Everyday Work — a Divine Calling
Robert Dale, 1884
It used to be common to speak of a man's trade, profession, or official employment, as his "calling." But I think that the word, in this sense, has almost dropped out of use, perhaps because it seems inappropriate and unmeaning. Its Latin equivalent has been rather more fortunate, and is still occasionally used to describe the higher forms of intellectual activity. It is sometimes said, for instance, of a thoughtful, scholarly man who is not very successful as a manufacturer, that he has missed his way, and that his true "vocation" was literature.
It is only when we are speaking of the most sacred or most heroic kinds of service, that we have the courage to recognise a Divine "call" as giving a man authority to undertake them. That a great religious reformer should think of himself as divinely "called" to deliver the Church from gross errors and superstitions, and lead it to a nobler righteousness, does not surprise us. It does not surprise us that a great patriot should believe himself "called" of God to redress the wrongs of his country. And among those who are impressed by the glorious and solemn issues of the ministry of the Church, it is still common to insist on the necessity of a Divine "call" to the ministry.
It must add immeasurably to the dignity of a man's life, it must give him a sense of great security, if he seriously believes that his work has been given him by Divine appointment — that it is really his "calling."
Take a conspicuous case — the case of the Apostle Paul. He described himself as an "apostle through the will of God," as "called to be an apostle." This meant that he had not taken up the great work of his life at his own impulse; it had been laid upon him by an authority which he could not resist. He had, therefore, no occasion for restless and anxious thought about his fitness for it. There was no reason for him to ask whether his knowledge of the gospel of Christ was sufficiently large and deep for so great a task, whether his moral and religious earnestness was sufficiently intense. He was vividly conscious of his weakness and imperfections, and it was a perpetual source of surprise to him that to such a man as himself, the grace should have been given "to preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ." But God knew him better than he knew himself, and he was "called to be an apostle;" he was an apostle "through the will of God."
This relieved him from inquiries which would have diminished the force and vehemence with which he gave himself to his work. It was a motive for doing his best — for a work to which a man knows that God has appointed him, is likely to be done with courage, persistency, and vigor. It also enabled him to rely with perfect confidence on God's support. He was sure that all Divine forces were on his side.
Paul knew that his work, his "calling" in the old-fashioned sense of the word, came to him from God. But no Christian man can live a satisfactory life without a conviction of the same kind. This would be a dreary and an ignoble world — if only an apostle could say that he was doing his work "through the will of God," or if only a minister or a missionary could say it. Mechanics, merchants, tradesmen, manufacturers, clerks, doctors, lawyers, artists — if we are to live a really Christian life — we must all be sure that whatever work we are doing, it is God's will that we should do it.
Do you ask how it is possible for what is called secular work to be done in this way? Let me ask you another question — How is it possible, if you are a Christian man, that you can do your secular work at all, unless you believe that it is God's will that you should do it? What right has any man to do anything unless he has a clear and serious conviction that God wants to have it done, and done by him?
It is convenient, no doubt, to distinguish what is commonly described as "secular" from what is commonly described as "religious." We all know what the distinction means. But the distinction must not be understood to imply that in religious work we are doing God's will — and that in secular work we are not doing it.
God Himself has done, and is always doing, a great deal of work that we must call secular — and this throws considerable light on the laws which should govern our own secular calling. He is the Creator of all things. He made the earth, and He made it broad enough for us to grow corn and grass on it, to build cities on it, with town halls, courts of justice, houses of parliament, schools, universities, literary institutes and galleries of are. It is impossible to use it all for churches and chapels, or for any other "consecrated" purpose. God made a great part of the world for common uses; but since the world, every acre, every square yard of it, belongs to Him, since He is the only Freeholder — we have no right to build anything on it that He does not want to have built.
God kindled the fires of the sun, and the sun gives us light, not only on Sundays when we go to church, but on common days, and we have no right to use the sunlight for any purpose for which God does not give it.
God made the trees; but He made too many for the timber to be used only for buildings intended for religious worship. What did He make the rest for? It is His timber. He never parts with His property in it. When we buy it we do not buy it from God; we pay Him no money for it. All that we do is to pay money to our fellow-men that we may have the right to use it in God's service.
It is as secular a work to create a walnut-tree, and to provide soil and rain and warmth for its growth — as it is to make a walnut-wood table for a drawing-room out of it. It is as secular a work to create a cotton plant — as to spin the cotton and to weave it. It is as secular a work to create iron — as to make the iron into railway-tracks, into plates for steam-ships, into ploughs and harrows, nails, screws, and bedsteads. It is as secular a work to create the sun to give light in the daytime — as to make a lamp, or to build gasworks, or to manufacture gas, to give light at night.
So we see that our secular work is just of the same kind as a great part of God's work. Lay a firm hold of this very obvious truth, and see how it affects every kind of secular business.
When God orders it that a rose-bush should be fed by the earth and the air, by the rain and the dew, and should be caressed by the sunlight and the south wind, till at last it crowns itself with a lovely flower — the flower being gradually evolved from the structure of the plant — that is to me quite as wonderful as if, by a word, He suddenly called a flower out of nothing.
It is only our vulgar incapacity to recognize the mystery of familiar things which makes it less surprising and less Divine.
God made our bodies, and they are "intricately and wonderfully made." It was He who made us — and not we ourselves. These bodies, I say, God made. The architecture of the skeleton, the weaving of the tissues of the muscles, the distribution of the blood so as to feed every fiber, the quickening power of the lungs, the authority of the nerves which command motion, the sensitiveness of the nerves which are the instruments of perception, the structure of the eye and the faculty of vision, the structure of the ear and the faculty of hearing, the taste, the smell, the touch, the complex arrangements for articulate speech — are noble triumphs of God's creative power.
But our bodies will perish, unless they are fed. Does God mean them to perish? He surely means them to be strong and healthy, and therefore He means them to have food. And a man may therefore say, "I am a farmer through the will of God, for I grow the wheat by which the body which God has made is to be kept from starvation. God has made the seed, God has given wonderful qualities to the soil, God has provided the rain and the light which are necessary for a harvest, God has arranged the order of the seasons; but all that God has done will come to nothing — unless I plough the ground, and sow the seed, and send my reapers into the fields when the harvest is ripe. God takes me into partnership with Himself. He has done a great part of the work, He leaves me to do the rest. I am the servant of His infinite bounty. I am a farmer through the will of God.
Another man takes up the work where the farmer leaves it; grinds the corn into flour, and so prepares it for the uses for which God created it. He may say, "I, too, am doing work which God wants to have done, I am a miller through the will of God."
A third man takes up the work where the miller leaves it, makes the flour into bread — into just such bread as he thinks God means to give His children in answer to their prayer; he puts nothing unwholesome into it; he bakes it carefully; when he sells it, he gives full weight. And he may say, as he puts his dough into his oven or draws it out, "I, too, am doing work which God wants to have done; I am a baker through the will of God."
The body must be clothed as well as fed, so that another man may say I am a cotton-spinner; and another, I am a cotton-weaver; and another, I am a cloth-weaver; and another, I am a tailor; and another, I am a dress-maker; and another, I am a boot-maker, "through the will of God."
In this climate the body will perish if it is not sheltered from rain and snow and cold; so that a man may say, I am a brick-maker, a quarryman, a bricklayer, a stone-mason, a carpenter, a builder, "through the will of God."
The products of remote countries must be brought to us across the sea, and men may therefore claim to be ship-builders, sailors, merchants, "through the will of God."
The products of remote parts of our own country must travel by road or canal, and the men who build locomotives, who make railways, the engine-drivers, the guards, the railway clerks, and all the railway officials, the men that build barges and the bargemen, the men that construct canals and that watch the locks, the carriers, and all the people they employ, may say that they are doing their work "through the will of God."
And when all these have done their appointed service, it is necessary that the goods they have carried should be placed within reach of all the parts of every large town, and that people should be engaged in distributing them; drapers, iron-workers, and retail tradesmen of every kind, may therefore justly claim to be the agents and ministers of the Divine bounty; from their hands, men receive the finished articles of use and beauty which have been produced by a great organized army of the servants of God, out of materials which were originally created by God's own power.
Further, it is clear that God did not intend us to live alone. Human nature never reaches the height of its strength and perfection, except in cities and nations. When great numbers of men are drawn together, then civil and criminal legislation becomes necessary; the peace must be kept, property secured, justice administered, liberty protected. And every civil servant and representative of the law, from the policeman to the judges and the Lord Chancellor, from the soldier in the ranks to the Commander-in-chief, may say that he is in his place and discharging the duties of his office "through the will of God." Town counselors, members of parliament, ministers of the Crown, solicitors, barristers, may say the same.
God made the intellect of man as well as his body — and the intellect is wasted if it is not trained in schools and universities, if it is not quickened and developed by literature, science, and are. And so one man is a schoolmaster "through the will of God," and another a university professor, and another a lecturer on chemistry, and another an architect, and another a painter, and another a poet.
If I think that my own work, as a minister of the Church, is the noblest and divinest — then God forbid that I should ever give any man engaged in any legitimate occupation the impression that his work is not also noble and Divine. We are all serving God together.
It may be said that no farmer, builder, grocer, merchant, lawyer ever received a supernatural call to his especial occupation, such as Paul received to his apostleship; and that in secular life no man can be sure that he is doing the precise work which God meant him to do.
But I suppose that the paths which were open to the great majority of men in their youth were few; they had a narrow choice. They used their best judgment, and took the line of life which seemed to promise best. Perhaps in their deliberation and ultimate choice they had no thought of the will of God. But now that they are committed to a particular trade or profession — if their occupation is a lawful one, if the work they are doing must be done by somebody — they may fairly assume that they ought to go on with it.
The time has passed by for making a change. They made choice of their occupation by what they may call accident, and certainly without any conscious intention to do the will of God; but some work they must do if they are to serve God, and now there is no other work within their reach. So that, whatever may have been possible to them years ago, it is clear that it is God's will that they should remain where they are.
The principle which should guide those young men and women to whom a choice is still open, is very simple — though the application of it may often be very perplexing. Among the legitimate occupations which are accessible to them, they ought to ask — in which of them they can use most effectively the powers which God has given them.
Just now, indeed, a young man or a young woman may be grateful for any occupation offering the opportunity of serving others and getting an honest living. But when there is a choice, the first question should be, not "Where can I earn most money with the least labor?" — but "Where can I use my strength and faculty in the best way for the honor of God and the welfare of mankind?"
The difference between those two questions involves the whole difference between serving God and serving Mammon.
Take a strong case. A young man finds that he has a rare gift for scientific observation and discovery; his education has been generous, and he has the opportunity of living a life of research; but he is tempted to engage in business pursuits which offer him the certain prospect of a great fortune. If he yields to the temptation, it is clear that he makes the ignoble choice — a choice in flagrant antagonism to the laws of Christ. He was meant to be a prophet and a seer — he was divinely called to make more fully known to men the ways and thoughts of God as revealed in the material universe. Had he accepted his true mission, he would have augmented the knowledge of the race and augmented its power. He has taken a bribe from the devil to quench the light which God had kindled; he has chosen to serve himself rather than to glorify God and to bless mankind.
But that question about the choice of a business or profession is a large one, too large to be adequately discussed in a few paragraphs.
I pass on to consider how the Christian conception of a man's secular calling will affect conduct.
You, my reader, are a manufacturer, lawyer, doctor, merchant, schoolmaster, clerk, carpenter, engineer, "through the will of God" — then, of course, there will be industry and integrity in the discharge of the duties of your calling. Your work has come to you by Divine appointment — you have to fill your place in a Divine scheme. Everything will be done as in the eye of God. Of the work which God has assigned you, an account must, sooner or later, be given to Him. These generalities are sufficiently clear — look at what may be less obvious.
You are an employer of other men. The labor of ten, twenty, a hundred, perhaps five hundred families — is used and organized under your leadership. Their fortunes are largely in your hands. As long as you carry on your business successfully, their strength and skill will have sufficient occupation and they will live in comfort. You are what Mr. Carlyle used to call "a captain of industry." You are that — "through the will of God." You have charge, within certain limits, of the well-being of your people as well as of your own; and for this trust you must answer to God from whom you received it.
The old and crude distinction between what are called the professions and ordinary trades — was that in a profession a man has to place his duties to others first and his own interests second, and that in a trade he has a right to care only for his own interests and may leave other men to look after themselves. That was one reason why professions were regarded as honorable and trades as sordid and base. And if the distinction were accepted, the scorn with which people in trade were once regarded would be deserved; for their life would be utterly base and ignoble. No intelligent Christian tradesman or manufacturer who has grasped the true idea of the law of Christ as it affects the secular order, will consent that his life should be governed by so intolerable and unchristian a conception. The professional theory is the Christian theory.
A physician has no right to think of the peril to himself from going into a house where there is infection; the code of medical honor requires that at all risks he should use his skill in the service of those who send for him.
A captain in the army has no right to think of his own life first; his men are in his charge, and the code of military honor requires that, at whatever risk to himself, he should hold them together and provide for their safety.
The captain of a ship accepts the same lofty obligations. If when his vessel is on fire he jumps into a boat and pulls off, he incurs, and justly incurs, universal execration. There are innumerable stories of the cool gallantry with which sea-captains have stood on the deck in a rough sea, while the flames were making terrible headway, and have seen the women and children into the boats first, then the rest of the passengers, then the crew, and have saved themselves last of all — or, as has often happened, have gone down with the burning ship. That is required by the laws of professional honor.
This high temper, shown in other forms, will inspire a Christian man who believes that he is an employer of labor "through the will of God." He, too, as I have said, is a "captain," — a "captain of industry."
He will think of the safety of his people before his own. He will acknowledge the universal law, that authority is given for service — that honor is conferred that we may defend and bless other men. He will remember that he is a master for the sake of his men. If he trades recklessly, if he consumes in luxurious expenditure the capital on which his people depend for employment, if he sinks it in wild speculations which promise immense returns but may very probably turn out disastrously; if he gambles, that which he holds in trust for men who look to their wages for bread; or if he neglects his business and works it badly so that it slips out of his hands, and if as the result of his carelessness the business breaks down — it is not he alone that suffers; the men he employs are thrown out, and anxiety, perhaps destitution, finds its way into all their homes. Moral evils are likely to follow closely on want of work and poverty. In our complex social life, the responsibility of caring for others, not in the way of common charity and almsgiving, but in ways far more difficult, rises as we rise in the social hierarchy. All government is a form of service.
Those who are employed, if they are Christian men, and rightly understand the laws of the kingdom of Heaven to which they belong, will show a corresponding spirit. I use the same language to men and to masters. You are a workman "through the will of God;" a servant "through the will of God." Your employer ought to care for your interests, whether you care for his or not. You ought to care for his interests, whether he cares for yours or not.
A passionate, reckless pursuit, on either side, of immediate personal advantage is a clear violation of the laws of Christ: "Love your neighbor as yourself;" "Seek first God's kingdom and His righteousness;" " Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whoever shall lose his life for My sake shall find it."
If these laws were universally obeyed, how greatly life would be sweetened! We should really look on all other men as brethren, and not merely call them so. We should think of them as comrades in a great army, fighting side by side under the high command of God against poverty, ignorance, disorder, and sin. This would create a mutual kindliness and a mutual respect which would bind together in golden chains all ranks and orders in the State. It would bring on the glorious years for which saints have prayed and toiled, and for which Christ died on the cross. It would be the fulfillment of the prayer, "May Your will be done on earth as it is done in Heaven."
So far as any man accepts these laws and obeys them, his secular calling becomes as truly a perpetual service of God as the life of the angels who worship Him day and night without ceasing.