What Is The Purpose Of Work?
This post is by Brandon Smith (Director of Gospel-Centered Discipleship). To see the entire series click here.
The word “vocation” has certain connotations depending on who you ask. For some, it’s merely a 9-5 job that puts food on the table and pays the mortgage. For others, it’s a sphere of work in which they can thrive and use their talents well. In Christian circles, we have what is called a “doctrine of vocation.” In other words, we take the literal Latin meaning, “calling,” believing that we are called by God to fulfill a specific purpose with our lives.
What Vocation Is and Is Not
It is probably helpful to first explain vocation a little further.
There’s a temptation to think that if you’re a Christian guy who loves the Word and you don’t really enjoy doing anything else, you should obviously be a pastor. For example, I felt called into what is often labeled vocational (full-time, paid) ministry at around the age of 21. I had an insatiable desire to study Scripture and theology, and I loved teaching others what I had learned. So, to me, God wanted me to start working in the church full-time and pastoring others. As one who has worked in Bible-college recruiting, I can tell you that this is the case with most young men who were in my situation.
Additionally, I’ve met women who have the same love for Scripture and theology. They often feel discouraged because they believe, and truly accept, that they are not called to preach and teach because of Scripture’s stance on the issue. They ask, “If I can’t preach, what can I do?”
The disconnect is that we too often equate vocation with work rather than equating vocation with calling. There is an important difference between the two. Many people’s vocation will be found in their work, but not always. There is a general sense in which every Christian has a vocation that goes beyond their workplace. Whether in the home, the neighborhood, the office, or the pulpit, every person’s calling is to love God and love others (Matt. 22:36-40). We should all seek to know the Scriptures, commune more deeply with God, and to tell the world about Jesus.
When speaking at high school and college groups, I would encourage students to take seriously the words of Paul in Acts 17:26-27:
From one man[God] has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.
Every person exists in their generation, lives in their town, goes to their place of employment, attends their school, and is born into their family for a purpose – so that they and others might know God. There are no accidents or exceptions here.
This will look different for everyone. Some men, like myself, may find that preaching every Sunday is not God’s calling on their lives. Maybe it is writing, or accounting, or waiting tables. For women, perhaps it is raising children, or starting a non-profit, or working in sales. There are endless ways that one might fulfill their vocation as God’s ambassadors to the world but again, the workplace is not always where this occurs. Now that this distinction has been made, let’s look at how this definition of vocation relates to work.
A Theology of Work
Now, for those who are involved in some form of work, it is proper to understand that work was invented by God and was instituted as a glorious reflection of His image.
When God created Adam and Eve “in His own image” (Gen. 1:27), charging them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). He placed them in the Garden of Eden “to work and watch after it” (Gen. 2:15). We, as His image-bearers, reflect a God who Himself creates, cultivates, and accomplishes various forms of work (Gen. 2:2-3; 1 Cor. 3:9; Phil. 2:13).
Sin entered the world and marred the glorious gift of work, causing it to become “painful labor” in which we can only work “by the sweat of our brow” (Gen. 3:17, 19). No matter the type of work we do or how much we love it, there are days when we simply do not care to accomplish another task or finish another project. Simply put, this is sin pervading our hearts. Whether we like it or not, the temptation to devalue work is knitted within us. The question now remains, how can we fight the urge to hate our work and instead glorify God with this particular gift of image-bearing?
How to Work to the Glory of God
In his book Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller reminds us that “work did not come in after a golden age of leisure. It was a part of God’s perfect design for human life.” As such, we should always remember that the ability to work to the glory of God is still available to us. Paul could not charge Christians to do all things for God’s glory and in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17) if it were not a realistic goal. In light of this, here are two fundamental ways in which we as Christians can take a God-centered approach to work:
Remember who you work for. In Colossians 3, slaves are told, “Don’t work only while being watched, in order to please men, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.” This master/slave relationship is really no different than the employer/employee relationship that we experience today. It is ultimately not our employer for whom we work; God is our master. He not only expects us to work in a diligent and ethical manner, but He expects our work to reveal something about His excellence to the world around us.
Remember why you work. As we’ve discussed, creation is in disarray because of sin. What is lost on many Christians is that when we do anything that resembles the perfection of Eden, we are actually joining God’s redemption of all things in a very real and practical way. Though we cannot save a soul or totally renew this fractured universe, our words and deeds can shed light where there is darkness. Every sphere of life is informed by the gospel and tied directly to the Great Commandments (love God, love others) and the Great Commission (make disciples of all nations).
This blog series is based on the fall study of The Gospel Project for adults and students, focused on the doctrine of humanity, titled “Bearing God’s Image”.