I’ll be honest: I’ve lived most of my life with a pretty low view of work. Being a pastor was fine – but I’m talking about NORMAL jobs, for NORMAL people. I thought, “Why would you be making widgets when you could be transforming souls?”
As it turns out, that attitude toward work is infectious. We pastors generally communicate in myriad ways that church is where the real work happens…we demand large hours invested within the church building, and do very little, if anything, to equip our parishioners to think through work specific issues.
This attitude has left many in the workforce feeling that the only justification for their work is their piggy bank. Recent studies have shown that very few Christians work any differently from their co-workers (see Amy Sherman’s Book, “Kingdom Calling” for the stats). That, of course, ought to be true in a sense. The way to be a good mechanic, after all, isn’t to plant tracts in the engine. It’s to FIX THE CAR.
But in another sense, the way a Christian works is radically different from those around him or her. The gospel ought to transform the way a Christian works from the inside out. How?
Here are five principles, taken from Tim Keller’s lecture at Redeemer Church to businessmen and women:
1. Faith gives you an inner ballast without which work could destroy you.
There are two potentially destructive outcomes in our work. We can succeed, in which case our work goes to our head. We start feeling as though our competence in one specific area of life entitles us to expertise in all areas of life, and look down on others without similar success.
Or, we can fail, and be devastated.
The reason for both of these is simple: without the gospel, our work is often our identity. Keller quotes from NY Times writer Benjamin Nugent, speaking of his transition into a writing career: “When I made writing who I was, it was warping,” he says, “It was conducive to depravity, and I mean the old Calvinist kind. When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my work…I couldn’t tell whether something I wrote was good or bad because I needed it to be good to be sane.”
The gospel frees us from work-as-identity syndrome.
2. Faith gives you a concept of the worth and dignity of all work without which work could bore you.
In past generations, work was seen as a necessary evil. For millennials and beyond, however, work is romanticized. If we’re not “saving the world”, using our gifts, and experiencing the mythological bliss of a thornless calling, we feel entitled to move on.
But the gospel dignifies all types of work, not just the visible jobs. Martin Luther famously pointed out that when God provides milk for us, it doesn’t appear out of thin air – He provides through the milkmaid. The milkmaid, then, is doing the work of God. The same is true for anyone doing real service for others, no matter how small or thankless.
3. Faith gives you a moral compass without which work could corrupt you.
We live in a funny culture. On the one hand, we teach our kids that there is no right or wrong. But when they cross the line (which we said didn’t exist), we punish them. We decry Enron executives, even though we taught them that morals are institution and culture specific. As C.S. Lewis has written in his Abolition of Man, “We castrate them, then bid the geldings be fruitful.”
The gospel teaches us that there really are moral standards which go beyond what we can “get away with” legally. We are competitive, but not ruthless. We increase wealth, but not without genuine service toward others. We seek the success of our company, but not by cutting corners. Christians go beyond the law at work – we seek to model Christ.
4. Faith gives you a new world and life view that shapes the character of your work, without which work could use you and master you.
One of the lies we’re told in society is that we can somehow bifurcate our religious beliefs from our workplace. On the one hand, this ought to be true for Christians: a good pilot doesn’t pronounce John 3:16 during an inflight passenger announcement. A good pilot lands the plane.
On the other hand, many professions require a deep understanding of human nature – a foundation which can’t be found outside of scripture. How do we educate children? How do we tell stories? How do we decided what is just? Without a biblical anthropology, we can’t think through these issues properly. The gospel allows us to escape the false narrative created by the idols of our workplace, by replacing it with the true narrative of human flourishing found in Christ.
5. Faith gives you a hope in the frustration of work without which work could harden you or crush your spirit.
Finally, the gospel assures us that there is something beyond our work. We will never accomplish all we want in this life. Those in law will never see the full vision of justice they strive toward. Those in art will never quite create the masterpiece they envision. Those in city planning will never see the city they dream about.
But there is a new city coming – God is renovating heaven and earth, and He will take our unaccomplished works, and accomplish them. He will see them through to completion. When we stand before him in a renovated heaven and earth, we will see the justice, the masterpiece, the city we had always envisioned. And, despite our frail and flawed efforts here, God will say to each of us: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things. Now I will give you charge of many.”