It was a Sunday afternoon. I walked out my back garage to toss the trash. I opened the green can, heaved in the white plastic bag, and breathed in … the stench of smoke. As I shut the can I moseyed out to my driveway to investigate. I looked up in the sky. The sun was a dull yellow, filtered through an unnatural cloud that covered the horizon. Smoke from the worst wildfires in Colorado history hung like a lingering ghost. Ash slowly fell around me and the street in my neighborhood was completely empty.
As I turned to walk back inside I heard something. It was a song coming from a truck around the corner. As I paused and peered through the sullen glow, I saw an ice cream truck, driving as if children were going to happily skip outside, eager for an afternoon treat. Yet none emerged from their homes, sequestered by their parents from the pandemic. The truck jingled by, as if from the set of a post-apocalyptic movie.
What a fitting metaphor for our world today, I thought. Our society is burning and our consumer culture offers us an “ice cream cone” to forget our troubles. Of course, as we grow, the “ice cream cone” changes: new car, job promotion, dinner parties, binge watching endless movies in our homes. But each can be a thin veneer that masks what each of us senses: the world we live in is frightfully broken. So many of us live a life distracted by entertainment, but we sense internal emptiness and desolation, one that spreads from souls to jobs to cities.
We long for a deeper hope that can animate our working lives.
Why faith & work? Of all the pressing causes in our world, why care about this one, especially in a time of growing economic disparities, decaying social trust, and the shrinking of the church? Why invest time, attention, and resources in a vision that prioritizes both historic Christian faith and its influence on our daily work?
In this first of three articles, let me suggest three theological truths that open up new horizons for the meaning of Christian faith for our work and world today.
Gospel. The word simply means “good news.” In the ancient Roman empire, Caesar had his own euangelion, whose reign through military strength was thought to be the guarantor of peace and prosperity. One ancient coin even called Caesar a “Son of God.”
Yet a small group of Jews said that there was another gospel. They claimed that a carpenter from Nazareth was the true Son of God, not Caesar. They said that though he was crucified as a criminal, he had been raised from the dead by God and freely offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life to any and all as free gift. And the essence of this “Son of God” was not power to conquer his enemies but love. Even for one’s enemies.
Fast forward to 21st century America. Today we’re used to hearing the word “gospel” in reference to gospel music or to the notion of “getting saved.” In many conservative Protestant circles, believing the “gospel” means soul salvation: Jesus died, I receive forgiveness, and I go to heaven when I die. Yet this version of the gospel would have seemed very strange to the early Christians. The apostle Paul believed there were four essential elements to his “gospel”: the incarnation of God himself in the person of Jesus (Romans 1:2), the crucifixion of Christ for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:2-3), the resurrection of Christ for our salvation and the salvation of the world (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:19), and the Second Coming of Christ to judge the world and ultimately restore the world as God had originally intended it (Romans 2:16).
In our modern world, we’ve reduced the “gospel” to an individual, private experience involving only me and God. But this is a severe reduction of the breadth of the historic Christian faith. The truth is that sin is much worse than we thought. It has not only infected my heart, but has spread like a cancer into workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities. But the good news, the gospel, is also much better than we thought: Jesus is healing not just our souls but also those same workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities (Colossians 1:20). Indeed, he is not just light for my heart, he is the Light of the World (John 8:12).
Why, then, should we care about work?
Teaching kindergarten, practicing law, manufacturing air filters, serving tables: work is the public arena in which the breadth of the gospel can heal our fractured world. When George Washington Carver discovered new uses for the peanut, he listened to the voice of God for scientific discovery. When Bach wrote symphonies, he did so soli Deo Gloria — for the glory of God. And when the salesperson wonders if he’s wasting his life in retail, it’s the good news that crowns him with glory and dignity, even in difficult circumstances.
Christians have been entrusted with a spark of good news — one that claims salvation is far bigger and deeper than we had once thought.
Kingdom. The central message of Jesus’ own earthly ministry was about the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). To Americans who are used to electing their highest political authority to office, talk of kings and kingdoms can seem strange. Yet it’s a common theme in the Old Testament (Psalm 10:16; Isaiah 37:16; 2 Chronicles 20:6). And Jesus insisted on emphasizing it, even commanding his people for all generations to pray, “may your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
What does the Kingdom of God have to do with our work? First, saying that Jesus is the very highest authority both in your life and in the world is a deeply political, and public, commitment. Every nation, as well as every company, school, or hospital, has a set of values. Immediately, the Christian comes into any work situation first being a citizen of another country (1 Peter 2:13-17). That means when working at Amazon or at the local gas station, some of your values align with your workplace; others are different. This stubborn declaration that Jesus is king over all means your work is a contested arena between His Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world (Revelation 11:15). Each meeting, each project, each task, each relationship takes on a new significance in an age-old battle between darkness and light (Colossians 1:13). Whether you’re in politics, business, or education, the Kingdom of God makes every Christian a reformer.
But second, and more importantly, Jesus is inviting us into a new reality. I’ve often heard Protestants speak of “building the Kingdom.” But this is not how Jesus speaks about the Kingdom. He simply calls people to enter and receive the Kingdom (Matthew 7:21, 23:13, 25:34). That means, there is no work to be done. Simply receive the gracious gift of living in a new creation, partaking in the divine nature, and resting in the “easy burden” of the way of Christ. Work is the sphere of life in which we live, day-to-day, in the fullness of the life of God (John 10:10b). Rather than believing spiritual matters are just for church, spiritual depth and joy can spill over into your daily work.
Mission. Old Testament Scholar and framer of the Lausanne Covenant Dr. Christopher Wright popularized the term the Mission of God. When we hear the word “mission” we often think of missionaries overseas or paid Christian professionals sent by a church either to evangelize or serve the poor. Yet Wright makes the strong — and lengthy! — case that God himself has a mission. From the calling of Abraham and the people of Israel to the culmination of human history in the book of Revelation, God himself is initiating a grand project to restore his fractured creation (Genesis 3).
How, then, does this involve our daily work? The marvel of the grand narrative of Scripture is that God calls us — flawed, deeply broken human beings — into his purposes to heal and restore his world. This may include overseas work in microfinance. Yet it may be far closer to home. John Stott, the preeminent 20th-century missiologist, pastor, and author, believed our vocations are the central way we partake in “mission.” Police officers protect and serve, farmers feed their neighbors, teachers educate the mind, janitors and mechanics clean and repair our buildings. It’s through our work that we reflect Jesus’ own high calling “to serve, and not to be served” (Mark 10:45).
So, why faith & work? Ultimately, we live in a story of good news. Death is overcome. The darkness does not win. And God summons all people first to himself, and then sends them back into the world as his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).
In a time when it feels like our culture is burning and sending smoke into our nostrils and lives, our spiritual lives can feel desolate like an empty street on a Sunday afternoon. Yet the breadth of gospel, the promise of a coming Kingdom, and a call to participate with God in his mission reframes how we live and work.
This is good news indeed.
Editor’s note: This is the first article of a three-part series on “Why Faith & Work?” The next article will focus on the reality of our jobs and working lives.
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This post was published January 21, 2021
Jeff Haanen is the Founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship. He contributes to various magazines and publications, including Christianity Today. Jeff lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver, Colorado.