Working for God. A false dichotomy?
For most of us, following Christ and holding a job prompt nagging and important questions about the place of work in our Christian walk. Try these.
How do I decide between two great, but different employment opportunities?
Is there an ideal place for me to work as a Christian?
Or perhaps even more challengingly.
Shouldn't we all quit our jobs and work for God?
At heart, these questions all get at the same underlying desire which could be expressed as I want to serve God in my work.
What a great desire!
However, the question remains. How? Or rather, as some of these questions get at, How best to do this?
A constellation of questions follow. Is there more godly jobs for me? Is there one right, true or perfect job for me to do to serve God? Are there professions that are more or less profitable for glorifying God? What is the place of work in my life this side of Jesus' return? Is work useful, important or necessary (or all three)? Does God care about the product of my work?
… and so on!
We don't have the space to go into a full theology of work here. Instead, we'll just open up the tin a little and try and get a handle on some principles for work at a macro level.
Let's take the last question as a starting point. Shouldn't we all quit our jobs and work for God? The common phrasing of this question sets up a dichotomy between our (secular) work and work that we could do 'for God' (presumably for church in some capacity). The inference is that our secular work is not profitable in any way, whilst 'working for God' should be our singular pursuit.
However, this distinction is not Biblical.
We all 'work for God'.
The Bible's view of our lives this side of the cross is far more radical. Just like there is not a Sunday life to live amongst church friends and a Monday life to live amongst 'the world'. We are called to a God-glorifying life 24/7—and this includes our work.
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." (1 Peter 2:9)
In a word, our call is to 'proclaim the excellencies of God', to present our lives—24/7—as a kind of 'living sacrifice' (cf. Romans 12:1–3): given unto God. As you can see, there are no caveats here like, 'do this just on Sundays', or, 'do this just when you aren't at work'. It's a Monday-to-Sunday, wake-up-to-shut-eye endeavour.
Crucially, the instruction is not a time-of-day or time-of-week instruction, but instead, it is addressed first and foremost to our new identity, not how we use our time. Peter reminds his readers who they are, which commands how they should live. This has significant and helpful implications for our work-related questions. And leads to our first principle.
Principle of Work #1: Work is no different. Our chief aim remains: glorify God.
In Christ you have a new identity. This identity is with you every second of every day. Thus, the purpose of your new identity is with you every second of every day.
In this sense, we all work for God. Every second of every day.
Work is part of (the Christian) life.
The second thing to note, flowing out from this 'new identity' or 'unity' view of time and calling is that the Bible is upfront about the usefulness and necessity of work for Christians in the world.
Indeed, the normal perspective of the New Testament seems to be that followers of Jesus will work. It is the exception that some will be set aside to do the honourable work of 'full time paid' ministry (Acts 6; 1 Timothy 3; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13): idleness is to be admonished (1 Thessalonians 5:14) and the thief is to work for money so that he might 'have something to share with anyone in need' (Ephesians 4:28). Indeed, Peter, like Paul in Ephesians (cf. Ephesians 6), goes on to explicitly mention the workplace as one in which we are to live out our new identity. The take-home message is clear: (paid) work is normal and useful for Christians.
Principle of Work #2: Working for money is an expected part of Christian life. It helps provide for family, church and those in need along with preventing idleness.
But is there an ideal workplace or job? I have searched the Scriptures and I cannot find this question asked. Again, Principle 1 is sovereign. So long as you are seeking to glorify God in your word and deed by living such a distinctive life that others will ask you for the hope that you have in you (1 Peter 3:8–17), you are living out your calling.
Clearly, there are some workplaces which are unhelpful since they trade in sin (pornography houses and other places of sexual exploitation are obvious examples). But the vast majority are not like this. In Australia this is especially true where commonly the moral universe of the Bible on the 'good' and the 'evil' workplace are generally aligned in secular law. There are few legal places to work which trade in evil (though personal consciences should weigh each).
One note on this point, stay-at-home mum or dad work is seen by the Biblical authors as identical to 'paid work' (a salvation from idleness, e.g. 1 Thessalonians 5). Something our culture continues to be wrong-headed about.
The Freedom to choose
So what next? Maybe you have a redeemed view of work, yet you still feel compelled to asked the question, But which job is perfect for me?
I put this question under the heading, 'Christian optimisation'.
It comes from that wonderful desire to 'do the best' for our Lord, but at the same time, its expression can cause enormous unnecessary anxiety.
Let me re-apply Principle 1 to this question. Let's suppose you are thinking of job X. Ask the following questions:
- Is being an X lawful?
- Is being an X conscionable to me? (e.g. some may hesitate to work for a cigarette manufacturer, others may consider this okay)
- Does being an X provide enough money to support me, my family, my church and those in need? (careful here! consider that the Australian minimum wage rate is around $17 per hour, or $33,000 p.a.)
- Ultimately, does being an X provide me with the context to, 'proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light'?
Let me summarise thia in another principle.
Principle of work #3: Between two lawful, conscionable, paid positions, you are free to choose and pursue godliness in either.
It's on this last question where people often fall back into 'Christian optimisation'. The thought line goes something like this. 'But doing Y would mean more gospel conversations since it's a bigger workplace; though... X gets to influence public policy potentially towards Christian ethics; though... Y means I get to potentially share the gospel with the CEO; though... X means … and so it goes on. Like some kind of cosmic salvation calculus.
What's missing here is a good dose of Principle 1.
The point of work is just like the point of being on the bus to work, or being at home with flat-mates or your wife, or at footy with your mates, or… it's Principle 1: be a God-glorifying person. This is enough! This is your purpose.
Everything else is incidental.
But you can easily stress over 'strategic' positions or 'gospel opportunities'. I think this makes incidental things the main thing. The main thing is glorifying God in how you do your work.
Get this right, and the rest will follow.
I hope you see the freedom this provides.
Deciding between being an accountant at this firm versus that firm? Choose one, and be godly there.
Can't decide between staying in the sciences or switching to engineering in study? Choose one, and be godly on campus.
You are about to enter a period of stay-at-home mum or dad to bring up the kids. Principle 1 is entirely applicable here. Be a God-glorifying mum or dad and model of Christian life and living to your kids, neighbours and mum/dad group.
You have been offered a sales position here, versus running your own business there? Choose one, and be a godly sales officer or businessman.
At this point, you may find my perspective entirely unsatisfactory. You may feel deep down that some roles really pull you to do them whilst others just turn you off.
Let me say a few more things.
Credo 1: We're not identical.
Firstly, between two jobs which pass Principles 1 to 3, you might as well choose the one that is more enjoyable to you.
Christians are not blank slates—God has not called to himself a flat-packed IKEA warehouse of identical Billy bookcases.
He's called a 'chosen people'—each one of us he has formed, known and watched over. We each have passions and preferences. The Bible encourages us to reflect deeply and weightily on our gifts for the edification of the body (1 Corinthians 7–12) so I think it is fair to say that the use of our gifts for our workplaces is completely reasonable (albeit a first-world luxury). Not only will you likely enjoy the work more, you'll likely find it easier to glorify God through it and in that workplace.
Credo 2: What's your club?
Second, in my own line of work, I've come to see that I work in a club.
I don't mean that we have printed membership cards per sae or that we head off on road-trips together or play in sporting carnivals. I mean that my workplace is really hard to get into.
It's an exclusive club. You need to be a member.
To get into my workplace—an academic department on a major Australian campus—it takes about 10 years of study, numerous exams, serious amounts of anxiety and confidence-sapping critique and the production of a curiously mercurial output, 'creativity'.
My department of around 60 academics spend their life largely cordoned off from the world. They interact with few, other than their immediate department colleagues (apart from the odd scurry onto the campus to give a lecture). Their existence is rarefied, cloistered. Pure isolation in their mental worlds.
It's not easy to get into, and as such, it’s an exclusive club.
The penny dropped for me early on in my PhD when friends on campus were all heading off to workplaces (international mission included) that all seemed to 'fit' so well with them. I had no idea what to do.
But when I realised that if I finished my PhD I would hold in my hand a membership ticket that perhaps 1 in 10 000 Christians held, I knew with crystalline clarity what I ought to do—to find work in an academic department and be that 'Christian academic'—both to my colleagues and to my students. To get to know that club, to understand its members, minister and witness to them, by working alongside and with them.
From there, the decision seemed simple. Have membership card, will use it.
Clubs are everywhere: from hairdressing salons to the CEO circles of industry, from bars and building-sites to child-care centres and campuses.
So my final reflection is to consider for which club you hold a ticket. Is there something in your upbringing, your education, your accent or your languages? Is there a set of experiences you've had or perhaps your conversion experience? All of these things can be tickets to clubs where few others could get in to.
I've told you my club. What's yours?