Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2007.
In washing windows in the towns of East Texas, managing an Italian café in a quaint neighborhood of metropolitan Minneapolis, working security for a top advertising firm in Boston (no, I didn’t have to wear a goofy uniform or “get” to carry a gun), and providing online customer support for a successful bowling dot com business (and I don’t even bowl), I’ve struggled to find my identity as a Christian in the workplace.
In all these jobs, I’ve faced challenges to integrating my faith with my work. Consistently, questions have pressed my faith such as: How excellent is excellent enough? Where should I draw the lines in ethical situations? Where does evangelism fit into my vocational responsibilities? Is there eternal meaning in my work? How can work become more worshipful?
When washing windows, I aimed for excellence — no streaks and clean ledges — something I never did perfectly. As a remote worker for an online company, I was trusted to manage my hours ethically; something I took seriously. Managing at D’Amico & Sons, I did my best to maintain a “good witness” among my co-workers, but found myself in the awkward position of being told I was an arrogant Christian by a furious, foul-mouthed employee I had to fire. As a night-shift security guard, whose primary responsibility was to lock doors and turn off lights, I struggled to see the significance of my work. In all these struggles I’ve groped to find my identity as an employee and a Christian, a worker and a worshipper of the triune God.
A Theological Framework for Work
I currently work a 40-hour work week during the day and plant a church during lunch breaks and evenings. My weekends include writing, preaching and playing. On all days, I fight to be a wise, loving husband and father to my wife and two children. I’m not alone in the demands of work. Most Americans spend the majority of their days working. One study reports an average 46-hour work week in the United States, with 38 percent of laborers working over 50 hours a week. Chances are that if we aren’t sleeping, we’re working.
With all these demands, it’s much easier to keep my work separate from my worship, to compartmentalize my life — family/church/work — but biblical faith won’t let me, and for good reason. Is there a theological framework for work that will inspire us through the demands of the 9 to 5? If so, how should we then work?
In recognition of God’s sovereign and creative work and the importance of “living before God in all of life,” Francis Schaeffer sought to answer the question, “How should we then live?” In his book by the same title, Schaeffer explores the intersection of the ideas and beliefs of Western culture with those of the Christian worldview, in order to advance whole Christian living in the whole of life — in art, science, literature, philosophy and film — to name a few.
Primarily a historical-theological reflection on the rise and fall of Western culture, How Should We Then Live? sets the philosophical stage for living Christianly in all of life. What it does not do (though Schaeffer did this elsewhere) is connect the worldview stage with the dramatic details of everyday work.
In many respects, work is the engine of civilization. Without work, societies would not perpetuate. Furthermore, if as Schaeffer argues, the rise and decline of civilization is intimately intertwined with the strength and weakness of the Christian worldview, then the labor of everyday citizens, which contributes to the quality of human flourishing, should be given serious attention. If indeed theological ideas have practical consequences it becomes us to inquire, “How should we then work?”
In response to this important question, I can think of at least four main approaches to work that should frame our theologically informed response. First, Christian work should be excellent work. Second, Christian work should be ethical work. Third, Christian work is a platform for evangelism. And fourth, Christian work should be done in reflection upon its essence, how it may or may not reflect God’s nature and character. The rest of this article will critically explore these approaches in an attempt to redemptively answer the question: How shall we then work?
Christian Work is Excellent
If the Christian worldview affects our work, what then is Christian work? Some would say it is work that is excellent. The unspoken mantra of this approach is: “God deserves my best.” In other words, work in such a way that you would not be embarrassed to give it to God. Make your work quality work. Produce sturdy, long-lasting furniture, reliable reports, well-argued papers and flawless customer service. Faithfully keep the home and raise the children. In its most virtuous form, this approach to work results in significant productivity, efficiency and excellence which not only honor God, but also contribute to the stability of society.
However, dangers abound in reducing Christian work to excellent work. In a capitalistic economy God is easily substituted by competition, changing the work mantra to “do my work better than someone else.” This man-centered approach to work requires that we produce better results, products and services than others if we are to work “Christianly.” With excellence as the goal, we may justify unethical means in accomplishing excellent work. We may steal a competitor’s idea so we can produce a better product. In turn, we exalt the product.
In addition to exalting the product, work-as-excellence can also end up focusing praise on the person. Theologian Miroslav Volf has noted that, “shortage of power and creativity in work often leads to prayer that reduces God to a performance enhancing drug.” God can easily become a means to excellence and excellence a means to our own successful performance. Left unchecked, work-as-excellence can become quite un-Christian.
Excellence does not require Christianity. In fact, non-Christian citizens may equally or more excellently perform our work. To be sure, everyone has limits in vocational aptitude, knowledge and skill. There is no perfect worker.
However, if excellence is the measure of God-honoring work, then we will never measure up. Although excellence can glorify God and, in part, qualify as Christian work, excellent work alone does not fully address how Christians should work.
Christian Work is Ethical
It is not only the quality of our work, but the way we carry out our work that can also honor or dishonor God. Perhaps the most common conception of how to work “as unto God” is to do your work ethically. Christian employees set themselves apart by being punctual, honest and faithful in their work. They do not fudge numbers, pad résumés, plagiarize, embezzle, take shortcuts or cheat the clock.
Ethical work contributes to the good of society. However, there are many ethical employees who are not Christian. So while it certainly is important and biblical to be ethical in our work, ethics alone do not set Christians apart in their work.
Moreover, if we determine that ethics is what should drive Christian work, moralism will quickly become the measure of our work. As long as we work by the rules, we’ll feel satisfied with what we do. Whether or not we produce excellent products, services, results or kids may become secondary or even unimportant.
Consider the Christian employee who crosses every vocational “t” and dots its every “i.” The person who doesn’t build redemptive relationships with others, but instead, out of his superior work ethic, passes judgment on all his fellow employees. When he interacts with co-workers over lunch, all he can think of is their failure to do this or that correctly.
With an air of superiority, this Christian confronts his fellow employees on their ethical failures. Poised to trap them in their transgressions, he glares knowingly at the company pen in his co-worker’s briefcase. “A stolen pen,” he thinks to himself.
This worker presents a very legalistic Christian witness. He chooses judgment over mercy. He looks for the opportunity to pin blame, never redemptively taking the heat for his team’s failure. His ethical work is hardly evangelistic. If anything, his legalistic, judgmental attitude toward others distances others from Christ. Ethical work, alone, is not Christian work.
Christian Work is Evangelistic
Others consider work to be Christian when they can use the workplace as a platform for soul-winning. This approach to labor sees work primarily as the context for evangelistic contact with unbelievers. While evangelism is important, it should not take place at the expense of our employer or our work.
The movie The Big Kahuna starring Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey comes to mind. Industrial lubricant salesmen, DeVito, Spacey and their Baptist co-worker, Bob, all host a party intended to win over an important client — the Big Kahuna. When Bob gets their only chance to pitch their product, he elects to neglect his job and just tell the client about Jesus. He chooses evangelism over work. Bob loses their only opportunity to make the deal but justifies it by saying he did the right thing, the eternal thing. There is no doubt that Christian work can and should be evangelistic, but bad or neglectful work with a soul-winning glaze will win no one to Christ. We must be careful to not compromise excellence and ethics amidst evangelistic pursuits in the workplace.
The Big Kahuna approach to work operates on a narrow view of the Gospel. The Gospel is not merely for soul-conversion but also for life, culture and city transformation. Jesus came to set the spiritual prisoner free as well as heal the physical paralytic. The announcement of Jesus’ arrival in Isaiah 61 prophesied that He would bring a Gospel for the poor, the broken-hearted, for the repair of cities and the renewal of vineyards. If we are to be truly evangelistic in our work, we will need to take into account the whole person and the whole of society, working with empathy, excellence and ethics.
Christian Work as Reflection on Vocational Essence
It is not just the way we work, but what we do for work that can glorify God. There is work that is inherently good, a product of creation, and work that is inherently bad, a product of the fall. There is society-building work, and there is society-destroying work. In short, it is good to work, but not all work is good.
Work as reflection on vocational essence is simply working with God’s nature and character in view. The attributes of God are reflected in the very warp and woof, in the essence of our work. Gardening reflects God’s life-giving creativity. Computer based work relies upon binary code, a sequence of ones and zeroes that enables our computers to function. In essence, computer work reflects order, order that reflects the orderly nature of God. Orderly computers can be used to crank out pornography or care for hospital patients. Nevertheless, the essence of what computers do in our work still reflects the orderly character of God. Another word for this approach to work is theological integration.
When I was working as a security guard, I would walk the halls reflecting on how my responsibility to protect the premises was a dim shadow of the protective arms of a sovereign and loving God. This centered my thoughts on God, making work more worshipful. Serving customers in the bowling industry, I am daily reminded of my servant Messiah in my own feeble attempts to serve our consumers. I am motivated to serve in the strength that God supplies. By reflecting on the essential nature of my vocation, intentionally integrating my faith with my work, I have frequently found myself worshiping as I work. Security work pointed me to our protective Lord. Customer service reminds me of the Suffering Servant.
Theological integration is not merely a personal hobby; it is a practice celebrated by Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, a Roman centurion came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant. Jesus agreed to go with him; however, the centurion replied by saying that Christ need merely speak the word, not come to his house, and his servant would be healed.
The centurion came to this conclusion by considering the essence of his work — authority present in the military. His reflection on the essence of his work, joined with faith, led him to conclude: “For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:9). In response, Jesus praised the centurion for this great faith. By reflecting on the essence of his work through faith, the centurion was able to glorify God. His work must have never been the same.
How shall we then work? Consider the essence of your work and try to connect it to God’s nature and character. Consider what discipline drives or sustains your line of work — science, math, language, arts, etc. — and trace it to the triune Creator. Attempt to integrate the discipline that drives your occupation with the attribute(s) of God reflected in your vocation. In doing this theological integration, work can become worship.
Working from Acceptance, Not for Acceptance
If we are to live all of life before God, how shall we then work? At the very least, work that honors God’s sovereignty over all creation is work that is excellent, ethical, evangelistic and theologically integrative. However, with the great promise of this fourfold approach to work, there remain several pitfalls.
As noted above, work-as-excellence can lead to competition-driven, Christ-belittling work. Ethical work can easily devolve into moralistic work in which we secretly congratulate ourselves for squeaky clean employment, regardless of the quality of our output. An evangelistic approach to work can be awfully narrow, neglecting our important role in contributing to the whole of society. And work as vocational essence — the attempt to theologically integrate the nature of our work with the nature of God — can lead to intellectualism, especially when it isn’t coupled with centurion-like faith.
Willy Loman, the salesman and central character in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, boasted of a successful sales career while secretly living off of loans from friends. One evening Willy was confronted by his son, Biff. Biff called his father out, to which Willy replied: “One day you will see how successful I am. When I die, there will be thousands at my funeral.” The next day Willy committed suicide. Only five people showed up to his funeral.
Finding our worth in our work, however excellent, ethical, evangelistic or theologically integrative, is spiritual suicide. Willy Loman built his worth on his work, its failure and success. Acceptance by others and significance based on their perception of our work does not satisfy. In fact, it displaces Jesus from His rightful place as our Lord.
How shall we then work? To avoid the pitfalls of these approaches to work, and to participate in their promise, we must work from our acceptance in Christ, not for our acceptance in Christ. Instead of seeking the acceptance and applause of our co-workers or competition by sinfully striving for excellence, we can rest in God’s acceptance and approval, working excellently to honor Him (Colossians 3:22; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58). Do excellent work, not to earn God’s favor but as a faith effort, as an act of worship.
No matter how tight our work ethic, we will inevitably fail. Instead of taking comfort in our superior work ethic, Christ calls us to rest in His finished work on our behalf (Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 9:23-28). It is by grace that we are saved, and it is by grace that we are sanctified. Our ethics are not the basis of acceptance before God; they are an expression of our new nature and love for our Creator.
Instead of trying to win God’s favor with evangelistic work or neglecting the whole gospel, we can work with the whole gospel in view, which recreates souls and societies (Isaiah 61 cf. Luke 4:18-19; Ezekiel 36:8-10, 26-32; Revelation 21-22).
Instead of leaning upon our theological savvy or reasoning skills, God calls us to rest in the foolishness of the cross for our identity. Our work should be a love offering characterized by excellence, ethics, evangelism and theological integration, but not as a basis for finding our worth before God or our acceptance from others. We work not for God to accept us, but are accepted because of God’s work in and for us (Philippians 2:12-13). This is how we should then work.
Copyright 2007 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.