Colossians 3:17 and 1 Corinthians 10:31 make it clear that that Christians are to be motivated to do their very best work whatever work they are doing to the glory of God. While everyone has a vocation many Christians don’t understand why their work matters.
The term vocation comes from the Latin word for “calling.” The Scriptures are full of passages that describe how Christians have been called to faith through the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:14) and how God calls us to a particular office or way of life (1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 7:15-20). The doctrine of vocation is thoroughly biblical and was developed with its greatest rigor during the Reformation.
Out of the Protestant Reformation came what is known as “the Protestant work ethic,” but this was not due to the pressure to prove one’s worth to God, but rather emerged out of an understanding of the meaning of work and the satisfaction and fulfillment that come from ordinary human labor when seen through the light of the doctrine of vocation. The Reformation was the time in which the Protestant church enjoyed its greatest cultural influence—in art, literature, music, as well as in social institutions. All of this was because the Reformers understood what the Bible has to teach about the doctrine of vocation. Recovering this doctrine is important to contemporary Christians because it will open the way for the Church and Christians to influence our culture once again through our work.
Work is something everyone does whether it is vocationally or doing volunteer work. Work is a necessary but hard part of life. God set Adam in the Garden and put Adam him to work. Work is very important to God but not only that we do work but also how we work. One of the most neglected areas of theology in recent times has been the doctrine of vocation—that answers the question of how and why we work. Laboring for the sake of labor and for a paycheck in order to pay bills and perhaps retire is not the goal of our work. Rather the goal of our work is to glorify God in it and enjoy Him with grateful hearts for the provision of providing work for us.
One of the greatest dangers in contemporary Christianity is the idea that people just “work” in order to retire. The problem with this idea is that it is not found in Scripture. Jesus worked until the day He died for us on the Cross, rose again and ascended to the Right hand of the Father. The Apostles all worked and gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Christians throughout church history have all worked and given their lives, time, talent and possessions for the sake of the Gospel in order to advance it. While many Americans today live and work for the American dream—the white picket fence, kids, etc., all in order to retire, many people go hungry and have to work the rest of their lives. Furthermore, the American dream is a bad dream, because God calls us to work not retire—not to sit idle by until at least we breathe our last, but to work all for His glory, praise and acclaim. Rather than the Protestant work ethic, our country has become a nation that sits on the sidelines depending on the state instead of working to the glory of God.
The Incarnation of Christ shows us how Christ is fully and truly human, as well as truly divine. In His humanity Jesus took on certain roles. He was a son and a brother. He was even a citizen in an occupied state of the Roman Empire. And He was a carpenter’s son and presumably, a carpenter himself. In fully living in these roles, Christ demonstrates the value and integrity of our work. But more than this, Christ through His redemptive work undoes what Adam did in the Fall. And He restores to us the ability and the capacity to be image-bearers as God intended us to be (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 2nd Corinthians 3:18).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to the world as a fallen-falling world. We may also say that it is a redeemed-redeeming world—that is a world Christ has redeemed and through His church on earth is redeeming. As disciples of Christ and as image-bearers of both Creator and Redeemer, we can be instruments of the spreading of redemption. When we see our worship, our calling, from this perspective, it is as if we have climbed high upon a mountain and can look out over the long and broad horizons of the meaning and value of our work.
Moses expresses the vision that I’m making in Psalm 90:17, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” Moses doesn’t use the word vocation in this text. But the type of work that Moses is referring to here can be done only when work is viewed as a calling. God has called us to a variety of tasks, from the roles that we play to the kinds of work that we do. He has given us competencies and skill sets and gifts. And He desires that we use them all in the service of His glory. We are called to be husbands and wives, parents and children. We are called to be workers in His garden.
For some of us this takes the form of professional jobs; for others it means factory work; for others still it means never once receiving a paycheck. What holds all these various roles and types of work together is that they all entail routines. No matter how glamorous the work—an astronaut, for instance, or a mystery-novel writer—all work involves routines; the day-in, day-out, hour after hour of plodding along and plugging away. Even relationships boil down to routines—even our relationship to God. When we understand all these activities and functions as vocation, we gain a perspective on work that raises us above limited horizons. The doctrine of vocation enables us to see our work, all our work, as a means by which we can serve, worship, glorify and enjoy God.
God has not left us without direction when it comes to work. In the pattern of creation itself, God graciously teaches us the value of work, as well as the healthy rhythms of work and rest. By creating us in His image and charging us to subdue and have dominion over His creation, God gives us a mandate to serve Him and reveals to us the purpose and meaning of work. By sending us the Redeemer, the God-Man who was a son and a brother and a carpenter, God was filling the roles that we play and the work that we do with purpose and significance and integrity. Scripture offers us a theological framework, which when applied to work can transform the routines and otherwise meaningless cycles of work into sacred acts of worship.
When we find this kind of meaning in our work, we find something permanent, something that lasts beyond us. As we get older, we tend to think more and more about our legacy. For some, that legacy consists of an estate and wealth and companies and institutions. For others, that legacy consists of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For some those legacies can become idols, perversions of God’s good gifts into objects for self-fulfillment or self-promotion. The psalmists asks clearly that God establish the work of his hands, that God make something permanent, something lasting.
The extent to which we see our work as a calling to serve and ultimately to glorify God will be the extent to which our legacy lasts. It may be a legacy absent of great wealth or hordes of descendants. It may even be a legacy that goes entirely unnoticed by succeeding generations. But it will be an established legacy nevertheless, a legacy of good and faithful labor done for the glory of God.
John Calvin once said, “Each individual has his own sort of living assigned to him as a sort of sentry past.” It is the place and the work to which God has called us. As Calvin continues, “God asks of us but one thing to be faithful stewards of our sentry posts.” Culturally we are taught to rank these posts and callings—even to envy the posts and calling of others. We value and devalue people and their work, even ourselves and our own work, on these false scales and a against false paradigms. From this false standard we wrongly evaluate our own work and worth, and the work and worth of others. The standard that works is the one that God has established.
“No tasks,” Calvin tells us, “will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.” The standard for evaluating our work and our worth is to see our work as a calling in the service of God, for His glory.
Paul says it clearly, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). That certainly applies to our work. We should, like Johann Sebastian Bach, be able to attach two sets of initials to everything we do: our own initials and the initials SDG, Soli Deo Gloria. And as we do, we’ll find that the words of the psalmist become true. We will find that God’s favor is upon us, and that He is, by His grace and for His own glory, establishing the work of our own hands.