We value leisure. In our culture, work is seen as something that’s hard, and should be avoided if possible. Especially if it’s not work you love. For Aristotle the goal was, in fact, to avoid work that’s “base,” hard, or with one’s hands. Aristotle believed the goal for anyone should be to participate in the contemplative life only, and avoid “active” life.
However, for Christians, this doesn’t jive. In our creation account, we learn that Eden isn’t a vacation meant merely for pondering and leisure, it’s a vocation meant for creativity and sweat! It isn’t until after the fall that work becomes a “thorny endeavor.” But we tend to confuse the toil we feel in work with the nature of work, and declare that work itself is bad. The good news is, this isn’t the end of the story. For the ancient Israelites, God sent Moses to deliver them back to a land set apart, “flowing with milk and honey.” For us, through Jesus, we have received deliverance to regain satisfaction and endurance in our work, despite sometimes difficult circumstances.
Our work is not only for ourselves; it was never designed to be. Of course any paid job is for yourself, so you can use your labor to make money and provide for yourself (and your family). But it is not only a means to that end. Its purpose is not for you to express your individual personality, creativity, and passions, so that you can achieve self-actualization. We idolize the idea that we should “do what we love” – but that view of work demeans the majority of people throughout history, and most of the people in the world, who don’t have the luxury of that choice!
What if God is asking us to do the work that he’s put in front of us, instead of being a slave to the concept of “doing what we love”? If our definition of success in work involves solely doing what we love and being the best at something, we will oscillate between pride and despair – pride if it’s working, and despair if it’s not. But according to Blaise Pascal – the mid-17th century French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and philosopher – the Gospel slays pride with humility, and slays despair with hope.
Our work isn’t just a 9-5 job. It’s not just what we get paid to do. It definitely includes that, but also includes services performed with whatever “property” you’ve been entrusted with, regardless of whether or not it’s priced into the formal economy. Stay-at-home parents are part housekeeper, part logistics specialist, part psychologist/counselor, part teacher, part chef, and part money manager.
Instead, true work, according to John Stott, is “The expenditure of energy (manual, mental, or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.” Work is quite literally spending yourself for others. For if there’s any generation who is sure that time is the most precious resource, it’s ours. Work is any activity conducted for the sake of human flourishing, and for the glory of God. It’s not confined to your paid job.
And there is no hierarchy of professions. There is no secular vs. sacred. What’s the work you’re doing that’s most important to God? All of it. Mopping floors and cleaning toilets counts just as much as practicing mergers and acquisitions law! No work is too lowly to be used to glorify God. The early church embraced all forms of work as sacred. Paul did not call everyone to become a traveling missionary. He affirmed everyone in the place they already were, and his invitation in 2 Corinthians 5 and 6 is to then live like the new creations they are, in those places. But in the 4th century, roughly, the church got away from that, and the only true “vocation” became the “call” to church work. This was a distortion based on a Greek understanding of contemplative work (vita contemplativa) being more valuable than secular work.
For nearly 1,000 years, the church camped on the idea that the ordinary citizen was living a lower life than the clergy. Then there was a healthy reversion back to an integrated approach during reformation and renaissance. Yet in the 19th century, the protestant church went back to separating the secular from the sacred, this time with emphasis on salvation and in the high calling of missionaries. As one person recently put it at the 2014 Faith and Work Summit, the evangelical default of mission at that time, which is in large part still carried forward today, is “to recruit God’s people to use some of their leisure time for missionary efforts led by church staff.” Work became a means to an end: to save souls. Work was good for acting ethically, demonstrating excellence, and having opportunities to evangelize (share the gospel in word). Now we are realizing that Evangelicalism has missed something. Those things are true and good, but they’re incomplete. Work has meaning and significance in and of itself, it’s not just a means to an end!
So everyone’s ultimate vocation – regardless of whether we think of it as work, or not – is stewarding everything God has entrusted to us, to prepare it for his return. He asks us to make His kingdom and His estate grow with whatever we’re doing. In other words, “Heavenize the earth with what I’ve given you! Earn a heavenly return with what you have on earth. Store up treasures in heaven – that is, those that last eternally – even while you’re still here.” And those who are faithful, are given more opportunities (often, they are the same opportunities others have let pass by).
Ultimately, the Christian vision for heaven is a return to perfect work as worship in community. The quiet Garden of Eden transforms into the bustling Garden City of God. There, in the most advanced civilization we’ve ever dreamed of, there will be vast infrastructure, requiring complex systems and highly specialized laborers of every kind. And each will enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labor, with all glory to God.