“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s an honest question. One you have probably been asked numerous times in your life. For me, I wanted a lot of things out of life. I wanted to be a fighter pilot or a teacher or a doctor or a singer or an Olympic swimmer — all dreams I had before the age of 18.
College only fueled my dreams of greatness, as I wanted to be a lawyer or writer. New life in Christ gave it a different tune, but still the same theme — greatness. As a new believer, greatness was defined as “ministry work.” If it wasn’t dying on the mission field, it had to be something directly involved in Christ’s saving work. It looked like service in a non-profit or a church somewhere, and it never looked like work in an office building — in “secular” work. In my mind, secular work had little to offer for the one who was truly sold out for Jesus.
Once I graduated from college, I worked a string of non-profit jobs. Every day I walked into work excited to see my passion realized. I was changing lives in and through my work.
And then one day I got laid off. The only employment I could secure was a job working at the headquarters for a large insurance company. I worked on the 17th floor of a downtown high-rise building. I wore business casual. I worked in a cubicle. Everything about my work screamed corporate America. And I was miserable.
Doing great things for Jesus was lost in paperwork, team-building meetings and the daily grind of a regular job that needed to get done. It felt so ordinary, so boring and so meaningless. I felt like I was losing my life, and my holy ambition, to a desk job that I couldn’t see as spiritual.
What I Missed About Work
My ambition to accomplish something big in Jesus’ name is not uncommon. It’s actually fairly typical of my generation. Writing for The Well, Tish Harrison Warren faced a similar struggle when she woke up and realized her life had become the dreaded “O word”: ordinary. Warren writes:
Now, I’m a thirty-something with two kids living a more or less ordinary life. And what I’m slowly realizing is that, for me, being in the house all day with a baby and a 2-year-old is a lot more scary and a lot harder than being in a war-torn African village. What I need courage for is the ordinary, the daily every-dayness of life. Caring for a homeless kid is a lot more thrilling to me than listening well to the people in my home. Giving away clothes and seeking out edgy Christian communities requires less of me than being kind to my husband on an average Wednesday morning or calling my mother back when I don’t feel like it.
Warren spent her twenties in intentional communities, among homeless teenagers and serving the poor. And then she married someone in an ordinary profession and settled into an ordinary life, doing ordinary things. And it rattled her.
We’ve lost something of beauty in our pursuit of what Michael Horton calls “the next big thing.” Work has not always been viewed as mundane and ordinary. Although the daily grind of work has been cursed by sin and ultimately fails to be what it was designed to be, the purpose of our work is still to love God by loving others.
As God’s image-bearers, we live out our identity as His created beings through the work that we do, whether in an office building downtown or in a small parish in the country. We are sharing God’s love for His world through the ordinary, and even mundane, work that we do every day.
Martin Luther, while largely remembered in our day for his work in the Protestant Reformation, did much for recovering the doctrine of vocation (work) for everyone, not just priests and nuns. In Luther’s day, ministry work was ultimate. If people were doing something of value, it was in the church and for the church (sound familiar?). But Luther, through his teaching on vocation being something we are all called to, helped change the landscape of Europe. From the innkeeper to the farmer, people began to see that their work mattered.
Like the people in Luther’s day, we have adopted a sacred/secular divide regarding work. But it’s subtler than simply church ministry versus non-church ministry. With today’s Occupy Wall Street mindset, we’re unable to see how the investment banker is doing work that is just as valuable as the guy building wells in Africa. We assume the lawyer who represents businesses isn’t as strategic and compassionate as the woman who feeds the homeless. And in our cultural climate where motherhood is maligned and we have endeavored to swing the pendulum back toward the middle, we can’t see how the single woman who is closing a business deal is just as faithful as the mother who is caring for small children. We have created a hierarchy of greatness when it comes to vocation, one we were never intended to adopt.
Also, work is ultimately not about personal fulfillment. Joy in work is a by-product, but it’s not the primary goal. Loving God by loving others is the goal. Our work is a form of service to our neighbors (co-workers, family, friends, community), and through this work we are worshipping the God who created all work and called it good (Genesis 1:31).
Hannah Anderson, in her book Made for More, expands on this further by saying, “Working imago dei [image of God] means understanding that all work is sacred, all ground, holy; not because of what the task is but because of who we are imaging.”
There can be no sacred/secular divide among Christians because we have a robust teaching that declares all work valuable because God, whose image we bear, is the author of work. He has created all work and has made it all valuable.
When we see work through the lens of a sacred/secular divide we not only devalue certain types of work, but we also are tempted toward laziness if we are then called to work in a way that doesn’t fit our grand ministry paradigm.
During my time in corporate America, I routinely judged the Christians I knew who were content (and passionate) to work hard in their jobs while doing all they could to rise in the ranks available to them. But I didn’t work that hard. Throughout my employment in the non-profit world, I had no limit to the time I would put into my work, but now I closely monitored the clock in my cubicle and was unwilling to give the company any more time than was required. Never mind the fact that other employees, my colleagues, regularly gave up their nights and weekends to finish projects for our team.
If work is a means of loving God by loving our neighbor, then these two attitudes toward work (devaluing the work and showing laziness on the job) have no place in any work setting — whether it’s a corporate office, a church office or your own home. Even if no one else sees the cynical or frustrated attitude that has made residence in your heart, God does. And all work is ultimately done unto Him (Colossians 3:23).
There are real people impacted by your work — or your laziness. Regardless of how you feel about the work you do, you are telling a story about the God who created you by the way that you work. Slacking off on the job because it doesn’t fit your paradigm of greatness is telling a story about God that is untrue and unfaithful.
Greatness is Faithfulness
When it comes to vocation, there are more important things than the pursuit of greatness. I understand that some people are called to do big and radical things for Jesus, and I’m not saying missionaries aren’t both needed and valuable. They absolutely are. But we can’t all be missionaries. We need people working in the daily grind of a call center for an insurance company, or waiting tables, or performing heart surgery. Societies are built and sustained by people who work. Christians know that when we work faithfully and diligently we are bringing glory to God, the One who sees our work and takes delight in it.
In his book God at Work, Gene Edward Veith notes that it wasn’t “church” jobs that changed the landscape of Europe during the Protestant Reformation; it was regular people living faithfully in their daily work. Martin Luther, in rebellion against the notion that nuns, priests and monks lived lives of greater purpose and value because of their work, was a catalyst for helping people to see that all vocations are important for human flourishing and to bring God glory. Luther helped recover the idea of the “priesthood of all believers,” and as Veith says, “this did not make everyone into church workers; rather, it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.”
This means that you can work hard at what you do with no lingering feelings of guilt or shame — because your work matters in God’s economy. Regardless of where you work, God has called you to the task at hand, and your daily faithfulness in doing your job, submitting to your boss, and leading and loving your co-workers is greatness in God’s eyes. Not because you are making a name for yourself, but because you are proclaiming God’s name as you image Him in your work. God created work for our good and for His glory, so you can put your hand to the proverbial plow and work “as for the Lord,” knowing that your faithfulness is greatness.
Copyright 2015 Courtney Reissig. All right reserved.