Working out a Theology of Work

Apr 13, 2012 |Justin Taylor

How should we then work?

Do you ever feel guilty for going to work when you could be doing ministry instead? If you're a student, you're spending hours in the classroom, hours typing papers, hours taking tests. But you could be out evangelizing. If you're in the workplace, you spend hours in front of your computer, hours in meetings, hours in your little cubicle. But you could be on the mission field leading people to Jesus.

Should you feel guilty? I remember hearing a student leader in college who thought the answer to that question was definitely yes. We were on a retreat, and he was delivering a passionate exhortation. His belief was that God's default expectation was for all Christians to go into full-time vocation ministry — the exception was the rare person whom God called to be in a "secular job."

It sounds plausible, doesn't it? It's certainly well-intentioned. But I don't think it's biblical.

I want to offer some thoughts about what I've been learning about the biblical view of calling and vocation, but first we need to understand some biblical basics about the nature of work itself.

Building Blocks for a Theology of Work

1. God works.

The Bible wastes no time in conveying what it thinks about work, for it portrays the very act of creation as the work of God: "And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done" (Gen. 2:2, ESV). And lest we think God is only resting and not now working, Jesus tells us, "My Father is working until now, and I am working" (John 5:17). God is the ultimate workman, which loads the act of work itself with inherent meaning, significance, and dignity.

2. As God's image-bearers, God calls us to be subduers and rulers.

We were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26, 27), which means that we relate to him, resemble him, and rule under him. God commands that we "subdue" the earth and "have dominion over" it. It doesn't say "plunder and pillage," doing whatever we want with the earth. Rather, as God's image bearers we are to use our God-given creativity and responsibility to use the earth for godly purposes. For Adam and Eve, part of what this meant was that they were to "work" and "keep" the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15).

As a side note: this may sound funny, but it's actually a serious point that brings correction and conviction into my own heart and mind: Some of us get pretty jazzed about "subduing and ruling" the earth — but how are we doing on subduing the mess in our rooms or our cars? "One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much" (Luke 16:10)!

3. The fall frustrated all of our labors.

When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, we did too. Their debt was transferred over to our spiritual checking account. The entire world was also subjected to futility (Rom. 8:20). That means that human work, which used to be enjoyable, was now filled with things like thorns, thistles and sweat (see Gen. 3:17–19). Post-fall work is hard and marked by difficulties. (Murphy's law — which I frequently experience! — says that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. But Murphy's law didn't exist in the Garden of Eden and, praise God, it won't exist in the new heavens and new earth.)

4. God is transforming us into the image of His Son.

If the story ended with the fall of man, the marring of his image and the frustration of work it would be a tragic tale. But thanks be to God, the story continues. Jesus Christ "is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of [that is, the ruler, the preeminent one over] all creation" (Col. 1:15). We are still in God's image, but the reflection is damaged by sin. Jesus Christ perfectly reflects and represents His Father.

And the great news is that because of the cross, those who trust in Him become transformed from those who "have born the image of the man of dust [that is, Adam]" into those who will "bear the image of the man of heaven [that is, Jesus]" (1 Cor. 15:49). We are being conformed into the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29), which means that the work we do should reflect that reality.

5. God calls us to our vocations.

As an American, living in a republican democracy, I think I'm particularly tempted to think that everything in my life is ultimately up to me: where I live, whom I marry, where I work, etc. Even though it's true that I make genuine choices and am truly responsible, it's also true that God planned each of my days before I was even born (Ps. 139:16).

Your "vocation" is more than just your job, and it's more than just your preference or choice. Rather, your vocation is what God has called you to do. Vocations change during seasons of your life. There may be a season where your primary vocation is "son" or "daughter." Then the Lord may add the vocation of being a "brother" or "sister." In another chapter of life you may take on the additional role of being "father" or "mother." Someday he may add "grandpa" or "grandma."

1 Cor. 7:17 is a profoundly important verse for understanding that God determines our various vocations: "Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches." Wherever we are called, we are to be faithful.

6. God commands that we work quietly and honestly in order to provide for ourselves and others.

When we think of Scriptural condemnations we tend to think about the big, marquee, red-letter sins:

ADULTERY.
MURDER.
BLASPHEMY.

But tucked into the Pastoral Epistles is a very sober and startling warning against lazy moochers: "But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8). Lest we think that was maybe a typo, it says that someone who doesn't work and provide has not only "denied the faith" but is "worse than an unbeliever." In fact, Paul says elsewhere that if someone is not willing to work, then he shouldn't be given something to eat (2 Thess. 3:10).

The Bible affirms the goodness and beauty of good, simple, quiet hard work. Paul commends working quietly and earning a living (2 Thess. 3:11). He says that believers should "aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] own affairs, and to work with [their] hands." Why? Two reasons: (1) so that they "may walk properly before outsiders" and (2) "be dependent on no one" (1 Thess. 4:11-12; compare Eph. 4:28).

John 3:16 is a great verse — but if you rearrange the numbers in the reference just a bit, you come up with a much lesser known verse: 3 John 1:6. When talking about missionaries, it says, "You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God." The church needs people who will go out and preach the gospel so that every tribe and tongue and nation will heard the glorious good news. But the church also needs senders who stay behind and raise the money and send them out in a God-glorifying way. The kingdom of God has no second-class citizens. We are called to honor God, whether we go and spread, or stay and send.

7. God calls us to work unto His glory.

First Corinthians 10:31 should fly like a banner over every term paper, over every e-mail, over every break, over every meeting, over every to-do list: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

At our jobs we obviously want to respect our coworkers and honor and please our boss. But ultimately we are not to be looking over our shoulder but above our heads as we work: "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ" (Col. 3:23-24).

As mentioned above, one of the purposes of work is to put food on the table — for us and for our family. But earning that bread should never be our ultimate goal, as Jesus said: "Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you." How should we strive to live as godly, God-glorifying works? Few have summed it up better than John Piper: "the essence of our work as humans must be that it is done in conscious reliance on God's power, and in conscious quest of God's pattern of excellence, and in deliberate aim to reflect God's glory."

Dad, Dirty Diapers and the Gospel

Whatever your vocation, God calls you to honor Him, to reflect His image, and to labor with all of your might. You may not be in your dream job right now. But the secret is to honor God in the little things and to sanctify the ordinary.

The great Reformer Martin Luther was a brilliant, earthy man who had a way of bringing everything back to the gospel. When he wanted to illustrate the dignity and significance of seeing God in the ordinary events of life, he chose a very interesting example: a father changing diapers. (Just keep in mind that they didn't have disposable diapers back in the 16th century — it would have been an even messier and smellier affair than it is today.)

He observed that worldly perspective would say something like: "Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores ... ?" But in the midst of the stench Luther breathes fresh gospel air:

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, O God, because I am certain that you have created me as a man and have from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with your perfect pleasure. I confess to you that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving your creature and your most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.... God, with all his angels and creatures is smiling — not because the father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.

As we think about our tasks for the week ahead — or about the vocations God has called us to for this season of our lives — some will be great fun, and some will be difficult. But let us encourage each other that God has called us, God knows what He is doing, and we must see and honor God in everything that we do, big or small.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I have some diapers to go change....

Copyright 2008 Justin Taylor. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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