Foundations: Can, Cannot, and Vocation
By Eric J. Brown
"Can" is an interesting word. It is a word of possibility, but not necessarily a word of likelihood. There were many times I might have asked my parents, "Can I. . ." when the answer was going to be, "No." Just because there is the possibility, the chance of something happening, doesn't mean that it will happen.
This is important, because one of the things we often are told in our youth by the adults who want to inspire us and drive us on to greatness is that we "can" do great things. We "can change the world." I guess there is a possibility that we might have a great impact upon the world. Perhaps 400 years from now they may still be talking about you or me. It could happen. But the thing to remember is that "can" doesn't mean "will" or even "should."
No, You Can't
So often we look at the world around us, and we think, "I can make a difference." That's not a bad thought to have, but we tend to think on a grand scale. We think of massive changes where we spearhead the change. The thing is, that sort of thing really doesn't happen all that often. And when it does, it can be terrible for the person who brings about the change. He or she might not even live to see the change. This world is a harsh, rough place.
And trying to fix the world is a harsh, rough task. The world is too big for your shoulders. The country is too big for your shoulders. Your state is too big for your shoulders. Your family may very well be too big for your shoulders.
So what happens? We see all the problems in the world, and we see all these burdens that are there. And the thought emerges: Can I do something? But then that can feel like "I ought" to do something, and more importantly, I fear that what I do won't fix things, or make a big difference. Then I become angry. That's what results from carrying too heavy a burden. We feel personally wounded when our fix doesn't work, even if it was never our job to fix that person or that thing in the first place.
Focus on Your Vocations
This is part of the reason why Martin Luther emphasized the doctrine of vocation so much. We have vocations--callings--which are the relationships and jobs that God has given us, that He has placed us into. It's not our job to fix the world. Rather, it's our job to live the lives and serve the neighbors that God has given us. Think about the section on Confession and Absolution from the Small Catechism. When dealing with what sins we ought to confess, you are instructed to "consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments." Where has God put you, and what do the Commandments tell you that you ought to be doing?
Let that be your focus. If you're a student, then be a student. A child, then be a child. Should God eventually make you a parent, then be a parent. And if God puts you in a place to change the world, then do so, but it will happen only because God places you there. Don't throw a false burden of what you "can" do upon yourself. Stick to your given vocations. Don't worry about fixing the world; fix how you handle your own vocations. There's enough burden there for anyone.
Yes, Jesus Can
As for the world, well, there's only One Man whose shoulders are big enough for that burden: Jesus Christ. And He in fact did take up the burdens of the world, including the biggest, most complicated problems you see out there. This is why John the Baptist says of Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). It's why Jesus can say, "In this world you will have tribulation, but take heart. I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). And Jesus has done this for you.
Moreover, if you are serious about your God-given vocations, about living as you ought to, you'll see plenty of sin in yourself. You'll see your own failures. But remember to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, including yours. This includes the real sins, the scary sins, the embarrassing sins, the sins you've pretended aren't there or have been in denial about but that all the tensions of this year have driven to the surface. Those are the exact sins that Jesus died to forgive, so face them down with boldness! Confess them, fight against them, confidently! Don't be confident in yourself and what you "can" do, but be confident in Christ Jesus who has died and risen for you. He gives you His peace through His Gifts of Word and Sacrament to grow this confidence in you, namely faith.
Because the biggest truth is this: You are forgiven in Christ Jesus, regardless of any chaos you see around you or within you. All that sin and disorder doesn't surprise Jesus. He loves you, forgives you, defends you, and He gives you life--now and for eternity. He will richly and daily forgive your sins in His Church, and He will bless you as you live out the vocations He has given you. And there's no "can" about that--it is a solid, concrete truth, sealed with His death and resurrection, sealed upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism.
Rev. Eric J. Brown is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Herscher, Illinois.
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