The Reality of Work, For Better or for Worse
I am a design and build person. My father gave me an electric motor when I was eleven and I designed and built a lathe for turning things. I still like to work with my hands. Recently, I designed and built a very complex set of steps for a cabin (see photo below) that involved spiral stairs to a second level and then a ladder to a loft. It was very satisfying not only to dream up the design, but also to make it happen. Most of my design and build work now is in the area of education, but also through my hobbies. And, of course, while I am not deeply motivated for maintaining things, I do that too. For seven years, I served as academic dean at Regent College and did a lot of maintenance. It was good work—providing an infrastructure where faculty and students could thrive. But I, like the future of many younger readers starting off, have had several careers in my lifetime: pastor, inner city worker, student counsellor, carpenter, business owner, professor, academic administrator. And now I am reframing retirement. My mission in life has remained constant throughout—to empower the whole people of God for life and service, to love my family, and to beautify the world. But the form has changed dramatically from time to time, and some of my mission is done avocationally in the sense that I am doing it alongside remunerated work. But, as Robert Frost once said in his poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” my object in life, like two eyes that provide one image, is to make my vocation and avocation one. Work is central to this.
Designed to Work
Work is part of our God-imaging dignity as human beings. We are made, as Genesis tells us, to be an icon or reflection of the divine being. We find in the seminal passage of the first book of the Bible that being a God-reflecting person involves two things. First, we are made as relational beings, “male and female in his image” (Gn 1:27). The reason for this is that God is a relational being dwelling in the love and communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. Men and women, like God, are beings in communion.
But the second iconic dimension is equally important: God is a worker, and God made us to work like himself. Throughout the Bible, we see different images of God as a worker, including shepherd (Ps 23), potter (Jer 18:6), physician (Mt 8:16), teacher (Ps 143:10), vineyard-dresser (Is 5:1-7), and so on. God did not stop working when he made the world. God continues to create, sustain, redeem, and consummate. God gave us dominion over everything except ourselves and told us to “work the earth and take care of it” (Gn 1:26; 2:15). We do “the Lord’s work” in everything from agriculture to genetic engineering, from accounting to graphic art, from garbage collecting to policy making, from pastoring to policing. And the reason is simply this: God invites human beings to enter his ongoing work of designing, communicating, creating, sustaining, and organizing (and we could add dozens of other verbs in Scripture that describe God at work). Work is God-work and essentially good.
The Joy of Work
Work does several good things for us: it gets us out of ourselves. In his classic book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the therapeutic value of work: “Work plunges men into the world of things.… This world is “an instrument in the hand of God for the purification of Christians from all self-centeredness and self-seeking.” Through work, we also express the gifts and talents God has entrusted to us, and, in the end, are accountable to God as to whether we used them well. Work enables us to provide for ourselves and for our loved ones (2 Thes 3:7-10), and work also facilitates generosity when we can share our excess with the needy and pay our taxes (Eph 4:28). All good work is a way of serving and loving our neighbour, whether directly—such as teaching, homemaking, counselling, and pastoring; or indirectly—such as conducting research in a laboratory, connecting people through the internet, processing data at a bank, or lubricating the gears of a machine. The original Greek word for "ministry" is simply "service,” so ministry is all the ways we serve God and others, about which God says, “It is good” (Gn 1:31). When did you last think of going to work (or looking for work if you are unemployed) as "going into the ministry" or “doing the Lord’s work”? Most good work in this world is a way to extend the kingdom of God and bring shalom to people and creation.
The Problem with Work
Work, of course, is not always good. Since work was given before the fall, it is essentially good, but sin turned work into toil (Gn 3:17-19). Now all work, even the professional ministry, is shot through with frustration (Eccl 2:17-26) like a spoiled cake. Although God, through the reconciling work of Jesus Christ on the cross, has reversed the curse, work in this life is complicated and problematic. In a fallen world, we may not be able to find work that perfectly fits our talents, gifts, and personality. I never have. There is no perfect fit this side of heaven. But where we have a choice, we should embrace work that mostly fits our God-given make-up and our sense of purpose in life.
Finding Your Work
And how do we find work that matches with how God made us? The key is what I started with—I am a design and build person. All through our lives, we have done some things—maybe different things—with a feeling of satisfaction, success, and joy, and often without remuneration. Ask yourself what types of things have produced these feelings for you, and the response is a perfect clue to discovering what work you are best suited to. Experimentation is critical to this. Start working and you will find out, and when there is nothing that comes close to expressing your life purpose, you can still work heartily and meet your needs knowing you are serving your neighbour. Then, alongside your daily work, you can find other work, probably without remuneration, which more precisely fits your purpose in life. Work, after all, does not have to be compensated to qualify as work. The simplest definition of work is energy purposively expended—whether manual, mental, or both—whether or not it is remunerated.
And where does God come into this trial and error? First, God guides. Indeed, there is no word for “guidance” in Scripture in the sense that the pagan world looked for signs of the will of the gods. Rather, the Bible reveals a guide who, like a shepherd, leads us in the right path. This process involves studying Scripture, prayer, listening to the voice of the Spirit and, very importantly, knowing how God created us. So, second, God helps us to know ourselves and how he has crafted each one of us with a central motivational thrust: what brings joy and what we have felt we have done successfully at every stage of our life. Third, whatever we do, even in serving coffee at Starbucks, we can be full-time servants of God. Paul said to the Colossians who were washing dishes and driving the chariot for their masters down to the bazaar, “It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Cl 3:24). But finally, work (even and maybe especially not-ideal work), is a means of our spiritual growth. In Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson affirms the centrality of work in spiritual formation: “I’m prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is the workplace.”
So whether we’re making lathes or making laws, we serve God in unfolding creation’s potential, expressing gifts and talents, providing for oneself and one’s family, serving our neighbour, advancing the kingdom of God, and growing in Christlikeness. The amazing thing is that no matter what we do, our work can be an act of worship to God. It all depends on who we are working for! Knowing the answer to this question can reframe our attitude “for worse” to “for better.”