A Q&A with Michael Berg on "Vocation: The Setting for Human Flourishing"

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"Vocation: The Setting for Human Flourishing" by Michael Berg is now available for purchase

1. What initially prompted you to write this book?

I have always been fascinated with the ordinary way God accomplishes the extraordinary. Think of the incarnation or the water of baptism. He uses physical means to accomplish his spiritual goals. A modus operandi appears. I began to think that this M.O. was not only the way he secured and delivered salvation to sinners but also how he operated in the daily life of this world. This gritty God who took on flesh and delivers salvation through words on a page and the voices of lowly preachers also uses ordinary people to love the world. As I continued my studies I came across the concept of human flourishing, that is, the good life God intended us to live. I began to think that vocation straddled these two concepts. God uses ordinary means to accomplish his extraordinary goals (Eph 2:10). He does this by using sinners to accomplish his acts of love in the world. We are given purpose as we work for the flourishing of humanity. It is our highest honor. The ordinary for the extraordinary.

2. When we think about vocation, we tend to think of our jobs or careers. How would you define vocation?

Vocation is God’s call of sinners to neighbor relationships. It is a love thing: God’s love through Christians to their neighbors. Terms like “job” or “career” are fine but they miss the grandiose idea of “vocation.” They are “curved inward” words. There is nothing wrong with thinking about your career or labeling your daily labor a “job” but God has a higher calling for those stations in life. Nor is vocation only limited to your daily occupation. He includes family relationships and our positions within the church and society in the concept of vocation. When these roles in our occupations, church, family, and society becomes callings, a new perspective emerges. The Christian plays an important role in God’s love of the world. The Christian is “curved outward” to see his or her neighbor, that is, God’s object of love.

In a career, a Christian works for a paycheck but in a vocation, a Christian works for the flourishing of the world. The work is the same but the Christian is lifted to a higher level when he or she thinks about their day-to-day life as a calling from God.

The Christian is “curved outward” to see his or her neighbor, that is, God’s object of love.

3. In your book you say, “Vocation is not gospel. Vocation is not for heaven. Yet vocation is only possible because heaven is secure.” Can you explain further?

Gustaf Wingren famously wrote that “vocation is not for heaven.” He meant that the Christian’s work has nothing to do with his or her relationship with God. To put it theologically, sanctification (the holy life of a Christian) has nothing to do with justification (how a Christian is saved). A Christian is forgiven on account of what Christ and not by what the Christian does. This is grace. And yet sanctification is the result of justification. Since the Christian is made holy in the righteousness of Christ, the Christian is holy and holy people do holy things. If a Christian cannot and does not need to please God in order to be saved, then what is the Christian to do with all of his or her time and energy: Love! Freed from the impossible task of pleasing a holy God, the Christian is free to love the world through vocation. Because heaven is secure, the tension is gone. We are free – free to love.

4. Why is it important to think about vocation as a setting?

Vocation is the setting for God’s work, spiritual warfare, and even evangelism. Ultimately, vocation is the setting for human flourishing. How is the world fed? Through God or through the farmer and the grocer? The answer is “Yes”! God uses people to feed the world, educate children, fix the plumbing, and build our roads. Vocation is the setting for God’s work. It is also the setting for spiritual warfare. A Christian is a sinner-saint. He or she is simultaneously a sinner and a saint made righteous in the blood of Christ. When the old man (the sinner) dies by the law of God, the new person (the saint) is resurrected by the gospel.

The results of this saving act are played out in vocation. The sinner sees the neighbor as a nuisance or somebody to use for their own gain (even it is to gain virtue). The saint sees the neighbor as a delight, someone to serve. Vocation is the ring in which the old and new spar. Vocation is also the setting for evangelism. Where else do Christians build relationships with people who need to hear God’s gospel? Finally, vocation is the setting for human flourishing. The components of flourishing (security, prosperity, freedom, and purpose) are all found in the vocations and stations through which God gifts the world his love. God gifts us the first three components through the vocations of others and offers us purpose (the last component) by using us in our vocation. We have a reason to get out of bed in the morning!

5. As you talk about, “Human Potential,” you contend that we underestimate our potential for evil as well as good. Are humans capable of becoming good, or improving themselves through hard work? And how is “Human Potential” related to vocation?

My personal potential for evil is chilling. All we have to do is look around the world to see the potential for human evil. But our potential for good is also great. We see that in the world too. In vocation God lifts as to a “startling degree,” as Gene Edward Veith Jr. once wrote. Just think about what God accomplishes through lowly humans. He uses educators to teach children and mothers to create life!

But this is not about humans becoming good or even holy. Christians are holy already because of Christ. We struggle as sinner-saints but God still lifts us to a startling degree. If we are curved inward we will not appreciate the high callings in which God has placed us. We can only hope for the mere accolades of mankind (a raise, promotion, reward, or salary hike). We should rather think of our vocations as being part of a divine equation: God uses us to love the world. It isn’t about us. We are simply honored to be a part of this greater cause. My personal potential for evil is chilling but when God uses me in my vocations, the good is equally impressive. Why? Because it is God’s work. What could be higher?

My personal potential for evil is chilling but when God uses me in my vocations, the good is equally impressive. Why? Because it is God’s work.

6. In the book, you say, “[God] puts on Christians as if they were masks in order to love the world.” Can you elaborate on this relationship between God and ourselves in fulfilling different vocations?

God’s modus operandi I mentioned above is how God hides behind masks. God hides not so that he cannot be found but rather so that he can be found where he wants to be found. It is true that God hides behind the mask of nature but there we only see his law. As majestic as that might be, we do not see his love. So he seeks to be found hiding under the mask of Scripture, Baptism, Holy Communion, and Holy Absolution. In this way he is intimate with us. He paradoxically hides to be revealed. We see this paradox at play most explicitly at the cross of Christ. His M.O. continues in vocation. You might ask, “Where is God in my life right now?” “Behind the mask of your daughter, your accountant, the police officer, and your pastor,” is the answer. Christ also hides behind the mask of those we serve in our vocations. Think about Christ’s depiction of the Last Day when he says that the sheep visited him in prison and fed him when he was hungry. He says that when we serve others we serve him (Matt 25:31-46). Christ hides behind the mask of vocation to serve us and behind the mask of those we serve. Christ to you and Christ to me. Vocation is a Christological endeavor.

7. As a college professor, is there any practical advice you regularly give to your students about the pressure of “picking a vocation”?

Students today have unique pressures placed upon their shoulders. Every generation has their unique crosses to bear. College is expensive. There is a lot riding on their college choice, their selected major, and career choice. The world is a competitive place. It’s all law, isn’t it? Our college, Wisconsin Lutheran College, tries not only to be the place in which students are prepared for this competitive world but also the place they are formed by the gospel. I know I try to give them gospel every chance I get. I will say, “I don’t know where you will be five years from now and neither do you. You can plan all you want, but you don’t know. But God is already preparing tasks for you to accomplish and if those are already being planned, you do not need to worry too much about your five-year plan.

This is an Ephesians chapter two kind of approach. First God has secured your eternal destination by grace (Eph 2:8-9). Second, he has decided to use you in his grand purpose (Eph 2:10). Just think that he already has planned that some of you would teach little ones and other would write laws, still others will balance budgets and others will design buildings. It’s a humbling thing. Vocation is the in the here and the now. God will place you in the right place, he will, he has already planned good deeds in advance for you to accomplish.”

8. Is there any advice or thoughts you want to share with potential readers?

Look up! Look up and see what Christ has already done for you. Just think of all the effort and energy that has been used for you. Before the beginning of the world he knew you. He became man for you. He lived a difficult life for you. He suffered at the hands of man, was crucified, died, and was buried for you. He rose for you. He ascended into heaven to rule and things for you and create a place in the Father’s mansion for you. FOR YOU. I don’t know why we ever worry. Not to mention the teachers, parents, garbage collectors, accountants, and cooks that he uses to serve you. Oh, and as you look up to see Christ you will also see your neighbor. He even uses you for a grand purpose in your vocation. This allows you to lose yourself in the craft of your vocations no matter what they are. And don’t worry. When you fail at these grand callings and suffer in them (and you will) remember that he has you covered. He is constantly working through other vocations to serve you. The work will get done. It will. So venture all things in freedom. You are secure in Christ and he’s got your back in vocation. It’s grace upon grace.

Vocation: The Setting for Human Flourishing by Michael Berg is now available for purchase!