What’s in a Word: Calling or Vocation?

April 25, 2016

Is there any difference between my calling and my vocation?

Yes and No.

No — there is no difference between calling and vocation. Read any ten essays or books that focus on these terms, and you will find many of them either using the terms interchangeably, or you will see that what one consistently calls “calling,” the next just as consistently calls “vocation.” This should not surprise us, because “vocation” comes from the Latin “vocere,” which means “to call.” Both words fundamentally embody the same meaning that is rooted in listening to a voice that comes from beyond oneself or within oneself concerning one’s identity and direction.

But — on the other hand – yes, there is a difference! Just as one word often contains multiple meanings, so there are different dimensions embedded within the terms “calling” and “vocation,” and it’s helpful to avoid reductionism by using these terms differently. Admittedly, this is somewhat arbitrary, but I will propose the following distinction and then attempt to make the case for it.

Calling refers to (a) my fundamental identity before the face of God, and (b) the complete set of all the implications of this fundamental identity as they are embodied in my life.

Vocation refers to the one or two principal ways in which I live out my calling.

Calling establishes identity

I am called to rest my identity in Christ, so that I can declare with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,”1 and with Peter, I am “called out of darkness into his wonderful light.”2 I am a child of God,3 a member of the body of which Christ is the head,4 a jar of clay entrusted with the glory of God,5 through the Holy Spirit, who is a deposit of the ultimate glory to come.6 This identity is covenantal, i.e., it is shaped by committed relationships: the One who has reconciled all things to himself7 has conferred a new identity upon me. The Heidelberg Catechism honors the foundationally covenantal character of this reality by opening with these famous lines: “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

My calling ripples out from my identity in concentric circles, next expressing itself in a Spirit-led posture. “Posture” is the often-forgotten concept in the calling literature; it refers to the ways others experience my identity and the identity of the Christian community. For example, how is my manner shaped by graciousness, peace, or love, or how is it shaped by self-righteousness, fear, or judgmentalism? All the New Testament epistles are filled with calls to embody Christ-like posture, a call epitomized by Paul in Galatians 5: “but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (vv. 22-23a). My identity is conferred upon me by Christ, and this conferral is confirmed when others experience the fruit of this identity through my posture. Or, to link this with other uses of this biblical metaphor: my identity is like a tree (Psalm 1: 3), and a tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 7:20).

Finally, my identity comes to expression through all that I am and do. When I left my teaching position at Dordt College in 2006, my students gave me this verse to place on my desk: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3.17). Everything is rooted in the call. Colossians 3 moves from identity (vv. 1-4) to posture transformation (vv. 5-15) to the entirety of life (vv. 16-17). Calling is comprehensive; every molecule in the universe has been called into existence and finds its place in relation to its Creator and Redeemer.

Vocation: my principal callings

In all honesty, I’m not certain we need to make a distinction between calling and vocation. But, because calling/vocation has often been equated with career, I think it’s helpful to make a distinction that treats “calling” as the comprehensive catch-all and “vocation” as the term to focus on career. Distinguishing the two in this manner serves to clarify and minimize this reduction.

Having said that, I prefer to see vocation as describing our “principal callings” rather than our careers, making room for Frederick Buechner’s wonderful declaration, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” A dear friend of mine works part-time as a registered nurse and “tolerates” these hours in her week, but she pours her heart and soul into leading volunteers at a local chapter of the charity “Days for Girls,” which makes high-quality feminine hygiene kits for impoverished girls overseas. She identifies DFG as her vocation, but it is not her career. It is the place where her identity and posture come to concentrated, focused expression, where her deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.

So what?

I have found in both my teaching and living that this distinction gives me helpful discernment in situations such as these:

  1. When I find myself defining my life in terms of my career, I am driven to Paul’s profound prayer in Ephesians 3: 14-21, and I must ask myself, “How do I, together with all the saints, grasp how high and wide and long and deep the love of Christ for me is, and, through this grasping, deepen my identity in Christ?”

  2. When I find myself forgetting the crucial role of posture in calling, I ask myself, “How do others experience me and the communities that I represent? What tree do they see, and how am I called to repent and be renewed based on the responses to these questions?”

  3. How do my identity, posture, the “everything” of Colosians 3:17, and my vocation and principal callings together weave a tapestry of grace, a balanced sacrifice of praise? What are the pieces that are out of balance, and what steps might I take to lean towards wiser balance?

Finally, these short reflections have focused on the personal dimensions of calling. All the points made here also have communal and institutional implications – thoughts to be saved for another day.

About the Author
  • Dr. Syd Hielema serves as the Team Leader for Faith Formation Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Previously, he served as an associate professor of theology at Dordt and at Redeemer University College. He and Evelyn live in Ancaster, Ontario.

  1. Galations 2.20 

  2. I Peter 2.9 

  3. Romans 8 

  4. I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 

  5. II Corinthians 4 

  6. Ephesians 1 

  7. II Corinthians 5: 18-21 

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  1. Great job! Thanks so much for the work. In german language it is easier, because there is only one wording. I also agree that Calling and Vocation may be the same, at the same time it is not the same.