This post originally appeared in July 2015 as part of a series I began (but have yet to finish) on the Emerging Scholars’ Network Blog. You can see the original post here.
“Mission without spiritual formation and virtue is impossible. But spiritual formation without mission is solipsistic.” – Greg Thompson
What, if anything, does my spiritual life have to do with my work life? Better yet, what does my spiritual life have to do with my life’s work? Is my specific vocation irrelevant or merely incidental to my spiritual formation? Or do these aspects of my life converge somehow? Similarly, are evangelical witness and the integration of faith and scholarship mutually exclusive concerns, one activity being suited to dynamic extroverts and the other to bookish introverts? Or is there a way in which these go together? May an individual, a church, or a campus fellowship choose to emphasize one of these concerns over another, or must concerns for formation, witness, service, integration, and community be all held together in order to do any of them justice?
In my last post I staked the following claim: The practices of spiritual formation, of witness and service, of sharing life together in Christian community, and of integrating our faith, learning and practice must all go hand-in-hand in order for any of these practices to be practiced adequately. To quote Greg Thompson once more, “Mission without spiritual formation and virtue is impossible. But spiritual formation without mission is solipsistic.” Likewise, the integration of faith and learning without Christian community is impossible. Christian community without the integration of faith and learning is self-defeating. You get the idea: To do justice to any of these central practices, we must do all of them together.
To see why this is the case will require us to explore the relationships between our spiritual formation and both our communal and our distinct vocations, and between our vocations and God’s mission. In this post we will explore the relationship between our vocations and God’s mission.
The Gospel of God’s Mission
The context of both our individual and corporate callings—our mission—is the missio Dei, “the mission of God.” We do not always think of God as being on a mission, but He is. In the West we have developed a bad habit of thinking of God as being static and distant. But He is, in fact, very much on the move.
In fact, the gospel Jesus preached was precisely the good news that God is on the move. It was “the gospel of the Kingdom,” the announcement that God’s reign was “at hand.” (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Mark 1:15, etc.) In and through Jesus Christ the God of Israel, the Creator God was at long last reasserting His will and bringing His sovereign rule to bear upon our broken world once again.
Dallas Willard, with his inimitable gift of precision and succinctness, defined God’s Kingdom as “the range of God’s effective will, where what God wants done is done.” Put simply, God’s Kingdom has come wherever God’s will is being done on earth as it is in Heaven (i.e., perfectly and joyfully). Jesus Christ not only enacts and embodies God’s perfect will in Himself, but by the power of the Spirit He also extends God’s will into the world and into us. In and through Jesus Christ we experience the realignment of our fractured world and fractured selves with God’s will for our good: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5, ESV) The lost are sought and saved. Abject failures are forgiven. Stone cold hearts are made soft. Enemies are made to be friends, or, better yet, family. In and through Jesus Christ we see the inauguration of the renewal of all of creation, beginning by necessity with us, the bearers of God’s image.
God’s mission is a rescue mission. In the Genesis account we are told that God had made the world tov me’od, a Hebrew phrase that can be translated “very good” or even “very beautiful” (Gen. 1:31; cf. 24:16), and that He created human beings out of the very dust of this planet to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28, ESV) We were made to be God’s representatives, His viceregents, His image-bearers here on earth such that our dominion was the means by which God asserted His dominion. (Gen 1:27-28; cf. Psalm 8) God’s will was that His will for the earth would be done in and through us, that His rule would be expressed through our obedient rule. We were made to “work and keep,” to cultivate the land, bringing out the earth’s latent capacities for still greater beauty, order, and flourishing. (Gen. 2:5, 15) The created order was to be an ecology of interlocking harmonies between God and humans, between humans and humans, and between humanity and the rest of creation.
God’s mission is fundamentally a mission of rescuing this ecology, the harmonies God intended for the world having been disrupted by human greed, pride, lust, avarice, apathy, and hate. God’s mission is a mission of renewing His very good and beautiful world, restoring it to its intended order and purpose which necessarily entails restoring human beings to our proper role as his viceroys which, in turn, means restoring us to our proper work of cultivating the common good. But in order to do that He must first reconcile us to God and to one another by freeing us from our corrosive, divisive self-infatuation and reorienting our hearts to love God and to love each other.
Missio et Civitas Dei
The end or goal of God’s mission is the establishment of certain kind of civilization, a civilization ordered by the love of God and the love of neighbor. Saint Augustine called this civilization the City of God (Civitas Dei). It is to be a society built around rightly ordered loves for creation, for humanity, and above all for God. God’s final and permanent establishment of this City—the New Jerusalem, as John the Seer called it in the Book of Revelation—is our future, eschatological hope.
And yet even now we, as bearers of the divine image, can contribute to this City’s construction as we once again take up our work of filling the earth and subduing it, exercising responsible, careful, patient dominion over the created order, and performing works of love that contribute to the common good. Our calling is precisely the work of culture making: the work of cultivating arts and sciences to expand our understanding of and love for this beautiful world, of building wholesome and ennobling structures, of pursuing justice and making peace, of developing caring, healthy communities. God has made us His sunergoi, His fellow workers in His grand mission of renewing His world and raising His city. (1 Cor. 3:5-9)
Somehow in spite of death and decay and frustration our work matters in the grand scheme of things. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev. 14:13) Because of the resurrection hope that we have in Jesus, death, decay, and dissolution are not the final words in our stories. “Therefore,” Saint Paul says, “my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58) In the grand scheme of things our work matters. What’s more, we become our truest, fullest selves precisely by taking up these labors of love, whether they be the internal works of character formation or the external works of providing goods and services. In so doing we finally come into our own, reflecting the divine image as we were designed to do.
Mission, Vocation, Communion, Formation
What, then, is vocation? Vocation is God’s invitation to us to join Him in His mission, using our gifts, talents, credentials, resources, and opportunities for the work of making culture ordered by love of God and neighbor. What, then, is communion? Communion is what happens when we answer God’s call, for He calls us together. What, then, is formation? It is the deliberate, disciplined work, in the power of the Spirit, of becoming the sort of people God has called us to be for the sake of His mission—a people molded by faith, hope, and love cooperatively serving the common good with wisdom, excellence, justice, and compassion.
Willard, Dallas. “Living a Transformed Life Adequate to Our Calling.” Prepared for the Augustine Group, 2005. Published at the “Articles” section of the Dallas Willard website (dwillard.org). <http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=119>