Life is really very simple.
in the world
is either 'spiritual'
By 'spiritual' I mean anything related to God, anything that's 'holy'. This is really the most important sphere of life. By 'secular' I'm referring to the everyday, the mundane, things that have little or nothing to do with God. These are much less important and significant than the spiritual.
We can see this clearly in the area of work. 'Secular' employment is work 'out there in the world'. Its main purpose is to allow us to earn some money so we can get on with real life, and of course, it does provide opportunities to 'witness' to our non-Christian workmates. There are certain forms of secular employment which are valued more highly than others - particularly the serving ones such as medicine and teaching. They seem to have a higher spiritual content to them.
But the form of employment which is valued most highly is 'fulltime Christian work'. This is where we have the opportunity to devote all of our time and energy to 'the Lord's work', unencumbered by the demands of secular employment. It's clearly a much more spiritual occupation than a 'normal job'.
Becoming a 'fulltime Christian worker' is the dream of many Christians. This is because it's the ultimate way of serving God. In fact, many of us long for the day when we don't have to concern ourselves with such mundane matters as running a business, being an accountant or lawyer in a 'secular' firm, or fixing cars. Far better to be able to give all our time and energy to 'ministry'.
There's a word - ministry. What is it? Well, ministry is anything which deals with the 'spiritual' task. Worship leading on Sunday mornings is ministry. So is teaching Sunday school, leading a homegroup, preaching, going on an outreach, praying for someone or being a 'missionary'.
To be 'in ministry' is to be taken up with the spiritual task of building God's kingdom. Of course, once you have experienced being in ministry, it is difficult to return to secular employment with any degree of passion. Nothing is more significant than doing ministry. Consequently, fulltime Christian workers are highly esteemed in the church - and rightly so. After all they have sacrificed much (particularly those on the 'mission field'), are at the forefront of God's work in this world, and are making a bigger difference for God than those in secular employment!
Ultimately, most work doesn't really count for much - sure we are expected to do our best, but it's what we do for the Lord that really counts. Our secular employment is simply a means to an end.
Is that right?
Many of us certainly live as if it were. But are such ideas biblical? In fact, where do we look for a biblical perspective on the issues raised?
In the Beginning . . . was Work
Probably the best place to start is Genesis because, as Eugene Peterson has pointed out, Genesis 1 is actually a journal of work.
"The Bible begins with the announcement, 'In the beginning God created . . . ' - not 'sat majestic in the heavens'. He created. He did something. He made something. He fashioned heaven and earth. The week of creation was a week of work." 1
Furthermore, we see from the rest of Scripture, and from history, that God continues to work. It is an ongoing activity. Part of God's work was to create man and woman. They were made in God's image - like God. God then gave them a task to do, a responsibility to carry. They were expected to care for and tend the garden.
In fact, the mandate God gave Adam and Eve was to share in God's work. From the beginning God was prepared to entrust the garden to humans. The intention was for us to become God's co-workers.
But the fall dramatically disturbed the relationship between God and humans, and has had a huge impact on our role as God's co-workers. The work of humans is intended to be totally connected to the work of God. By rebelling against God, the fulfilment and purpose of our work is seriously eroded.
However, we need to be careful that we don't assume that work has become a bad thing. Even though work has been affected by the fall, the invitation to work with God still remains.
The Spiritual/Secular Split
What light can the Genesis story shed on the way we see various tasks and jobs? To begin with, none of the tendencies we have of splitting life into spiritual and secular are in evidence in the story of God's creation of work. God's commission to Adam and Eve to be stewards of his creation is not a second-rate call. I doubt that Adam thought "Oh, bummer - I really want a more significant role, God. I wanted to be a priest, not a farmer! I mean, isn't there a more spiritual task I could do?"
There is no room for a spiritual/secular split - defining some tasks as more important or more spiritual than others. In fact, the writer consistently states "And it was (very) good" as if to emphasise that God's original intention for his creation was good - it's only the fall that has tainted it.
What's more, there's no biblical justification for considering certain types of work better than others. Leading worship is not necessarily more spiritual, or more pleasing to God, than painting a house. We see this clearly in evidence throughout the Scriptures.
The servant task of washing feet at the door was not something Jesus felt beneath him and he did it willingly for his disciples, not just because it was an object lesson, but because it was of inherent value. Likewise, though superseded by his call to public ministry, Jesus did not consider his carpentry trade as second-best. Neither did Paul think of his tent-making as something he had to do just to make ends meet.
We simply must deal with the dualism that dominates our view of the Christian life - it's not biblical, and is so counter-productive to seeing all of life as part of God's domain. In fact, a good beginning to a more biblical view would be to ban the word 'secular' - it doesn't serve any useful purpose in our fight to discover a more wholistic view of life.
Developing a more biblical view of work
The early chapters of Genesis have plenty to teach us regarding a biblical view of work.
Work has significance because we do it in partnership with God.
A Christian's work is a natural, inevitable development out of God's work. God, who works, creates us also to work. In the garden, Adam and Eve are instructed by God to gather food, cultivate the earth, name the animals and care for creation. The fall doesn't change this mandate, but it does add to our role as co-workers, because we now assist God in his redeeming work (restoring creation to God's original intentions).
Working with God has great significance and value. As Alistair Mackenzie has written: "The significance of work for us as Christians lies in discerning ways in which we can express through our work stewardship, service, creativity, witness, truth-telling, preservation, healing, community-building, justice and peace-making. These are clear expressions of the character and on-going work of God.
"This does not mean that all the monotony will suddenly be taken out of mundane work, nor that we will no longer experience struggle in our work . . . . But it does increase the likelihood of our work and worship becoming better connected, with the hope that each might become infused with the other." 2 Therefore, any job that we do that serves people, and in which we can glorify God, is a Kingdom job.
The Apostle Paul writes: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." 3 And "As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work." 4 It's this concept of our work being part of our worship to God which transforms it from a necessary evil to something that has real interest to God and value in itself.
Work is neither to be degraded nor idolised.
When we treat work as second best, or counting for nothing, we divorce our work from our faith. Our work has no connection to God. In fact, the curse of some people's lives is not work as such, but futile, senseless work. When we become compulsive in our work - treating it as the most important thing in life, even idolising it - we become workaholics.
Today's Christians seem to oscillate between these two extremes. On the one hand we frequently show contempt for our work, regarding it as second-best, while on the other hand workaholics are esteemed and highly regarded, just as they are in the rest of society. We play little games, letting each other know how hard and long we work. A kind of "I'm just so incredibly busy" game which leaves us with the prize as the most valued person in the group.
But biblical work is neither compulsive nor senseless and useless. It doesn't glorify work . . . and it doesn't condemn work . . . . It doesn't say, 'God has a great work for you to do; go and do it.' Nor does it say, 'God has done everything; go fishing.' 5 Once we discover that our role is to get involved in what God is already doing, and not to try and do God's work for him, it frees us from either degrading, or idolising our work.
Eugene Peterson writes: "The foundational truth is that work is good. If God does it, it must be all right. Work has dignity: there can be nothing degrading about work if God works. Work has a purpose: there can be nothing futile about work if God works . . . .
"(Through the Bible) we learn a way of work which does not acquire things or amass possessions but responds to God and develops relationships. People are at the centre of Christian work . . . . The character of our work is shaped not by accomplishments or possessions but in the birth of relationships . . . . For it makes little difference how much money Christians carry in their wallets or purses.
"It makes little difference how our culture values and rewards our work. For our work creates neither life nor righteousness. Relentless, compulsive work habits . . . which our society rewards and admires are seen by the psalmist as a sign of weak faith and assertive pride, as if God could not be trusted to accomplish his will, as if we could rearrange the universe by our own effort.
What makes a difference is the personal relationships that we create and develop. We learn a name; we start a friendship; we follow up on a smile . . . . Nature scatters its seeds freely, everywhere; a few of them sprout. Out of numerous handshakes and greetings, some germinate and grow into a friendship in Christ.
"Christian worship gathers the energy and focuses the motivation which transform us from consumers who use work to get things, into people who are intimate and in whom work is a way of being in creative relationship with another. Such work can be done within the structure of any job, career or profession. As Christians do the jobs and tasks assigned to them in what the world calls work, we learn to pay attention to and practice what God is doing in love and justice, in helping and healing, in liberating and cheering . . . . The Bible insists on a perspective in which our effort is at the edge and God's work is at the centre." 6
Work is much more than paid employment.
If we're to think biblically about work we must stop thinking only in terms of 'a job'. Painting the house, getting lunches ready for the children, helping out with a Red Cross appeal - all of this is work. This means that those of us who are unemployed can still work; those of us who are not paid can still work. It also means that much of our time outside of paid employment is work.
Frequently the lack of value many of us feel from our voluntary contributions is caused by this fundamentally flawed distinction between paid and unpaid employment. How much money we receive and where we receive the money from, should bear little relevance to the value of the tasks we have been called to do. When we disengage from this type of thinking we are liberated to think more wholistically.
Work is part of our calling.
The word 'calling' is a much abused term these days. We hear people say "I feel called to the ministry", "I feel called to Bangladesh", "I feel called to be a carpenter". But biblically, our primary calling (vocation) is to follow Christ and obey him. All other 'callings' are secondary subsets of this.
If we are going to use the language of 'calling', we simply can't allow it to apply only to certain roles such as pastoring or cross-cultural missions. We must include all tasks we are involved in. But neither can we allow 'calling' to be synonymous with paid employment. To say "teaching is my calling" is no more helpful than to say "pastoring is my calling". Teaching or pastoring may well be part of a Christian's calling but it can never be the whole. We need to consider all of our lives.
My call to follow Jesus involves working at the 'inward journey' (my relationship with God) and fleshes out in a whole variety of different roles. My paid work is not my vocation/calling. It's part of it just one expression. But so too is my role as a parent, marriage partner, friend, voluntary worker, neighbour and church member. Seeing my life as a whole enables me to see how the different tasks and relationships I am involved in fit into my vocation as a Christian. God has placed me where I am for a purpose.
There is no hierarchy of tasks.
My work is no more difficult than anyone else's. Again, Eugene Peterson is instructive: "Any work done faithfully and well is difficult. It is no harder for me to do my job than for any other person, and no less. There are no easy tasks in the Christian way; there are only tasks which can be done faithfully or erratically, with joy or resentment. And there is no need for any of us, pastors or builders, accountants or care-givers, typists or gardeners, doctors or labourers, to speak in tones of self-pity of the terrible burdens of our work." 7
If every task or job can be part of a calling from God, then its value is independent of the status and prestige games our society encourages us to play. Tony Campolo tells of how his wife Peggy grew tired of the points-scoring at dinner and cocktail parties. She always felt so worthless when she would ask a young woman what she did for a job and the woman would reply something like "I'm a lawyer with Bond, Gibbon and Priest, specialising in commercial law and public policy. And what do you do?", to which she would say "Oh, I'm just a housewife".
Determined not to be intimidated in future, she worked out a patter. The next dinner party, when asked by a woman what she did, Peggy replied something like this: "I'm involved in the socialisation of two homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition so that they might be transformers of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia God willed for us before the foundation of the world". Then as an afterthought Peggy asked the woman, "And what do you do?" - to which she replied, "Oh, I'm just a lawyer".
We need to find ways of affirming together that all work we do, done God's way, is worthwhile. And God has worthwhile, significant work for all of us - not just in this life, but for eternity. Let's seek to view our lives as an opportunity to be his co-workers - to bring about his purposes and to honour him with all that we are and do.
Wayne Kirkland lives in Lower Hutt with his wife Jill, three daughters and one cat. People are confused as to what exactly he does, as he spends an exorbitant amount of time at home, goes to work carrying a briefcase but wearing shorts and jandals and drives a different car home each night. (He works part-time for Signpost Communications and part-time as a car dealer.)