense, vocations that are not specifically church-bent still can fulfill Christian calling. Furthermore, this view insists that vocation and calling are the same, thus evoking the original meaning of vocation which comes from the latin word vox, meaning voice, and a related word vocare, meaning to call.

More recently, Vatican II, a council between 1962-1965 which addressed the relation of the Catholic church to the modern world, modified the Catholic view of vocation from a calling specifically for the priesthood to instead include occupations of the laity and the various spheres in which they work.[2] Previously, Catholic vocation was strictly categorized into four areas: married life, single life, consecrated life, and ordained ministry. Yet after Vatican II, Catholicism adopted this wider understanding of vocation in which vocation applies to all spheres of life. Here, vocation is synonymous with calling and will be used as such hereafter.

Traditionally, the Protestant view leant more heavily towards this stance of vocation which includes all occupations. This view follows the teachings of Martin Luther, one of the central figures of the Protestant Reformation, who emphasized the importance of understanding that calling addresses every aspect of a person’s life; as such, all occupations can work towards a person’s vocation.

In his writings, Luther stressed two points. First, he stressed that Christian vocation primarily applies to the calling into faith or into Christianity. Second, he stressed, in reaction to the church’s view on vocation at the time, that Christian vocation applies to the individual callings of a Christian’s life: his occupation as well as his everyday activities.[3]

Firstly, Luther asserted that vocation firstly refers to a person’s call into the Christian faith and used biblical text to support his claim. In the Bible, “calling” is described using the Hebrew term “qārā” and the Greek term “kalein” which can mean either “to name” or “to summon.”[4] These definitions can be used in conjunction because God, in the Old Testament, names people with specific names that characterize their lives. In Genesis, God changes Abram’s name, which means exalted father to Abraham, which means father of many.[5] This change of name signifies the life calling God prepares for Abraham, that he would be the father of a nation, namely, the Israelites. In this sense, Abraham is called to join in God’s plan through faith. Hebrews 11, a chapter recounting the faith of the patriarchs in response to God’s calling, comments on Abraham: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”[6] (italics added) Abraham, like others in God’s family, responded with faith after God called him. Similarly, the New Testament uses a term ekklesia for the church. Ek means out of or from, and klesia means calling, so the church is literally individuals called to be God’s people.[7] This is the primary usage of the idea of calling in the Bible;[8] to be called is to join the Christian faith.

Secondly, through the writings of the apostle Paul, Luther understood vocation to refer to specific aspects of life as well. Paul uses the term klesei (form related to klesia) to encourage Christians to remain in their stations in life because they are called to those stations.[9] In Ephesians 4, Paul urges his fellow Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling [klesei] you have received”10 and continues through the next chapters to explain how this calling relates to different stations in life. In Ephesians 6, Paul exhorts those who are servants to remain as servants and continue to serve their masters as if serving God and those in positions of power to remain in power and use their position to further God’s kingdom.[11] Although this passage should not be used as willful subjugation, it reminds Christians that their chief goal is not high earthly positions; they can faithfully serve God wherever he calls them. Additionally, Ephesians 5-6 also gives instructions for husbands and wives and children and fathers, as well as other parts of life. As Ephesians addresses all aspects of life, Christians are called to continue living in their “places of responsibility,” in their jobs but also in their families, their schools, their economic surroundings, and their political surroundings.

When one pursues a single lofty calling, or when one’s life is saturated with people who find their “pastor” life calling, or some big step they know they should take in their lives, one can easily forget the callings that apply to daily life. In the Bible, we see figures like Moses who, despite his meek nature, was called to speak to the Pharaoh, the highest leader in the land and lead the Israelites out of captivity.[12] We see New Testament figures like Paul, who was literally struck down on a road and blinded so that he would follow God and share the news of Jesus with all nations.[13] Yet, at the same time, the Bible is full of stories of people who served in common ways. In the Old Testament, God called the Israelite builders, specifically Bezalel, to construct the temple and gave them wisdom and talents. Rather than providing his own supernatural methods, God worked through human means.[14] In the New Testament, Lydia, a seller of purple cloth and therefore someone of financial status, housed Paul and the other men who were traveling to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.[15] Lydia used her resources to serve rather than adopting an entire new lifestyle to serve her calling. Similarly, we are called to serve in the situations in which we currently are.

These two understandings of calling; firstly as a calling into the Christian faith, and secondly as a calling in every aspect of daily life, function not separately but work together. The first motivates the second, and the second carries out the first. A Christian can find value in his daily life, in washing the dishes and in completing problem sets, because he knows that his life has purpose given to him by God. At the same time, through these activities, he can better fulfill his calling to be a Christian, first to love God and second to love neighbor. This is the crux of the Christian life – to live in the light of one’s calling to the Christian faith by living out daily calling.

In contrast to Moana, which portrays the narrative of fulfilling a quest calling far removed from ordinary life, It’s A Wonderful Life tells the narrative of the goodness of honest living. This 1946 black and white classic tells the tale of a man, George Bailey, who works as a banker in a town where money is tight. Despite his own financial situation, he generously supports different townsfolk and ensures their wellness. After a financial crisis, Bailey stands on a bridge, staring out over the rushing waters, and considers suicide. To change his mind, his guardian angel shows him a world in which he had never been born. Bailey visits his friends and family and, to his horror, they lack the goodness and liveliness for which Bailey knew them. His brother passes away as a child (Bailey actually saved him from a sledding accident); his mother is an unfeeling, childless widow who lacks generosity and love; and his wife is a feeble librarian who lacks family and spirit. Through these scenes, Bailey, as well as the audience, learns how his life so positively impacts his family and neighbors. Although Bailey had despaired, he learns through his guardian angel the beauty of his quiet, faithful life.

After watching this movie, I always feel hopeful about my life and the lives of others around me. Yes, filmmakers often paint the idyllic small-town picture, but George Bailey’s story still reminds me of the importance of the seemingly mundane. Even when it seems as if our daily work does not relate to our life aspirations, we learn that they often relate to each other more than one might think. Unknowingly, George Bailey fulfills a great calling simply by serving his neighbors. Like Moana, he also saves a whole community from subjugation. As such, his story differs less from Moana’s than one might first suppose. And for us at Cornell, that which we deem to be ordinary parts of our lives are actually part of God’s extraordinary plan. Knowing this, we can diligently work in the roles in which we are placed: student, classmate, and friend.


1 Douglas J. Shuurman. Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

2 “What is Vocation?.” Vocation.com, Vocation Action Circle, 2011, vocation.com/QandAItem. aspx?id=1831. Accessed 24 Mar. 2017.

3 Gustaf Wingren. Luther on Vocation. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004.

4 Douglas J. Shuurman. Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

5 Genesis 17:5

6 Hebrews 11:8

7 Romans 8:30

8 Douglas J. Shuurman. Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

9 Ibid

10 Ephesians 4:1

11 Ephesians 6

12 Exodus 3

13 Acts 9

14 1 Kings 5

15 Acts 16


Ellie Schmucker, a proud Philadelphian to the core, studies Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is a sophomore.

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