One of the perennial questions facing the church today is how do we integrate faith and work? What does it look like for believers to follow Jesus on the job? Almost all believers would agree that whatever the answer is, it involves more than sharing our faith on the coffee break. Evangelism is vitally important, of course, but how do you cope with a job you don’t like? What about jobs that provide little personal satisfaction? Can we find significance in even mundane and menial tasks?
The providence of God and vocation
The first thing we need is a God-centered perspective on our work. (See this article.) This means we frame all our thinking about work within the biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption, and we affirm the providence of God in and through our everyday lives. A right doctrine of providence will help us resist the old dichotomy between the sacred and the secular that assumes certain kinds of work are intrinsically more spiritual and thus more likely to be blessed by God than others. While occupations that are degrading and dehumanizing are obviously out of bounds (a pimp or prostitute, for example), the Reformers were right to help the church recover a biblical perspective on ordinary work. As Luther said, “serving God is not tied to one or two works, nor is it confined to one or two callings, but it is distributed over all works and all callings.” Whether you’re a janitor, school teacher, social worker, truck driver, plumber, attorney, electrician, stay at home mom, or something else, view your specific vocation, your calling, as one of your primary stations for serving the Lord.
The language of calling and vocation come, of course, from the writings of Paul. While the word is usually used in relationship to salvation (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:2, 9, 24, 26), in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 , Paul addresses a variety of more sociological situations, exhorting his readers to remain in their calling.
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. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
On one level this passage subtly subverts the cultural institution of slavery, as Paul relativizes the status of both masters and slaves in verses 21-23. But it also reveals Paul’s basic perspective on how Christians should view their present circumstances. Far from encouraging the kind of ambition that breeds discontent or the disruption of the social order, Paul exhorts people to remain “in whatever condition each was called,” accepting it as their particular station for serving the Lord (v. 24).
We can apply this passage to our work situations today by remembering: (1) that our circumstances are ordered (‘assigned”, v. 17) by God’s providence; (2) that we are free to avail ourselves of opportunities to better our circumstances (v. 21); but that (3) we shouldn’t be consumed by ambition, but rather be faithful in our present circumstances, remembering that God is present with us (v. 24).
Working for the good of others
We should also remember that one of God’s primary purposes for work is to enable us to benefit others. A key passage is Ephesians 4:28where Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Paul here emphasizes the value of “honest work” in contrast to stealing (‘with his own hands’ is an idiom applicable to any kind of work, not just manual labor) and says the goal of such work isn’t simply to meet our own material needs and wants but to “have something to share with anyone in need.” Consistent with the foundational ethical principle of loving your neighbor as yourself, Paul’s focus when thinking about work is others-centered, rather than self-centered.
Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus
The New Testament also provides a Christ-centered perspective for our work, especially in Paul’s instructions in Colossians. In a verse that is remarkable for both its brevity and its comprehensiveness, Paul says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17, emphasis mine). Paul fleshes out this focus on do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus by reminding believers to do their work “not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22). Christians should do their best on the job, but their motive in pursuing excellence should not be to please men, but to please the Lord. In fact, as John Murray once said, doing work to please men is “the cardinal vice of our labour.” “God-service,” on the other hand, “is the first principle of labour, and it alone is the guardian of virtue in all our economic structure.”
This exhortation is even more remarkable, when we remember that its original recipients were slaves. While slavery in the ancient world was somewhat different from the race-based slavery of our own sad history, slaves were still looked upon (by Aristotle, for example) as tools, more than as persons. But Paul relativizes the distinctions between slaves and masters, by reminding masters that they have a master in heaven and should thus treat slaves with justice and fairness (Col. 4:1); and by reminding slaves, in whatever they do, to “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). In other words, Paul addresses people in the lowest social class of the day, men and women burdened with the most mundane and menial of tasks, and elevates their work to the plane of Christian worship.
Work in a fallen world has its challenges. Even in the best and most satisfying jobs, we will experience occasional setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations. But a biblical view of work that focuses more on the providence of God, the needs of others, and the honor of the Lord Jesus, will help us face those frustrations with courage, wisdom, and hope.
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church in Niles Michigan, and the author of several books including Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life. Brian and his wife Holly have four children and live in South Bend, Indiana. Brian also blogs at www.brianghedges.com and you can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.
Martin Luther, quoted in John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’ s Word to Today’s World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 137
John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957, 1999) p. 87.
Murray, p. 88.
Aristotle, Politics, 1.4.