Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why We Work

Download the audio here.

As school started back recently, several of my friends posted the typical pictures of their kids on their first day of school. Some had signs or chalkboards saying something like, "First day of 2nd grade." Some added, "When I grow up, I want to be a..." I thought this was a great idea, to track how a child's interests and desires change over the years, at least until they stop letting you take pictures of them for the first day of school.

I asked my Facebook friends to post how they would have answered that question when they were kids. I got some pretty awesome responses:
veterinarian, marine biologist, astronaut, musician, lawyer, start orphanage and live overseas, center fielder for the Yankees, teacher, leader, mom, truck drive, poet, explorer, nun, nurse, activist, medical pathologist, beautiful princess...
One of the first questions we often ask people when we meet them for the first time is, "What do you do?". We celebrate when a friend gets a new job or a promotion, and we pray for and support those experiencing unemployment because we almost universally understand the importance of work not just for the financial benefits, but also for the person's emotional well-being. It seems that the idea of work is hardwired into humans.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and this holiday, like many others, has lost some of its meaning for most Americans. We view it primarily as the unofficial end to summer and one last chance to hit the lake or fire up the grill. We've been observing Labor Day, "dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers," for over 100 years, and it provides a good opportunity to examine what the Bible teaches about work.

First of all, the Bible tells us that God works (Gen. 2:1-3). It also says that God gave man work to do prior to the Fall, not as a result of sin (Gen. 2:15). While work itself is not a result of sin, one of the consequences of sin was to make work harder (Gen. 3:17-19).

Employment Statistics
  • U.S. unemployment: 6.2% (July)
  • Recent high of 10% in 2009
  • Around 25% at the peak of the Great Depression (1933)
  • Georgia unemployment: 7.8%, second to last (Mississippi)
  • Athens: 5.2% (Athens also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country)
  • Significant numbers of workers are underemployed, working only part-time (no benefits), are overqualified for their current jobs, or have stopped looking for work altogether.

What is my calling?
People often describe their occupations or other activities as their "calling," so many people, both young and older, feel lost when they don't have a similar sense of calling, but God places two calls on all of our lives:
  1. To belong to Christ
  2. Participate in His redemptive work
First, 1 Timothy 2:4 tells us that God "desires all men to be saved to come to the knowledge of the truth." Second, we see in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 that Christ has given us the "ministry of reconciliation" and that we are "ambassadors for Christ."

What job does God want me to have?
We see several examples of God calling people to specific jobs and tasks in the Bible. He told Noah to build the ark (Gen. 6); told Moses and Aaron to lead Israel out of Egypt (Ex. 3:4; 28:1); called prophets to deliver His words (1 Sam. 3:10; Jer. 1:4-5; Amos 7:15; among others); put Joseph, Gideon, Saul, David, and his descendants into roles of political leadership; called some to be His apostles and disciples (Mark 3:14); and sent Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries (Acts 13:2), but...

Probably no more than 100 people in the Bible were called to a specific task.

It is rare for God to call someone directly and unmistakably to a specific task.

I went to a theological college, and virtually everyone I went to college with were training for full-time vocational ministry as pastors, music ministers, missionaries, and teachers. Now, many of them (like me) are working 'secular' jobs as police officers, office managers, mattress and insurance salesmen, farmers...even research administrators. Did we somehow misunderstand God's call? Are we being disobedient? Has God not been faithful to provide us vocational ministry opportunities?

We will look at vocational ministry more in-depth later in our ongoing study of Corinthians, but I will say this for now: our world is changing drastically, and this affects how we do ministry. Personally, I believe that in the future fewer and fewer people will be in vocational ministry and more churches will be led by bi-vocational and volunteer leaders. These leaders will still need training, but more of them will also need the ability to meet their financial needs through another job.

Do I have to work?
The short answer is "yes." In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul addressed an apparent practice of allowing the forthcoming return of Christ to be an excuse for laziness. In no uncertain terms, Paul tells them that, "If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either." (2 Thess. 3:10-13).

Everyone is commanded to work to the degree they are able, but God does not usually provide a particular job offer.

God is less concerned with the particular job you have and more so with how you go about doing your job. Colossians 3 teaches us to work "heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men." We are to follow Jesus in every aspect of our life. This has profound implications. Our work must meet the high ethical standards we learn from the Bible. It should guide how we interact with our employer, employees, and co-workers. Christians should be known for having a good work ethic and conducting their business ethically, and we hurt our testimony when we do not. Society at-large benefits from Christians living out their faith in the workplace.

This cuts both ways: as the recent Hobby Lobby/Affordable Care Act case has highlighted, employees and employers are free to have their faith guide how they do business, even if those decisions are unpopular.

One of the reasons we work is in order to give (Eph. 4:28), and we should remember that many throughout the world do not get to choose their career or pursue education. We should be grateful for the opportunities that we have. It is also important to realize that these principles are not limited to our actual jobs. It applies to our volunteer efforts, how we parent, care for family members, etc. You don't have to have a job in order to work.

How much should I work?
All of us probably know someone who is a workaholic or is "married to the job." They work long hours, are constantly checking their work email in the evenings, on weekends, and even on vacation. Is this what being a good worker means? Not really. Work is but one element of the whole life that God has called us to. Outside of our jobs, we also have the other work of taking care of our household, yard work, personal finances, etc. We shouldn't let our work hinder our responsibilities to our families, our church, or our neighbors. Colossians 3:17 says, "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father."

God has also called us to rest. One of the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20 is to "remember the sabbath day." As God rested after creation, so are we to rest. Jesus offered further guidance when He said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." (Matt. 2:23). God created us to work but also to rest. When these two things get out of balance, whether due to overwork, laziness, too much recreation, or failure to devote time for worship, our lives often spin out of control.

God could have caused Jesus to be born to a priestly or Pharisaical family. The young Jesus could have spent His days under the care of professional ministers and scholars, but God choose an seemingly ordinary couple with 'secular' jobs to raise His Son. Jesus likely learned the trade of His earthly father, Joseph: carpentry. His hands were likely calloused from using heavy tools to shape wood and stone, up until He began His public ministry around the age of 30. Jesus is no stranger to hard work.

He also used a variety of occupations to describe spiritual truths. In His parables, He talked about agriculture, banking/investing, craftsmanship, ministerial jobs, and hospitality workers. Jesus is no stranger to the professional work we do.

Proverbs 6
6 Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise,
7 Which, having no chief,
Officer or ruler,
8 Prepares her food in the summer
And gathers her provision in the harvest.
9 How long will you lie down, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?

Calling in the Theology of Work
Theology of Work Project