The Protestant Doctrine of Alienation and Vocation

“Paying the Harvesters” by: Léon Augustin Lhermitte 1882

Immanuel Kant has probably exerted more influence than any other in the Western world. He argued that everyone has a moral duty to perfect their gifts. We can see where this would place a certain specialness, a kind of elevation of one’s development that did not previously exist. That is, before Kant, many people did not see education as something that all needed or all should do. That is, it was understood that some were naturally gifted for it, and some were not. And even if you are not ‘gifted’ and if you are not interested in it, that is ok. However, Kant argued that self-development is a moral imperative. If we do not develop ourselves, we are morally deficient. On this view, we start to see matters like education, or a person’s passion, say, in art, is now something that is not an option, but a morally required matter. To tell them they should ‘let it go’ or ‘move on’ is to violate the sacred.

This is similar, but not quite the same as the historical view of the Protestant perspective. Kant had a Lutheran pastor for a father, and was deeply influenced by Pietism. Yet, he rejected Christianity, and all revealed religion. Scholars tell us that what Kant did was essentially create a secularized version of Christianity. Likewise regarding vocation.

Gene Edward Veith explains the Lutheran view of vocation:

“According to Luther, God calls each of us to various tasks and relationships. We have vocations in the family (marriage, parenthood), in the workplace (as master, servant, exercising our different talents in the way we make a living), and in the culture (as rulers, subjects, and citizens). We also have a vocation in the church (pastors, elders, organists, congregants), but the spiritual life is not to be lived out mainly in church and in church activities. Rather, when we come to church, we find the preaching of forgiveness for the sins we have committed in our vocations. Then, through Word and sacrament, our faith is strengthened. Our faith then bears fruit when we are sent back to our vocations in our families, our work, and our culture.”

Notice that Luther is fighting against the idea that only clergy have a vocation, that is, calling. However, one big difference would be a calling may not be a ‘passion.’ We use ‘calling’ in a vague and fuzzy way that really means something more like a special ability to do something, accompanied by a joy in doing it.

However, Jonah had a calling to go preach to Ninevah. It was not his passion. Some folks have a passion for hustling, theft, and so on, and they even have a talent for it. But it is not a calling from God. Calling and passion do not always line up. Which usually means we need to repent. It is not wrong to seek a job we enjoy, of course! Yet, we are also called to be content with what the Lord provides, rejoicing in the day the Lord has made (Psalm 118:24). Essentially, if our job is not one that leads to sin, then we can conclude that we are fulfilling our calling. No doctrine of vocation can make sense without taking into account God’s sovereignty.

This opens another question. Why do people feel so dissatisfied in their jobs? Many reasons, of course. Karl Marx held that it was because man was turned into a machine, and was being robbed by his boss, necessarily, since it was not a communist method of sharing the wealth. That is, man was being ‘alienated’ from his labor, since he was not being paid everything the product is worth. If I produce a cell phone for Apple, why do I not get paid the $800 it sells for? However, Marx’s theory of labor value has been rejected even by Marxists and communists today. The late Dr. Sproul and his former coworker at Reformed Theological Seminary, Ronald Nash, pointed out, it doesn’t work as a plausible theory when we think about it.

But the feeling of alienation still exists, and deserves an explanation. To answer it, we must distinguish work, labor, and vocation.

Work is what we do when we brush our teeth, make our beds, and cook meals. It is the replaceable, sort that produces no lasting product. It is the most menial and emotionally taxing of the three. Labor is what produces paintings, books, and buildings. It is what creates products of civilization that have enduring significance. Many of us would love to have that type of task. But neither of these two have any ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose.’

Only vocation has purpose, for it comes from God and is seen in the light of the heavenly perspective. A man who works at a factory making shoes, all day every day, to make a paycheck, is only at the level of work. But when he starts to see, and understand and take joy in, his work as that which serves and helps others, he is elevating his work to labor. See, just a hundred years ago, Americans that were poor had no shoes, or severely worn out shoes. Old pictures and stories from grandparents remind us of this. Why is this no longer a problem? The boring and miserable factories. The miserable factories have made shoes so much cheaper by mass producing them. And so when a man realizes that his labor in a factor is NOT oppressing the poor, but liberating them, he can find himself less alienated from others and from the labor than Marx declared. But even then, it is still not enough.

Only when he can rest in understanding his work and labor as a divine vocation, one that he did not choose, but one chosen by God, (for, that is what vocation means, God calling, choosing, etc.) and that our work has a significance that goes beyond ne