A Christian At His Calling – by Cotton Mather (followed by commentary by Craig Smith)
Posted in Craigs Keystone articles
There are two callings to be minded by all Christians. Every Christian has a general calling, which is to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. God has called us to believe on His Son, repent of our sin, and bear our testimony to His truths and ways in the world. Every man in the world should herein conform to the calls of that God, who has called us with this holy calling. But then every Christian has also a personal calling, or a certain particular employment, by which his usefulness in his neighbourhood is distinguished. God has made man a sociable creature. We expect benefits from humane society. It is but equal that humane society should receive benefits from us. We are beneficial to humane society by the worlds of that special occupation in which we are to be employed, according to the order of God.
A Christian at his two callings is a man in a boat rowing for heaven, the house which our heavenly Father has intended for us. If he mind but one of his callings, be it which it will, he pulls the oar, but on one side of the boat, and will make but a poor dispatch to the shore of eternal blessedness. It is not only necessary that a Christian should follow his general calling, it is of necessity that he follow his personal calling, too.
A Christian should be able to give a good account not only what is his occupation, but also what he is in his occupation. It is not enough that a Christian have an occupation; he must mind his occupation as it becomes a Christian. That a Christian may be able to give a good account of his occupation, there are certain virtues of Christianity with which he is to follow it.
(And although the language employed in this article may sound as if it is aimed exclusively at the male heads of households, the language of the introduction is clearly inclusive of all believers. Dads, this means not only you, but Mums at your calling as home educators and children in your calling as students.)
The Virtue of Industry
A Christian should follow his occupation with industry. It seems a man slothful in business is not a man serving the Lord. By slothfulness men bring upon themselves poverty, misery, and all sorts of confusion. On the other side, a man by diligence in his business, what may he not come to? A diligent man is very rarely an indigent man. Would a man rise by his business? I say, then let him rise to his business. I tell you, with diligence a man may do marvellous things. Young man, work hard while you are young: You’ll reap the effects of it when you are old. Yes, how can you ordinarily enjoy any rest at night if you have not been well at work in the day? Let your business engross the most of your time.
Come, come for shame, away to your business: Lay out your strength in it, put forth your skill for it; avoid all impertinent avocations. Laudable recreations may be used now and then, but I beseech you, let those recreations be used for sauce, not for meat. If recreations go to encroach too far upon your business, give to them that put off.
The Virtue of Discretion
A Christian should follow his occupation with discretion. It is a dishonour to the profession of religion if there be no discretion expressed in the affairs of its professors. Every man should with a praiseworthy emulation strive to get the praise once given to Joseph: “There is none so discreet as thou art.”
More particularly, one memorandum for you is this: Let every man have the discretion to be well instructed in, and well acquainted with, all the mysteries of his occupation. Be master of your trade; count it a disgrace to be no workman. And as discretion would bid you to have an insight in your business, thus it also bids you have a foresight in it. Let every man therefore in his business observe the most proper time for everything, for there is a time to every purpose. The wise man says, “There is a time to buy and a time to sell,” and a wise man will do what he can to discern the time.
The same discretion must show a man how to proportion his business unto his ability. It is an indiscreet thing for a man to overcharge himself in his business. For a man to distract his mind, to confound his health, to launch out beyond his estate in his business is a culpable indiscretion. Be therewith well advised by the rules of discretion with another caveat: And that is, suit your expenses unto your revenues. Take this advice, O Christians: It is sin, I say it is ordinarily a sin — and it will at length be a shame — for a man to spend more than he gets, or make his layings out more than his comings in.
The Virtue of Honesty
A Christian should follow his occupation with honesty. Truly, justice must be exactly followed in that calling by which we go to get our living. A Christian in all his business ought so altogether justly to do everything that he should be able to say with the apostle Paul, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience (Acts 23:1). A Christian should imitate his Lord, of Whom it is said, “He is righteous in all His ways.” In your business you have dealings with other persons, but certain vein of honesty, unspotted and resolved honesty, should run through all your dealings. You aim at the getting of silver and gold by your occupation, but you should always act by the Golden Rule.
Shall I be more particular? I say, then, let a principle of honesty in your occupation cause you to speak the truth, and nothing but the truth, on all occasions. Don’t conceal from any customer that which you ought in equity or charity to acquaint him withal, and more especially if your customers do rely upon your sincerity. Don’t exceed the truth, either in commendations or disparagements of commodities. Don’t assert anything that is not truth about the kind or the use or the price of them. In every bargain that you make in your business, let a principle of honesty keep you from every fraudulent or oppressive action.
Wherefore, take no advantage either from the necessity or from the unskillfulness of those with whom you are concerned: It is uncharitable, it is disingenuous, it is inhumane for one man to prey upon the weakness of another. And therefore also, never, never make any bargain with such as you suspect have no just propriety in what you go to purchase from them. If you fear that stolen goods are offered you, never touch those burning coals nor incur that brand.
Are there also any manufactures that you are to work up for others? Let them all be well wrought. Give every manufacture its due perfection. Cheat no man with anything that shall be unserviceable to him. Do nothing slightly, do nothing basely, do nothing deceitfully. But I have yet another thing to say: Let a principle of honesty cause you carefully to pay the debts which in your business must fall upon you. Run into debt as little as you may, but being in debt, be as ready to get out of it as ever you were to get into it. Finally, I have yet one more to say: Let a principle of honesty cause you to keep your word in all your business. You sometimes give your word; let that word then be as good as your bond.
The Virtue of Contentment
A Christian should follow his occupation with contentment. A Christian should not be too ready to fall out with his calling. It is the singular favour of God unto a man that he can attend his occupation with contentment and satisfaction. That one man has a spirit formed and fitted for one occupation, and another man for another, this is from the operation of that God, Who forms the spirit of man within him. Count not your business to be your burden or your blemish. Let not a proud heart make you ashamed of that business wherein you may be a blessing. For my part, I can’t see an honest man hard at work in the say of his occupation, be it never so mean (and though perhaps driving a wheelbarrow), but I find my heart sensibly touched with respect for such a man.
It is possible you may see others in some greater and richer business, and you may think that you might be yourselves greater and richer if you were in some other business. Yes, but has not the God of heaven cast you into that business which now takes you up? Is your business here clogged with any difficulties and inconveniences? Contentment under those difficulties is no little part of your homage to that God, Who has placed you where you are. Fall not into any fretful discontent, but with patience make the conclusion of the prophet: “Truly, this is a grief, and I must bear it! I must bear it!”
And hence, another thing to be pressed upon you is this: Let all persons take heed of too suddenly leaving that business wherein God has fixed them. When a man is become unfit for his business, or his business becomes unfit for him, unquestionably he may leave it. And a man may be otherwise invited sometimes justly to change his business; I make no question of it. But many a man, merely from covetousness and from discontent, throws up his business. And how many, do you think, repent of their doing so?
The Virtue of Piety
A Christian should with piety follow his occupation. O, let every Christian walk with God when he works at his calling; and in his occupation with an eye to God, act as under the eye of God. It is a wondrous thing that I am going to say: A poor man that minds the business of his calling and weaves a thread of holiness into all his business may arrive to some of the highest glories in heaven at the last.
(Cotton Mather, 1663-1728, American colonial historian and theologian, was born in Boston. Intellectually gifted, he entered Harvard University at age 11 and graduated in 1678. He became an assistant to his father, Increase Mather, at Boston’s Second Church, and from 1685 to 1728 held a joint or sole pastorate at the same church. Widely celebrated as a scholar, he was one of the founders of Yale College, a member of the Royal Society of London, a leader of the conservative element among the Puritans, and author of approximately 450 books on a variety of subjects. He gave generously of his time and money to the poor, established a school for educating slaves, supported the building of churches in poor communities, and came to the aid of needy ministers.)
CHomeS Comment: Some today would argue that the Rev. Mather’s ideas, written before the industrial revolution, hold little relevance for today. Steeped as he was in the Scripture and the traditions of a God-fearing society, we might do well to examine why such an argument might, or might not, be accurate.
The entire concept of a calling from God is questioned by many. They would say we end up in this job or that job because of the circumstances of the times. My very first summer job seemed like that. I was delivering ice to the drinking cans of the workers in the vineyards and orchards of central California, and shifting bins of fruit and field toilets. Most of my peers were picking the fruit in the 42°C heat. Anticipating the questions I would be asked, the friend of the family who got me this plum job told me to tell others I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. But even if that had been the case, and knowing that the friend and the boss whom he greased on my behalf and me too at the time were all total unbelievers doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is Lord. The Lord Jesus got me that job using the family friend’s relation with the boss. The Lord is the One who orchestrates the affairs of men, and not we ourselves. That’s what “Lord” means. That comes with the territory when One is God. If He didn’t have such all-comprehensive power, He would not be the God of the Scriptures.
It is quite liberating knowing that the job I have is exactly where the Lord wants me to be…..unless, as Cotton Mather also says, there is a definite inappropriateness about the job, an inappropriateness which is not borne of discontent, laziness or selfish ambition.
But more than just being where God wants me to be at the time, He has a whole swag of reasons why He wants me there at that time. As Cotton Mather says, to be content in the job, even when it is “clogged with any difficulties and inconveniences” is part of the homage I am to pay to my God. James tells us to count it all joy when we meet various trials, such as a swine of a boss or lousy working conditions, for the benefits that follow (James 1:2-4). And the Lord also assures us that all things work for good to His people (Romans 8:28). And our work, whatever we do, being from God can be fulfilled by us as an act of worship, bringing glory to God (I Corinthians 10:31). The Scriptures tell us to work this way (Colossians 3:23-24) and promise great reward as well (I Corinthians 15:58). These principles are very easy to see when we consider our calling to home educate our children. It makes me all the more determined to work for the maintenance of our ability to fulfil our duty to home educate with a minimum of state interference.
Now this old fashioned idea of industry being a virtue really seems past its use-by date these days. Some will argue that most jobs are dead-end affairs, with no hope of promotion; that the “system” no longer rewards industry, but only cunning; that the jobs aren’t there anyway; that there are gender and racial and cultural barriers; and that some jobs (such as child rearing, homemaking, and volunteer societies), being unpaid, will never be rewarded, no matter how hard you work. These viewpoints have varying amounts of truth to them, reflecting the fact that we live in a fallen world and in a nation that has turned its back on the God of the Bible. But all these viewpoints also completely ignore the God of the Scriptures…and He is not bound by the iniquities of our present society. He can ensure that the hard-working and diligent will be rewarded….. perhaps by being in the right place at the right time. We cannot know how He will accomplish His ends, but as long as we trust in Him and not ourselves, our efforts can be part of the solution to the problems, rather than just remaining part of the problems (Proverbs 3:5-10). Remember, He is still Lord, and totally in control.
If more of us could get a handle on what Rev Mather and the Bible say about contentment, our lives would be a lot less hectic and much more fulfilling. I think most of us home educators have figured out that we probably cannot both educate our children at home and maintain a show-home degree of orderliness and tidiness at the same time. I mean, sometimes the beds don’t even get made. How come with all the labour-saving devices, we are all working harder than ever before? Is it possibly because of discontent? Do we want to possess more, to be involved in more things, to be seen to be involved in more things, to not miss out on the latest, to “support” the good work someone else has organised?
Maybe these things are good things, totally justifiable. But maybe there are times when the good can prevent us from accomplishing the best. Maybe there are too many good things that come to us in a state of urgency or on a once-in-a-blue-moon basis, so the pressure of the moment takes us away…..again and again……from spending time, the long periods of uninterrupted time, required to effectively impart those formal academic lessons or those informal character lessons. If home education was just a matter of imparting information, books, tapes and computers would all suffice. But we are talking about imparting our lives to our children’s lives, by personal lessons, by personal precepts, by personal examples. And that all takes time. And contented people tend to have more time, for they have figured out what is important and are less likely to be distracted from the top priorities in life (the best) by all those good things that constantly come their way.
Do you know what their top secret is? I mean apart from having figured out their priorities in life? Do you know that top executives pay hundreds of dollars to learn this secret and how to properly use it? Are you ready for this? The secret is learning how to say “no”.
Now, even unbelievers can take advantage of this concept. Anyone can see that if Bob was perfectly satisfied and contented with jam sandwiches for lunch everyday, he would have a much higher degree of contentment in life than would Jim who would settle for jam sandwiches, but was only contented with Italian dry salami and Swiss cheese on San Francisco sour dough bread. The trick there is to sublimate your real desires for more pragmatic ones and convince yourself that you now really want this lesser item.
But Christians have such an advantage! Psalm 37:4 says, “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” I found this so liberating! What does the Lord get? Well, anything He wants … He is the one who decides all things that come into existence. If we take delight in the Lord, that is, delight in Him and all the things He wants, then He promises to give us those things we want, the desires of our hearts. But since they will be the same things as what He wants, it will simply come about as we do His will on this earth. Nothing could be farther from the picture of God as some kind of Santa Clause collecting things on these individual wish lists. And nothing could be more fulfilling and satisfying and contributing to continual contentment than having the desires of the heart fulfilled by simply going about my everyday life, a life committed to doing His will. Now His Holy Spirit dwelling within will make this a delight, rather than a chore. It will enhance the unity we Christians seem to have given away since we will all be taking delight in the same things rather than doing our own things. And part of this delight in the things of the Lord will surely be a humble admiration for the vast diversity evident in God’s people…..especially as expressed in each individual’s calling from God.
So although we all delight in the same thing, it does not mean we all do the same thing. We each have our own calling from God, a calling which may be modified as the years go by. And we accept that it is a calling, something I am supposed to do, because it is a calling from God, my Master. The option to take it up or leave it be isn’t really there. He has called me to do this specific job. I had better do it because He called me to it. And if I’m smart I’ll do it because I know He has only the best (which doesn’t mean easiest or most fun or exciting) lined up for me. I follow my own calling, embracing it as my own, and I rejoice with my brothers and sisters in their callings and encourage them therein.
No, not everyone is equal or will be equal. No, we will not see perfect or total justice on this sin-cursed earth. But, as the Scriptures instruct us, we should wait patiently, eagerly, for Him Who judges justly and will finally put everything right. Only let us be found by Him faithfully doing His will. For when we have done all we were commanded to do, we will say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10).
From Keystone Magazine
March 1998 , Vol. IV No.1
P O Box 9064
Phone: (06) 357-4399
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