Labor Day is a holiday in honor of work. Too often, Christians have adopted a secular understanding of work. We view it either as drudgery or as an idol to which we devote all our time and energy. But work is a spiritual endeavor. We are to approach our work as we do everything else in life – under the lordship of Jesus Christ. How would Jesus have us view work? How would Jesus want us to function at work?
The first thing to understand is that work is part of God’s plan for us. When God created us, he gave us work to do. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Humanity is given the gift of cultivating the beautiful world in which we live, improving and developing it according to the creativity God bestowed on us. And we are to do so in a way that cares for and preserves the beauty of God’s world that he has entrusted to us.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). These “good works” are not just what we traditionally think of as works of mercy or kindness toward others, but includes all the work we do. Everything we do ought to be working for the good of others.
Even Jesus worked, both as a carpenter with his father, and then when he went about his heavenly father’s business. He said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working. … For the works that the Father has given me to finish – the very works that I am doing – testify that the Father has sent me” (John 5:17, 36).
Working is not a result of the Fall of Genesis 3, where humanity rebelled against God, but is an inherent part of being human, as God designed us.
Therefore, we ought to pursue our work, whether as a stay-a-home parent, an executive, a plumber, a teacher, or whatever we do, as a part of God’s calling on our life. The word “vocation” means “calling.” Our work is what God has called us to do with our lives, our vocation. It does not have to relate to church or religious work. Any work that we do can be an expression of God’s calling on our life and a demonstration of our faith.
Further, our work can be an expression of our gifts and personality. Our temperament, talents, and life experience suit us for certain kinds of work, and the way we do our work can also express who we are. This, too, is part of what it means to see work as a vocation.
John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, gives us some practical teaching on a theology of work in his sermon, The Use of Money. He fleshes out some implications of owning Jesus as Lord of our work life.
Governing What Work We Do
The first consideration is to choose work that honors God. Again, that does not limit our work to religious or charitable work. Any work that we do that makes life better for others is a work that honors God.
Wesley reminds us “we may not engage or continue in any sinful trade, any that is contrary to the law of God, or of our country.” In Wesley’s day, that was engaging in smuggling and black market trading that was rampant as a way to avoid paying customs duties on imported goods. In our own day, there are any number of lines of work that are either unethical, illegal, or immoral, which are therefore prohibited to the Christian. As Wesley puts it, anything that we cannot do “without cheating or lying, or conformity to some custom which is not consistent with a good conscience” is off-limits to Christians.
Wesley further teaches that we ought not to engage in work at the expense of our life or our health. The gift of our life is too precious to forfeit for the sake of earning a living. He extends that caution to “any business which necessarily deprives us of proper seasons for food and sleep in such a proportion as our nature requires.” While there are some lines of work that are inherently unhealthy and dangerous to life – coal mining, for example – there are other lines of work that might only be unhealthy for a person with a weak constitution. I could never be a dock worker! So the decision on whether a particular job is too injurious to our health might be an individual decision.
This acknowledgement brings up the special case of people serving in the military or as police or fire fighters. These are dangerous and potentially unhealthy. But they are undertaken specifically to help others in a sacrificial way. Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, there are those who willingly risk life and limb to serve and protect the safety of others. This is a laudable exception to Wesley’s rule.
It should go without saying that any work that harms others is something we ought not pursue. Wesley was against the manufacture and sale of “spirituous liquor” – alcoholic beverages that were more potent than wine or beer. This aversion was because he saw the daily consequences of addiction to cheap gin played out on the streets and communities of England. Perhaps in our time this would refer to the tobacco industry and certainly to the illegal drug trade. A more subtle example for Wesley was doctors who prolonged the illnesses of their patients in order to collect more fees. Payday lenders who charge exorbitant interest today might fit into that category.
At any rate, it is important to assess our career or job choices in light of whether we can engage in them while being consistent with our Christian values. The One who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field will surely provide for us through a type of work that honors him and is beneficial to others.
Governing How We Work
Once having chosen our work and obtained a job, we are called to do our work in a way that glorifies God, as well. It helps if we can see our work as of eternal significance. How is your job beneficial to others? Maybe it is making a product that will make others’ lives better. Maybe it is creating a thing of beauty for others to enjoy. Maybe it is providing a service that helps others live a better life. Finding the transcendent goal in what we are doing, so that we are working for more than just a paycheck, enables us to carry out our work with a sense of purpose and meaning.
Finding that transcendent purpose in our particular work is linked to the idea that we work not for ourselves or for an earthly boss, but for our heavenly Father. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).
The Old Testament Teacher writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Our diligence and effort reflect well upon the fact that we are Christians and is part of our personal witness for our faith. Part of that diligence in work is self-improvement. Wesley says, “You should be continually learning from the experience of others or from your own experience, reading, and reflection, to do everything you have to do better today than you did yesterday.”
At the same time, we need to pursue work-life balance. Working seven days a week or being available to our employer 24 hours a day (except in case of emergency) is unhealthy and unsustainable. Our work should not harm our family life or get in the way of our relationships with our spouse or children.
Love and concern for others ought to guide how we treat customers and co-workers. Our contact with them makes them our neighbors, whom we are to love as we love ourselves. This means acting toward them with honesty and integrity, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and striving to be an encouragement rather than a negative influence on their day.
We cannot go wrong in applying the words of Paul, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. … It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Corinthians 13:4-7). Treating others with love in our work environment will not only reflect Christ, it will help change the world.
During college, I attended a church where one of the congregation’s leaders was the manager of the local bookstore. A friend who worked for him told me that, while the man might be a pious leader in the church, he treated his bookstore employees harshly and was stingy with pay. It left a bad taste in my friend’s mouth that a man who claimed to be not only a Christian, but a church leader, did not carry his faith over into his working environment.
Work is the one activity that accounts for the most of our time and effort in life. We have the chance to see our work as an extension of our faith, as a way to make the world a better place, and as a way to witness to others about the goodness of the Lord. This Labor Day, let’s take time to reevaluate if we are doing the right kind of work in the right way to make that vision a reality.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.