More Than Just a Job (Why Work Is Good Not Evil)
For too many people, their faith has little to do with their work. Sure, they don’t allow their jobs to be an excuse for ruthlessness or immorality, but their faith doesn’t inform their career decisions or give them a mission. At best, a job is a satisfying way to spend a day, provide for a family, maybe even a way to help people out. At worst, work is a dreaded necessity people have to do until they get the to freedom of the weekend, paid vacations, and ultimately retirement. But how is one’s Christian faith connected in any way to selling office products, balancing a company’s books, cleaning teeth, or rescuing abused pets?
In Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, a former CEO of several technology start-ups in the 1980s and 90s and now the executive director of Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Center for Faith & Work, has joined her pastor, the acclaimed Tim Keller, to explore the connection between our faith and our work.
Misperceptions About Work
As long as there has been life, there has been work. The very first action of God was work: he created (Genesis 1:1). He formed humanity and they were charged to work in the “good” garden. We sometimes incorrectly believe that work was a part of God’s curse on the world when humanity sinned. From there it isn’t hard to start hating our jobs. Truthfully, though, the only curse God gave regarding work was that it would become hard and less fruitful (Genesis 3:17-19).
Deep down we know we are wired for work. All of us have experienced the feeling of fulfillment that comes from work well done — that “it is good” feeling. Work that is honest, well-done, and productive also frees us from a life of pain, regret, and punishment. The Fourth Commandment (“six days you shall labor,” Exodus 20:9) even acknowledges work as a normative part of life.
Thinking of a job as evil and something to avoid is one faulty approach to work, but the other extreme is just as wrong. Some make work an idol, the sole purpose for life, an end unto itself. We go to our careers looking for joy, fulfillment, and meaning when only God can truly do this. This person would hardly take a day off work lest they lose connection to that which sustains their life. On this end of the spectrum, work strokes our egos and serves only to inflate our arrogance.
In a fallen world, we must find a middle way between these two dysfunctional extremes. For the rest of this first of three sections to the book, Alsdorf and Keller explore further a truly biblical view of work. But, first, they attack the ways in which we elevate and degrade particular jobs.
All Work Has Dignity
Keller and Alsdorf claim that, for many of us, our views about work have been inherited not from the Bible but from the ancient Greeks in two different ways.
First, in ancient Greece, work was thought to be below the higher classes. Advancement in society was defined, at least in part, as not having to work and being able to employ lesser people to do the “menial work” of life. Now, three thousand years later, people sometimes still believe that work is evil and lower paying, labor-intensive jobs are inherently inferior and the people who do those jobs are less valuable.
As already stated, God Himself was a worker. Then he creates humanity in His image and the implication of this phrase is that to be an image-bearer of God means to work:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)
Specifically, to be made in God’s image means to “rule.” Humans are God’s vice-regents helping to steward in God’s place the part of the world in which we live. This “image of God,” defined as doing the work of ruling, is the one thing that separates humanity from animals. Thus, quite in contrast to the Greeks, work is exactly what dignifies humans as higher beings.
Contrary to Greek thinking, all work that helps human life flourish is valuable. One can call garbage collecting a lower job than a doctor, but is it not likely that the proper, sanitary removal of refuse has contributed to human health every bit as much as what has been gained from the field of medicine?
A second stream of thought that has been inherited more from the ancient Greeks than from the Bible is the anti-physical world bias that has been adopted by many Christians. In this way of thinking, the spiritual is superior to the baser physical. In the end the physical will pass away and all that will exist will be spiritual. The soul is encased in a prison of flesh. The earth will burn up and we will escape to the purely spiritual, otherworldly kingdom of Heaven. As comfortable as many Christians find this thinking, it derives more from the Platonic dualism of ancient Greece that glorified the invisible ideal and sought escape from the physical shadows of this present world.
Remember the facts of the biblical story. God created a physical world and called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Death is considered an “enemy,” not some blessing that frees from this fleshly existence and helps us escape to the “real world” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Our mortal bodies will be recreated and resurrected (1 Corinthians 53-54; Romans 8:11). The world is destined to exist forever (Revelation 22:1-5) after “the renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28). In other words, as Keller and Alsdorf summarize their thinking: the world “is not the temporary theatre for our individual salvation stories, after which we go to live disembodied lives in a different dimension” (p.51).
When the anti-physical world bias is exchanged for the more biblical, pro-physical view, all work that helps life flourish in God’s good world becomes valuable and necessary. Jobs that involve the hands and back are not of a lower class than jobs that task the mind and heart. Whether a worker is helping one to keep their finances in order so that better spending can take place, teaching one to cook in a more healthy manner, or maintaining people’s cars for longer, safer, healthier lives, all work is equally valuable.
Called To Be Gardeners
Following their neo-Calvinistic bent (which I am perfectly fine with on this topic), Keller and Alsdorf read the command in Genesis 1:28 to “fill the earth and subdue it” as a cultural mandate to shape the world in which we live. They correctly fear that Christians have too often limited the meaning of these two phrases:
- To “fill the earth” can’t mean only to procreate and increase the population, as if our most important work is done in the bedroom. If all God wanted was a larger population, he could have created more people and done that Himself. Instead, we are called to civilize a growing world in order to cultivate society.
- To “subdue” the world doesn’t mean we are to exploit it and establish ourselves as the superior power. These are destructive impulses that fit better with a post-Fall world, not Eden. Instead, we are called to steward a world so that it meets its full potential.
Christians are not to live passively in this world. Like gardeners – and that is what the original humans were — we are to take an active role in making this world what God would have it be.
Any time a social worker brings order into the chaos of a dysfunctional family, she is doing the work of cultivation and evil is subdued. When a teacher causes light to dawn in the darkness of confusion over math facts or literacy skills, he is helping God create the world as it should be. When strangers reach out to each other and distance is exchanged for burgeoning love and compassion, the cultural mandate to fill the earth with society is being achieved. Christians are called to make a culture within this world.
A Higher Calling
More and more in our society we glorify the individual. “I” am more important than “we.” First, there was MySpace then Facebook. We watch videos on YouTube. You can “have it your way.” Even the video game system Wii acknowledges that in our culture “we” is really just made up two all-important “I”s.
There is no wonder, then, that we have made our jobs a way to find self-fulfillment. The job’s primary role is to meet the financial, social, and psycho-emotional needs of the worker. The problem with this, though, is that it tends to pit people against each other and undermine society as a whole. A boss stands in the way of his employee’s self-fulfillment. The most important part of a job is the salary that it brings and which enables one to erect a kingdom built on sand. Coworkers are competition for advancement. This sort of thinking is diametrically opposed to the cultural mandate Christians have been given.
Instead of using a job as a way to find self-fulfillment, Alsdorf and Keller argue that what we need is to rediscover the idea of vocation, a word that comes from the Latin verb “to call.” A job becomes a vocation when we realize God has called us to that role, God has equipped us for the task, and we do this work primarily to serve God and others not ourselves.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving (Colossians 3:23-24).
Sometimes Christians feel like only work directly connected with religion (i.e., ministers, missionaries, Christian educators, employees in para-church organizations like adoption agencies and work training programs) can be considered a calling. In 1 Corinthians 7:17 & 20, the apostle Paul gives us a different perspective:
Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. . . . Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Unless there is inescapable immorality involved in the job, God does not necessarily call us to change our work when we decide to connect our work with God’s work. The same gifts we use to build up the church can just as easily be used to build the kind of society in which blessings and goodness can flourish.
Contrary to the prevailing spirit of western life, “what will make me the most money and give me the most status?” is the wrong question for Christians to ask when thinking about career. Much better is this question: “how can I be of the greatest service to others?” (Keller & Alsdorf, 67). Immediately, we are struck by how this second questions is much more in line with the example of Jesus. When this new attitude takes root in our life and work becomes an act of service, our work can become a way to show love to God and others. Furthermore, as we become more competent in those jobs, we increase our service simply through the quality of our work:
If God’s purpose for your job is that you serve the human community, then the way to serve God best is to do the job as well as it can be done (Keller & Alsdorf, 76).
Such is the higher calling of Christians in relation to their careers: to use our various jobs as ways to shape culture for good and to serve others, not ourselves.
Interestingly, this change of perspective towards a more missional and vocational one, leads to an attitude that makes work more sustainable and productive. It also has the potential to make a worker more successful even by worldly standards. When work is all about money and status, a job becomes little more than a means to a self-focused end. Ultimately, selfishness is inevitably unsatisfying; a person is setting himself up for disappointment not fulfillment. Additionally, as the person’s focus is not on the root meaning or product of their work (i.e., helping humanity, children educated out of ignorance, ill health reversed), rather only on the benefits of a job (i.e., money, status, retirement plan, insurance), their diverted focus actually makes their work less productive.
On the other hand, when a person works so as to serve others and help God recreate a good world, his work is focused intensely on its purpose. The product of the job is paramount, not simply a means to an end. This other-focus compassionately pushes the worker towards increased productivity as their work is needed, and then to fulfillment as people are naturally satisfied by the worker’s service. Finally, there is little an employer wants more than a worker with increased productivity and a high level of job-satisfaction. This changed perspective may reap more rewards than we realize.
In this first third of Every Good Endeavor, Katherine Leary Alsdorf and Tim Keller have laid a superb theological foundation for what is to come. As Christians, we do not just have jobs and those jobs, as hard as they may be to enjoy at times, are not inherently evil or a distraction from the truly important matters of life. When a job becomes a vocation, our work can be immensely rewarding and divinely purposeful. God has called us to a role in life, equipped us for that work, and there is honor in whatever job one does when we are working for God and others not simply ourselves. We have received the immense honor to join God in His recreative work as we cultivate the culture of the New Creation.