Book Review: God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, by Gene Veith
It was not Gene Veith’s fault that I did not grasp what his book was really about until halfway in. I picked it up thinking it was about life in the office, or the classroom, or the workplace generally. But if I had paid better attention to the last words in Veith’s subtitle, I would have understood from the get-go that this book wasn’t exclusively, or even primarily, about the workplace. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life makes substantial contributions to our conversations about vocation in all of life.
“Vocation” for Veith is not one’s job or occupation, but a much broader term for “a rich body of biblical teaching about work, family, society, and the Christian life” (17). Recognizing what you are and are not reading should help you appreciate this book more.
We will come back to Veith’s contributions momentarily, but first I want to dispatch a couple quibbles. I’ve been called pedantic, so take this first one with a grain of salt: I don’t think it’s helpful to apply “calling” language to specific roles in society or the obligations those choices create, as Veith does in his chapter “Finding Your Vocations” (46ff.). I say this assuming most of us have heard “calling” language brazenly abused, even from the pulpit. It can be a shrewd play for someone who wants to insinuate a divine authority for his decisions or commands, or even to trump clear biblical teaching on gender roles or sexual ethics.
Of course, Veith’s language is hardly novel; he’s drawing heavily from a rich tradition, particularly Luther. So having said all that, I realize that my resistance to “calling” terminology places me in a minority, and I’ll retreat into my imaginary world of lexical utopia. In any case, if others used the term with as much discretion as Veith does, the issue would be moot.
A second quibble: Veith appropriates Luther’s language of God’s “hiddenness” in the workplace, family, and church. Veith writes, “Vocation is a mask of God” (24), and “Christ is hidden in His church on earth” (115). For Veith, this concept means that God is present and active in each of these spheres, even though unseen. Clearly, this is true, but the metaphor of “hiddenness” only gets half the biblical picture. The other half of the biblical picture is that he is being represented or displayed through human beings made in his image, and especially so through the union of Christ and the Church.
TWO KEY CONTRIBUTIONS
Veith’s definition of vocation leads us toward two key reasons his book is a worthwhile read: “God has chosen to work through human beings, who, in their different capacities and according to their different talents, serve each other” (14). In that sentence, we find answers to two questions. First, what makes our vocations fruitful? And second, what is the objective of our vocations?
Veith answers the first question with a reminder that our vocations are ultimately fruitful because God is working, but God uses means. He has equipped humanity with the skills and capabilities required to fulfill a purpose outside ourselves. “When God blesses us, he almost always does it through other people” (14). What’s particularly significant here is Veith’s juxtaposition of a broad definition of vocation with God’s active work in accomplishing his ends. In other words, first, “the doctrine of vocation amounts to a comprehensive doctrine of the Christian life, having to do with faith and sanctification, grace and good works” (17). Second, God is at work through us. Therefore, we can and should trust that in every aspect of our lives, God is transforming us and accomplishing his ends.
Veith devotes particular attention to our vocations as workers, family members, citizens, and church members. Unfortunately, the scope of the book does not permit him to flesh out implications for those spheres in great detail. He’ll leave the inquisitive reader wishing for more nuance and application.
But to what end does God use us? We need to consider not only that God is doing something through us, but also what he is doing. Debates about vocation often consider whether our “callings” serve primarily as platforms for evangelism, paths to a paycheck, or means to advance a cultural mandate. Veith helpfully reminds us that we must first embrace what is clear and certain: “The whole purpose of every vocation is to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39)” (65, cf. 39-40). We love our neighbors in our workplace, family, society, and church by prioritizing others’ interests above our own. Whether we are bread bakers, firefighters, public officials, or even filmmakers (so he argues) we serve others—even love others—as we fulfill our callings. He explains,
Ironically, it is sometimes easier to see how God provides through lowly occupations than through those with more status. It is easier to see how God blesses the world through farmers and milkmaids than through Madison Avenue advertising executives or Hollywood movie stars. (74)
We can be sure that God is working through us to the end of love and service to others in every aspect of our vocations, even the ones that seem least significant.
A THEOLOGY OF ORDINARY LIFE
Pastors may find God at Work to be a useful tool as they translate theological language related to sanctification into laypeople’s vernacular. And any reader will be encouraged as Veith explains how all our roles and obligations serve God’s greater purposes. God at Work is probably not what you want if you’re looking for a comprehensive treatment of how to live as a Christian in the workplace. So read this book remembering that, “The doctrine of vocation is a theology of the Christian life, having to do with sanctification and good works. It is also a theology of ordinary life” (157).