American Christians have a rather uneasy relationship with work. On Sunday, the lay person hears an impassioned message about sacrifice, self-denial, and the mission of God. He might be treated to a stirring testimony of a wealthy CEO who gave up a promising career to enter “full-time” ministry.
Then, Monday morning happens. He takes his place on the factory line, at a desk, in a garage or behind the wheel. The guilt and shame surge up inside of him, for he thinks that if he were truly committed to Jesus, if he were part of the A-team of Christians in the world, he wouldn't get a check from a “secular” corporation or small business, but from a Christian company such as a church or a parachurch organization.
I've lived on both sides of this secular-sacred divide. My dad is a plumber. He's a committed husband and father who's given himself in service to his church. But still he's … just a plumber. He's not a pastor or missionary or worship leader. At times, I've felt that Dad was made to feel as if he were on God's junior varsity. As if his entrance into glory won't be met with the same applause as those who delivered the sermons on Sunday.
I'm also a pastor and have had to guard against unwittingly shaming the hardworking lay people I serve, simply because I'm privileged to work, full-time, in the business of church. Some pastors might consider themselves more dedicated and more like Jesus than those who sling it in the real world, getting their hands dirty in jobs that seem less than sacred. Although the pastoral and missionary callings are sober, serious endeavors, they don't ascribe any more glory to the sinners who occupy them. Moreover, if faithfulness is God's measure of success, everywhere you serve is God's theater.
This divide between secular and sacred is an unhealthy one. I believe it stems from an incomplete theology of vocation. So I offer five important attitudes when it comes to the arena in which we spend the majority of our lives: the workplace.
1. Recognize the sacred gift of work.
We tend to think of work as a punishment, as a curse laid on us in a fallen world. But this contradicts the high view of work given in the opening pages of Scripture. Work shows up as part of God's creative process. Genesis 2:2 reminds us that God “rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” If all of God's creative acts are considered “work,” then one could deduce that work existed even before the creation of man and woman.
What's more, God, in creating Adam and Eve in his own image, gave them important tasks. Adam was to “work and watch over” the beautiful Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). Rather than a punishment, work was a gift of grace from God to man, the opportunity to imitate God's creative acts by subduing creation.
Work only became difficult when sin entered the world. Now rather than being an endless source of worship and creativity, work is toil. The earth, now touched by sin and death, would fight back (Gen. 3:17-19). But work itself isn't a result of the curse of sin; it's a gift from God. For this reason, Scripture counsels us against the sin of laziness (Prov. 21:25-26). To eschew hard work is to be unlike God, who took pleasure in his work as Creator (Gen. 1:31).
2. Remove the divide between secular and sacred work.
Many Christians hold a distinction between “secular” and “sacred” work. Work may seem useful for providing for our families, tithing a portion of our income, and serving as an opportunity for evangelism, but it's often hard for us to see value in the actual work being done. So those who flip hamburgers or drive 18-wheelers may not seem as useful to the kingdom in the eyes of some as those who work full-time for a church or Christian organization. But Scripture doesn't offer such a workplace distinction because in God's economy all work brings glory to him.
Creation was given to man to subdue, so every act of creation is a testament to the Creator. Tim Keller, author of Every Good Endeavor (Dutton Adult), writes, “We're continuing God's work of forming, filling, and subduing. Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and 'unfold' creation beyond where it was when we found it, we're following God's pattern of creative cultural development.” In his letter to the Colossians, Paul quotes King Solomon's advice: “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23).
We may be called to the mission field or to the pulpit or to the post office. Wherever our gifts and opportunities lead us is where God designed us to serve him, fulfilling the tasks he ordained before the world began (Eph. 3:9-10).
Work is an act of worship for the Creator who gave us hands and feet and minds to be employed for his service.
That's why there's no such thing as sacred or secular work. It's all work on the grand canvas of God's creation. I love Abraham Kuyper's quote: “In the total expanse of human life, there's not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, 'That is mine!'”
3. Revive a healthy work-life balance.
Since creation, God instituted patterns for healthy rhythms of work and rest. God worked six days and rested on the seventh. This pattern was enforced as law for the nation of Israel as a way of relaxing the body and soul and reminding the Jewish people of their humanity and need for God. Today, followers of Jesus are no longer under the rigid enforcement of Sabbath law, but its principles should still govern the relationship between work and rest.
Humans are given to two extremes that violate Sabbath rhythms. There's the inclination to avoid work and pursue pleasure. And there's the temptation to eschew rest entirely, yielding to pressure to be all about work and no play.
Scripture reminds us of the importance of rest. Jesus, in his full humanity, took periodic moments for rest of body and soul and counseled his disciples to do the same (Mark 6:30-32). Resting from our labors revives and refreshes the soul – it reminds us we are human and not God. A restless life is a sign that work, a gift from God, has supplanted him as the god. Be intentional about building regular times for rest, good sleep and periodic vacations into your schedule. The psalmist wrote about God's understanding of our humanity: “He knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14).
4. Resist the lust for materialism.
There may be no greater temptation for American Christians than that of materialism. It's problematic because, though it's easy to spot someone else's greed, it's difficult to find our own.
Scripture is clear that wealth isn't, in and of itself, evil. Some of God's greatest men (Job, Abraham, Joseph, Jacob, Solomon) were men of means. Yet we know of the inherent dangers that prosperity can bring. Heed Paul's warning to young Timothy: “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
Greed, however, isn't a sin reserved for the rich. It isn't measured by the size of one's pocketbook. It's a matter of the heart. Materialism shows up in people of all income levels. And it's easier to judge others for perceived greed than to spot the cancer in our souls.
The cure for materialism is to re-orient one's gaze from money and toward the giver of good gifts. The gospel applied in liberal doses can convert greed into contentment and materialism into generosity.
5. Remember your real identity.
When meeting someone for the first time, the first question typically asked is, “What do you do for a living?” We're most often identified by our vocation. As Christians, we must rest in our identity as God's chosen, redeemed children rather than the identity assigned to us by how we make a living.
This is especially important during seasons of extended unemployment and advanced age. In today's struggling economy, there are many longtime workers who find themselves out of a job and seemingly without purpose. Some have been forced into the humility of taking jobs well below their training and pay grade. It can be embarrassing to explain this situation to family and friends.
But the gospel gives the Christian an identity beyond what he does with his hands. Work is a sacred gift from God, but it shouldn't be the object of worship. If one is Christ's, he or she has a higher identity. Like Paul who, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, was faced with the indignity of imprisonment, beatings, and betrayal, one can say with a heart full of joy, “Because of [Christ] I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil. 3:8-9). No negative evaluation from a boss and no hotly competitive workplace environment have the power to shape one's worth in God's eyes. He loves us and has secured our eternal destiny.
This isn't all Scripture says about work but may it start us on the path to seeing our work as a God-ordained opportunity to bring him glory and contribute to the flourishing of his creation. Because God isn't only concerned with what happens on Sundays. He's also Lord over the other six days of the week.