A common Christian misconception that I’ve been fighting to overcome in my life has to do with the importance of ordinary, secular work. Over that past few years I’ve been working as a web developer, and before that I’ve worked as a computer engineer, IT helpdesk technician, and a 7th grade teacher. I wanted to know if there is and was any intrinsic value to my work. I had been taught by the church, either explicitly or implicitly, that secular work–work done outside the realm of vocational ministry–is important only insofar as it provides the worker with income that can be donated to charity or given in support of the person who works for God as a missionary or pastor. This work was prioritized because it was the work that facilitated individuals’ spiritual salvation. It was the work that brought people to a place of accepting Jesus into their heart and therefore this work had enduring, eternal significance.
I knew this wasn’t quite right. I knew this left a lot of people in the lurch. The majority of the Christian population was then left with jobs that were only indirectly meaningful as they supported the work of others. Beyond that, the only purpose of their work was to act as a witness to God in the workplace. Those of us engaged in secular work could do little more than act as happy representatives of Christianity that would pique the interest of our co-workers, and hopefully provide an avenue where we could invite these people to church. Then in the presence of trained ministry professionals, our co-workers would hear a message describing a metaphysical transaction accomplished on the cross by Jesus Christ, which would allow them to be saved from their sins if they would acknowledge him as Lord and say a certain prayer. The goal of our work was to make money to give to support professional Christians and to invite our co-workers to come to church so they could meet these professional Christians. Beyond that, our work had little, if any, intrinsic worth.
In an intentional effort to correct this thinking and save my misguided thoughts about work, I read Darrell Cosden’s book: The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work. He articulates a theology of work by looking back to creation and forward to the resurrection. He suggests that our calling to work originates in God’s original plan for humans in creation (because it is only after the Fall that work became toilsome). From the beginning God planned for us to join with him in working. When we work, we become co-creators of culture and co-rulers over the earth with God. Looking forward, Cosden states that our work is not just for the here and now but it will endure into Heaven. He argues for a theological understanding of the resurrection that accounts for God’s promise to redeem all of creation. God won’t trash the earth and start over from scratch. God’s salvation of the earth includes the resurrection and transformation of not just humans but all of creation (Rev. 21-22, Rom. 8, 1 Cor. 15). This means that the programming work that I’ve done, along with the paper filing, technical testing, and management supervisory work that others have done will have an eternal impact on the life we live beyond the grave. Because God will redeem all of creation, our work, which is a part of creation, will be wrapped up in its redemption.
If God can raise and transform the dead…he can raise and transform all present and even past (decayed and gone) earthly realities.
Yet, rather than limiting our thinking to individual products of work, it may also help us to think about the cumulative nature and impact of our work on this earth and on the whole of humanity. Think about how different our world would be had someone not invented the wheel. God’s judgment about the “goodness” or otherwise of the wheel we invented does not apply only to the “original” wheel. It involves a judgment of all that has resulted from there being wheels–all that we have built upon, from, and with this invention.
Today we live with the results, good and bad, of what previous generations did through their work. Every product of work, and every way of working, in some way preserves and develops what has come before. Human beings stand on one another’s shoulders all the way back to Adam. Rather than thinking individualistically about the salvation of unrelated separate entities, it might help us to see our work interdependently as part of the “fabric of this world” (as Lee Hardy calls it) that God will preserve and transform into the fabric of the new earth.
Cosden, pg. 114-115
This being the case, our work clearly has important eternal significance, and furthermore it means we ought to be thoughtful about what sort of work we engage in. With the caveat that there is no perfect job, we should engage in work that is not explicitly damaging to creation–whether it be environmentally dangerous, hurtful to humans, or relationally destructive. For example, if our job was to sell crack on the street or required us to dump environmentally harmful chemicals into a river, as Christians, it wouldn’t do to justify this as a well paying job that can support the vocational ministry of many a minister. Our vocation would be eternally destructive and we should switch jobs immediately. Other jobs, like a technology job that produces software for a military contractor, may fall into more of a grey area. Our continued work at that company should be reflected on with other Christians around us so as to discern the appropriateness of our vocation.
In fact, Cosden suggests that we should all engage in regular Sabbath reflection on the value of our work. This reflection should gauge the appropriateness of our current occupation based on its impact on creation and on the gifting and skill sets we possess. He provides some questions to be answered personally as well as in the context of community to help us reflect on our current vocation.
1) Does or can, this or that occupation allow me to work as God’s apprentice according to his purpose for this creation?
2) Given the ambiguities and ambivalence in this specific work, does it (or how can it) in some measure promote and build harmonious relationships between God and humanity, between people, and between people and nature?
3) Does this work promote or contribute to the psychological wholeness and flourishing of people in themselves?
4) Is this work suited to who I am and am becoming with my gifts and talents?
5) Does (or how can) this work and its results allow me and others to flourish as God’s apprentices?
6) How can we together, with the help of God’s Spirit, minimize or even eliminate its hindering us from this purpose?
The goal of our Sabbath reflection is to arrive at a place of conviction about our jobs. We want to work in vocations that allow us to participate with God in his work in the world. Cosden calls this “work in the Spirit,” which he defines (with help from Miroslav Volf’s book, Work in the Spirit) as:
1) Work that preserves and maintains what is good in creation, both God-given and made by humanity.
2) Work that clears away, as much as possible, those things that seek to confound the purposes of God and threaten to destroy his kingdom.
3) Work that produces new things that promote personal, communal, cultural, and environmental harmony and well-being–all in a restored relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Cosden, pg. 145-146
As you and I engage in work in the Spirit, we do more than just earn a paycheck or pass our time. We participate in producing products and culture that will last beyond our days. We engage in work within this created order in partnership with God. We join God in his mission of salvation and transformation of the entire world. We engage with God, who is said to be working even to this day (John 5:17), in accomplishing his purposes for this world. I found this a refreshing take on work that has the power to transform our attitude and save our jobs from the daily grind of the 9-5 work week.