Discernment Column: Imago Dei as Vocation

Imago Dei as Vocation

The Rev. Jeff Morlock

Director of Vocational Discernment
North American Lutheran Seminary

The Rev. Jeff Morlock

One of the questions that children are asked from the time they are toddlers is often “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As they age, the factors that often inform their answers include, but are not limited to, other people’s expectations, personal fulfillment, financial compensation, flexibility, and the respect or notoriety that a particular career conveys. In secular society, it seems that nothing defines a person’s identity today more than their work—which is why “What do you do for a living?” is often the first question adults ask one another when they meet for the first time. Our identities are so wrapped up in the answer to that question that it is difficult to resist choosing a career based solely on which job will help us best cultivate the image we want to portray to the world.

These realities led Dr. Art Lindsley of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics to conclude that, “The number one fear of the millennial generation is living a meaningless life. In a 2019 informal survey of students at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, 27 percent of students questioned expressed anxiety when considering their vocation. ‘Scared,’ ‘uneasy,’ ‘unsure,’ ‘confused,’ and ‘apprehensive’ were common words in describing the way they felt about their future vocation.”1

Many adults are also struggling to discover their calling in life. Part of the problem involves using the wrong sources of discernment. Biblically, the starting point for discovering one’s calling has to do with being created in the image of God, which according to Genesis 1:26-27 means being endowed with dignity and dominion. Because there are so few biblical texts on the image of God, various definitions have been proposed, including (1) the substantive view, (2) the relational view, and (3) the functional or vocational view.

The substantive view describes the image of God as certain characteristics like reason, rationality, spirituality, freedom, and moral sense. This has been the traditional view within historical theology. By contrast, the relational view, which has gained acceptance more recently, highlights the plural pronouns in Genesis 1:26-27. “As the triune God is not a solitary being but one who exists in eternal relatedness, so human beings reflect the divine image, not as solitary individuals, but in social relatedness.”2This means that the image of God is not something we possess, but something we reflect in community.

In contrast to the substantive and relational views, I propose that the imago is best defined by the functional or vocational understanding. While this vocational view encompasses aspects of the other two, the imago is defined primarily as participation in God’s mission. “A vocation arises out of a divine call to a task that confers dignity and imposes obligation.”3 Throughout our lives we are called to particular vocations, some of which are permanent, and some lasting only for a season. These may include, but are not limited to, being a child, spouse, parent, student, employer or employee, citizen, community member, and more. In these vocations, “We are called to engage creation and each other toward the embodiment of shalom, joy, and righteousness.”4

Martin Luther defined the imago as righteousness lost in the fall, and restored again only to those justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. However, after the fall, God said to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). And in the New Testament, we see that man is still “the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7). These verses affirm that the imago was retained after the fall, indicating that it has to do not with righteousness, but with God’s vocational call. Although individuals may ignore God’s call to be co-laborers with Him and wrongly use their dominion as an occasion for sin, either against their neighbors or against creation, the imago is retained, though weakened.

The New Testament view of the imago Dei may be summarized as follows:

  1. “Christ is the image of God.
  2. Human beings participate in the image of God to the extent that their lives conform to Christ. The imago Dei is a dynamic and communal reality rooted in redemption.
  3. Since complete conformity to Christ must await the new age, the imago Dei is an eschatological reality.”5

Jesus’ call to believe and be baptized (Mark 16:16) is an invitation for sinful humanity to find identity and purpose in Him alone. Christ’s call to deny yourself and take up your cross daily, and follow Him (Luke 9:23), as well as His Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20b), is the Lord’s invitation to participate in the redemption of creation.

Vocation is not exclusively “spiritual,” pertaining only to ministry in the Church. Nor is it purely “secular” as in the present culture. “Nurses, counselors, biologists, and, yes, even lawyers and ministers—they are missionaries. Their vocations are missional. It is the nature of the present age, however, that broken people use their vocations for their own self-interest rather than to love their neighbor.”

Understanding the right basis for human dignity helps individuals believe that they have gifts and passions to share with others and with which to bless the world. In my role at the NALS, I use a form of vocational discernment with youth and adults who have not yet discovered their calling, because they didn’t think they had anything to offer. Often, past trauma or the opinions of others have defined their identity and kept them from recognizing their inherent value and worth.

In leading workshops with youth at Nexus Institute, Quakes, and retreats, I often use interactive Bible study, spiritual gift inventories, and a passion discovery tool to help young people realize the implications of their being created in God’s image. When they comprehend this, their outlook typically changes and their confidence soars. For me, the imago Dei has been a powerful biblical concept to help others realize who they are, discover how God has gifted them, and discern their various vocation(s).

  1. Art Lindsley, What the Image of God Means for Our Dignity and Work, (Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, April 23, 2019).

  2. Paul Sands, “The Imago Dei as Vocation,” Evangelical Quarterly 82.1 (2010): 34.

  3. Sands, “The Imago Dei as Vocation,” 36.

  4. John Mark Hicks, Identity, Vocation, and the Mission of God (www.thenals.org/JohnMarkHicks, January 29, 2010).

  5. Sands, “The Imago Dei as Vocation,” 31.

  6. Hicks, “Identity, Vocation, and the Mission of God.”