Recently I was asked to speak on a panel on the topic of ‘Meaningful Work’. I loved the title, and the opportunity to breakdown some common misconceptions Christians have about work:
Work is a result of the Fall
There is no intrinsic value in work
There is a difference between secular work and sacred ministry
To serve God you must leave work
If you are not called to ministry then you are called to fund ministry
If you enjoy secular work then it has become your idol
Work is not a result of the Fall
Instead, I pointed out that work existed before the fall. In Genesis 1:26–28, human beings (men and women equally) are asked to work to steward creation. The first command from God is for the human being to work in the garden (Genesis 2:15). Work is impacted by the Fall (Genesis 3:17–19), but that impact is on the process of working, and the context of work (the ground is cursed), rather than on the activity of work itself.
There is intrinsic value in work
We are made in the image of a God who works, creating a beautiful place for us to work and rest in. Therefore, work is intrinsic to what it means to be a human being. Throughout the Bible work is assumed to be an activity of humans, as a good thing, and there are suggestions in Isaiah 65:17–25, and Revelation 21:24 and 22:2, that there will be work on the New Earth to come.
There is no hard line between secular work and sacred ministry
We are encouraged to work, rather than to be idle (2 Thessalonians 3:6–10), and the Apostle Paul rarely makes a distinction between his work to feed himself and his companions and the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, he suggests that our work becomes sacred by the attitude of our heart (1 Corinthians 10:31, Colossians 3:17).
We can serve God while in our secular work
Thus, all work is ministry, done with the right attitude, as an act of worship to God and service to others.
This means that we can serve God wherever we are, with whatever we have, and all the gifts he has granted us. Using the descriptors from Robert Banks (Faith Goes to Work), we are continuing God’s work of creating, sustaining, revealing, redeeming, bringing justice and showing compassion through our ordinary work, paid or unpaid.
All are responsible for funding the work of the church
If all work has value, the important thing is to be faithful to the work and the place that God has called us. We can be called by God to work in the church and work outside the church. It means we have to be seeking God, and praying about our choices.
All people are called to be generous to the causes God lays upon our hearts. All work is to be treated as if it is ministry, since all work (other than criminal or exploitive activity) has the capacity to be done in a way that serves God and others.
It is good to enjoy work as a gift from God
It is good to enjoy work, since work was created to be a good thing. Much of our work is impacted by sin, with things failing, conflict amongst workmates, and the frustrations of complications that prevent us from being as fruitful as we had hoped. However, some of us get into the flow of work which brings us much joy, whether it is a burst of creativity, the thrill of a team completing a project, or the sense of having endured and finished solving a complicated problem.
Work can become an idol
Unfortunately, if we have been brought up on a church diet of our ‘secular’ work having no value, then we may feel guilty about enjoying work, or separate it from God as something worthless to God. Ironically, this may mean that we end up treating work as something opposed to God, or competing for our attention and affection.
Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, has warned that work has become a new religion for many people. While historically, our sense of meaning and purpose flowed from our religious faith, now work is seen as a place where we can discover our “identity, transcendence and community”.
If you think you are immune from this, consider how we respond to people we haven’t met before when they ask us what we do for a living… Often we respond with an “I am…” statement. I am a lecturer, and author and a speaker. “I am…” is a statement of identity.
We used to talk about work as our “job”, then it became our “career”, and now it is our “calling”.
Thompson warns against this subtle move to make work our god. While Christians worship a God who is good, the output of work is rarely all good. Making work “the centrepiece of one’s life is to place one’s esteem in the mercurial hands of the market. To be a workist is to worship a god with firing power.”
However, our work is an important part of how God made us. It finds its rightful place when we align our loves, with God at the centre, and when we see work as a gift from a good God, and the means of continuing God’s work of repairing and renewing the earth.
My friend Gustavo Santos was born into a working-class family. He now studies and teaches faith and work theology, and often reflects on how his Dad saw his work: simply as a job well done, as service, as a means of providing for his family. He sees parallels with the story of Ruth in the Bible, a poor immigrant woman seeking to work to glean enough food for Naomi and herself, who ends up in the genealogy of Jesus. Gustavo writes in an article in Comment Magazine:
[Ruth’s story] tells us that God is always working through us—even if we don’t realize it. At the end of the story, God redeems his people through the faithfulness of two women living in an obscure corner of the world. The lineage of David is established and the providence of God takes another step as daily, wise, diligent work is undertaken by one pair of hands in an interconnected web of thousands.
To be integrated at work is to be fruitful
There is another twist in this message about expressing our faith and finding meaning in our work, revealed in a Barna Group research publication called Christians at Work. In that study they found some surprising results about Christians who were both faithful at work (‘integrated’) and faithful at church (‘practicing’).
The research found that if people were more involved in church activities (including personal devotions), then they were more integrated at work, seeing it as a place where they find meaning and purpose because it is aligned with their God-given calling and gifting. It ended up correlating with improved satisfaction in all areas of life: physical wellbeing, quality of life, emotional health, friendships, spiritual wellbeing, mental health and family relationships.
What is more, they had a transformative effect on their workplaces: speaking the truth, demonstrating morality, practising humility, withstanding temptation, moulding the culture and sharing the gospel.
The results of this research should not be surprising at all. God made us as whole creatures, not as compartments. When we work well with God in our workplace, in our community, and our church, then it is going to have flow-on benefits. We were made to be integrated, in our beings, and in our lifestyles. Anything less is dis-integrating.
Author: Kara Martin