Your work and God’s Kingdom

What does your work have to do with the Kingdom of God?

You can expect to spend more than 100’000 hours at work during your lifetime; that is close to 60% of your awake life.  Sadly, 80% of people in our generation are dissatisfied within their current working environments.  For many, Christians and non-Christians alike, work is meaningless, mundane, merely a means to make money; a necessary evil to pay the bills.

Some passionate believers see their sole purpose at work to extend their church services into the workplaces, in order to get their co-workers to church on Sundays, in preparation for the eternal church service in the sky.  Church is important, work is not.  After all, the worship leader did say to them that nothing is as important as worship (he meant “singing”) because that is what we will do for all eternity.  Really?  If singing is our highest and only enduring purpose why then does that not excite us? And why did God not make us all to be singers in the beginning?

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God created co-workers

The first thing we learn about the Triune God in the opening page of the Bible is that God is a relational being and a powerful creator.  The first thing we learn about mankind is that we are made in God’s very image: highly relational men and women who would oversee his created order.

Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15

God created man in his own image… male and female… to have dominion …to keep and cultivate the earth.

 

This stewardship involves both preservation (to keep) and wealth creation (to cultivate).  It is easy to see that every meaningful job description on earth can be traced back to this mandate: keep what is good, and increase it.  Think how farmers keep and cultivate the ground; how teacher keep and cultivate human potential; law enforcement officers keep and cultivate society; investment bankers keep and cultivate money; lawyers keep and cultivate human relationships and interests; businessmen keep and cultivate the economy; musicians and artists keep and cultivate culture; and so forth.

We see that God’s original intent with mankind was to be co-workers with Him, as both the crown and stewards of his glorious creation. As sin entered, it marred our identity, fractured our relationships, and distorted our holy vocation.  In societies like ancient Egypt, the work place elevated some people to a god-like status while others became worthless subjects.  This is still true all around the world today. Work no longer is a delightful partnership of love; it became a means of oppression and greed, a dreaded duty filled with anxiety and strife.

After delivering the slaves from Egypt God reorder this new nation, rightly orienting this emancipated people’s relation to work by commanding both work and rest days (holy days); both laziness and over-work are evil.[i]  So is unemployment!  Therefore, God instituted social welfare that goes beyond charity to empowerment that prevents and redeems unemployed people from poverty.  Access to work is a holy right that must be preserved and cultivated.

Leviticus 25:35-36

“If a member of your community becomes poor in that their power slips with you, you shall make them strong… that they may live with you.”

Jesus also came, revealing God as a worker.[ii]  The Christ came to redeem and reconcile all things to Himself,[iii] to end the destruction and restore all things – as it was in the beginning.[iv]  Our desire and capacity to work will also be renewed. In His Coming Kingdom, in the renewed earth, mankind will again reign and rule with God over His creation.  We will still work and plant, produce and trade and build, [v]   as this is the eternal nature and purpose of man: stewards who rule over, keep and cultivate God’s creation.

But even now we are the first-fruits of God’s New Kingdom, invited and empowered to witness and serve Christ and his Kingdom here on earth.

 

How do I redeem my work in this fallen world?

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Daniel and his friends’ engagement in secular work is very helpful in demonstrating how we can serve God’s Kingdom in our places of work.

These young exiles were in a hostile, foreign kingdom where the ruler deemed himself an enemy of God and oppressor of God’s people.  In their refugee camp Daniel and his friends heard the prophesy of Jeremiah that they would be in exile for 70 years,[vi] but that they should not merely survive in Babylon.  Rather, the exiles were sent there by God to thrive in there for God’s sake: to witness and establish His Shalom reign in this pagan nation to benefit all.[vii]  Jeremiah said that even in this ungodly environment God’s people ought to live out their original intent: dwell in the land, have dominion, increase and witness God’s nature and reign. [viii]

Jeremiah 29:5-7

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.”

And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”

Daniel’s response to this instruction was significant: when the King sought for bright Jewish youths to be trained as officials in his palace, Daniel and his friends made themselves available to “seek the Shalom of the city where [they] have been taken captive.”   Working in this secular environment presented a great opportunity to witness and establish the peaceful reign of God from within this civic center.  It was the invitation to facilitate political conversion, where the oppressor becomes servant of God, his people and his purpose.

But Daniel was aware that this opportunity also presented the great challenge of cultural assimilation: that through the education and engagements these young God-fearing believers might grow to be indistinguishable from the pagan Chaldeans.  Therefore, Daniel establish a practical rhythm in his daily routine as a reminder that he is indeed set aside for God, and although he serves this ruler in his palace, he is indeed first a servant of Yahweh.   Although they willingly endured the (very pagan) Chaldean education, culture and even new identities (pagan names), Daniel and his friends resolved to not defile himself with the king’s food…” (1:8).  Their diet and devotional prayer discipline “three times a day, since his youth” (6:10) inoculated him against cultural assimilation.  These habits also identified these men “servants of the Living God”[ix] – labels by which Daniel and his friends were known in their places of work.

God’s response to Daniel’s vow of sanctity and service is very encouraging (1:9, 17, 20).  God bestowed on these young witnesses favor and compassion in the sight of their overseers; they were treated with kindness and respect – more than their peers.   God blessed these young men with the ability to acquire learning and skill so that they proved to be ten times better that their peers.  What is more, God gave Daniel a particular ability to interpret dreams and visions that set him apart and made him sought after in his workplace.  Because Daniel and his friends resolved to serve God in the palace, God empowered them to serve Him there.

The overarching message form the book of Daniel is how God’s Kingdom toppled a pagan empire, and how His reign permeated the entire Babylonian realm, because four young believers resolved to serve God within that hostile, secular environment.  Their example is our invitation and inspiration today.

Lessons learnt from Daniel at work

Daniel and his friends encourage us to embrace secular education and secular work environments for God’s sake; to understand that we have been commissioned and empowered by God and to engage these secular environments in service of His reign.  But Daniel and his friends also caution us to avoid cultural assimilation by instilling tangible reminders and a lifestyle of prayer, fellowship and accountability with like-minded believers.

Daniel and his friends show us how to work for God in a in a secular society:

Firstly, resolve to serve God first in all things (1:8), regardless of the cost; how I endure the fire is my greatest witness to my faith in God’s reign.   This calls for a life of integrity (6:4) and spirit of excellence (6:6; 5:12) – meaning live beyond reproach and do all to the best of my ability – “as unto the Lord”. [x]

Secondly, seek favor and grace from God that I may be empowered to serve him well at work (1:9, 17, 20).  For Daniel it meant he had the ear of his leaders, and he could recall and apply his learning in wise was.  Also, his unique gifting brought him before the emperor, presenting opportunities to witness God and His Kingdom effectively.  Seek these gifts from God, and yield it confidently, for God’s sake.

Thirdly, Daniel demonstrated servant leadership, showing me that my position and power is not meant for personal privilege, but as empowerment to serve those entrusted to me (3:26, 6:20).  This concept of servant leadership is foreign to our world. Trust God that your faithfulness will lead to promotion, to wield greater influence of righteousness, peace and joy where you live and work. [xi]

How do you think about your work?  Into which domain did the Lord call you to serve his creation and witnessing his peaceful reign?  I urge you: seek His favor and ask for grace to serve him well that you may see the transformation as His Kingdom comes through your witness and work.  You will have your reward when He returns.

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[i] Exodus 20:6; Leviticus 23:3-4.

[ii] John 5:17.

[iii] Colossians 1:16-21.

[iv] Matthew 18:19; Revelation 20:5.

[v] Revelation 5:10; 21:24-26; Isaiah 65:17, 21.

[vi] Jeremiah 29:10

[vii] Jeremiah 29:5-7.

[viii] cf. Genesis 1:27-28.

[ix] Eg. Daniel 6:10 and 3:28.

[x] Colossians 3:17.

[xi] Psalm 75:6-7.

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God at (your) work

David Pawson tells of a man in the Hebrideans who was treated for a double rapture due to physical labour.  When the physician asked how it happened, the man explained that he injured himself when he loaded a heavy load of wood on his wife’s back.  Some people are more industrious than others!

Work impacts deeply on our identity[i]: when meeting someone we are prone to ask what they do. This is understandable since nothing (apart from sleep) takes up more hours in one’s life than work – accumulating to about 60% of one’s waking life.   Work literally consumes our lives: typically, the average person would work close to 100’000 hours in their lifetime – that is nearly eleven and a half years of one’s life!  It is therefore both strange and sad that only 80% of people are dissatisfied with their jobs.  Work is seen as merely a means of living, or as a necessary evil to endure on the way to a fun-filled weekend or peaceful retirement.

This aversion to work has big socio-economic implications so that the rich and powerful oppress the poor through slavery or low wages to ensure more leisure time for them.  This is not a new phenomenon: most ancient civilizations employed the use of slaves so that the rich could continue in pointless pursuits and parties.  Today also, as in the past, workers withhold labour demanding higher wages for less working hours, and workers see no calling in work itself so that everyone change jobs at the flip of a hat for higher pay or more comfort and flexibility.  Quick riches, ease and pleasure are the highest virtues in our labour-avoiding work force.

In light of these contemporary views of work, how should Christians respond?  What does the Bible say about work?

Biblical theology of work – in brief

We are created to work.  Even before sin entered the world, Adam was created to rule and work (Genesis 2:15).  God is introduced as a ruler and worker, and man was made in his image as ruler and worker (Genesis 1:1,26-29).  Work is not the result of sin, but rather the ideal design of God.  Therefore work is good.  Work was and remains God’s “Plan A” for man – both in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) and in the New Creation (Revelations 5:10) we see God’s intention for man as ruler and worker.

Throughout the Scriptures, blessings are the reward for those who work, including social stature (Proverbs 22:29), wealth (Proverbs 12:27), success (Proverbs 16:3; Genesis 39:2), and increased authority (Proverbs 12:24; Luke 19:17).  In contrast, curses are reserved for those who are slothful and refuse to work, including hunger (Proverbs 19:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:10), forced labour (Proverbs 12:24), ruin (Ecclesiastes 10:18) and destruction (Proverbs 18:9).

Biblically, the purpose of work is to make a living (2 Thessalonians 3:12), to provide for your household (1Timothy 5:8; Proverbs 31:27), to bless others (Ephesians 4:28) and to increase in wealth (Proverbs 13:11).   The attitude of the believer towards work should be willingness (Titus 3:1) and to work as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23).  That’s why Paul instructs the believers to work well (1Timothy 5:8), including the women under sixty should work to earn their own keep (1 Timothy 5:9-13), and believers who refuse to work should be admonished (1 Thessalonians 5:14), warned and kept away from so that they receive no material support from the church (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14). [ii]

There is no distinction in God’s view between “spiritual” and “secular” work; he created everything (John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-16) and nothing is “secular” to him apart from sin itself.  Not only “religious” offices are spiritual in nature; all work is spiritual since it emanates from our created purpose and impact on our identity.  It is noteworthy to remember that the first instance mentioned in the Bible where God “called”, “appointed” and “filled [someone] with the Spirit of God” to perform a function was not for spiritual ministry, but for “all manner of workmanship” – an artistic craftsman! (see Exodus 31:1-11)  God calls, appoints and empowers all workers in his created world.  That’s why Paul had no problem to work with his own hands, or to receive material support while being in ministry (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).  He honoured God in making tents for the Roman army as well as preaching.

The fall did however impact the working environment, as we read in Adam’s curse about “thorns and thistles… sweat of your face…” (Genesis 3:17-19).  It should surprise no-one that the work-place is filled with conflict, disappointments, stress, failure, retrenchments and injustice.  Our work is of God, but it has become corrupted after the fall.  Therefore our work needs to be redeemed.

We redeem our work to glorify God in it (1 Corinthians 10:31) and do our daily jobs for him (Romans 11:36; Colossians 3:23).  Everything in life is to display the glory and supremacy of Christ; our work is for that purpose.  It is not enough to use our work environments to make money for God’s mission, or to see it as a “harvest field” where people can get saved, or to show people how Christians live and work.  All these things are important and worthy, but it has the same problem: it uses work as an unpleasant means for something good, but not seeing it as something good in itself.  The work itself should be redeemed to glorify God.  Bill Thune mentions a few ways in which our work can be redeemed to glorify God: [iii]

  • God is glorified when we give our best to him in our work (Colossians 3:23-24);
  • God is glorified when we are honest even to our hurt (Psalm 15, Genesis 39);
  • God is glorified when we honour superiors and submit even in hardships (1 Timothy 6:1; Romans 13:7);
  • God is glorified when we treat associates with kindness and respect (Luke 6:31; Romans 12:18);
  • God is glorified when we expose fraud and dishonesty (Ephesians 5:11-13);
  • God is glorified when we avoid complaining and grumbling (Philippians 2:14-15);
  • God is glorified when we rest from work and trust him (Deuteronomy 5:13-15).

These are some examples in which we can redeem our work so that it glorifies God.

How do we respond to this?

How do I work in such a way to glorify God within a corrupted environment?  I suggest four practical, memorable pointers for your daily work.

  1. Work as though Jesus is your boss. Paul instructs us to work hard as if we work for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), to obey employers even as we obey Christ and honour them (Ephesians 6:5; 1 Timothy 6:1).  That means we passionately and cheerfully work even when no-one else is around, since God sees all things and will judge all things, even our secret thoughts and motives (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
  2. Work as if your actions today have eternal consequences – because it has! And we work confidently for a reward, since our actions at work is noted and rewarded with greater responsibility (Matthew 25:21).  Since we know that our lives and future are in God’s hands (not our employer’s – see John 19:10-11), we work and hope in God for rewards here on earth (such as promotion, see Psalm 75:6-7), as well as rewards in the New Creation (Colossians 3:23-24; Luke 19:17; Revelations 5:10; 22:12).
  3. Worship at work. Let work be your worship to God: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31; compare with Colossians 3:17). Find pleasure in God in “whatever your hand finds to do, [and] do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). View and give your daily work to God as a gift to him, and let it be your best. In the words of Paul “present your body as a living sacrifice to God…” (Romans 12:1). Glorify God with your daily work tasks, not just in singing time.
  4. Witness at work. Paul repeatedly says believers should “walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him”, and Peter cautions about “good conduct in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16) amidst trying conditions.  The obedient, submissive, humble, self-controlled, patient, kind-loving nature of Christ should testify of God’s saving work in the believer (Galatians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:12-14), revealing the presence of Christ in us.  We must witness of Christ with words, but without the testimony of a transformed life our words are weightless and bring shame to the name of Christ our Saviour.

In summary, how do I approach my work in a God-honouring way?  Let these four simple pointers redeem your work tasks today to glorify God.  Ask yourself:

  • For whom do I work? I work for the Lord Jesus.
  • Why do I work? I work to receive a reward from my Lord.
  • What is the essence of my work? My work is worship to God.
  • And what should my work do? The way I work and behave should represent Jesus and testify of his saving work in me.

Now focus your attention on your job again – after all, you were created for it.  Find meaning and delight in your work – it is holy to God.

[i] Stanley A., When work and family collide (Multnomah Books, 2011), p20

[ii] SomervilleT., The Christian View of Work, available at http://www.totalchange.org/work.htm

[iii] Thune B., A Theology of Work, for Campus Crusade for Christ 2006, available at http://www.cdomaha.com/files/Theology%20of%20Work%20-%20Cru%20Press.pdf