Last night we continued our series in Practical Spirituality, this time looking at How to Work. If someone were to think, wait, I thought this was about spirituality? Like, Church and Bible reading and praying and stuff… not ordinary things like work–they’d be wrong. Of course, “spiritual” really just means “having to do with the Spirit,” and the Spirit is God, and God is… everywhere. In everything. In other words, everything is Spiritual–at least, everything that the Spirit makes and sustains and invigorates and loves. The only things that are not S/spiritual are things that the Spirit of God does not make or love or empower–things like sin and destruction and hatred and attempting to live as if God is not good and everywhere.
This means that, for the follower of Christ, all of life is Spiritual. And since our work will necessarily take up a large portion of our time and energy, we must see that work, too, is Spiritual. And so, here’s what we saw in the word last night…
First, we read Acts 20:32-35 and noted that, as Paul signed off in his final speech to the elders of the Ephesian church he had planted and loved, he spoke about the way he worked:
“So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”
And we just noted it…it’s pretty interesting that Paul would choose that subject as the final part of his final send off. But then we read his letters to the Thessalonian church he had founded, and saw the same concern.
His teaching to the church in Thessalonica:
1 Thessalonians 2:9-12 – His Example:
- Constant manual labor to earn a living
- Not burdening the church by requiring them to fulfill his physical needs—while he was spending his non-work time ministering to them.
He calls this “behaving devoutly and blamelessly” and he tells them they too should walk “worthy” of the gospel in this way.
1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 – His General Life Directions to them:
- Desire to lead a quiet life
- Busy themselves with their own work (not with other people’s affairs) (“mind your own…”)
- Work with their own hands
The point: So that your daily life shows the good things about the Gospel, and so that you may lack nothing (…and not to be an unnecessary burden to others).
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 – His specific Instructions to the church:
v.10 If you don’t work, you don’t eat.
v.11 Working will keep you from being “busy” in other people’s business
v.12 So…work in quietness. The idea seems to be, settle down, and don’t disrupt the peace of the community by “sponging off others” (Gordon Fee). In other words, eat your own bread.
v.13 Resist the temptation to get tired of a life of patient hard work that does good in the world
v.14 Notice this problem, and withdraw from people in the church who are “out of order.” In this instance, this word refers to those who insist on being “lazy” (see v.6, 11, 14-15), and refuse to work. In other words—don’t treat them like enemies, but don’t act like everything’s cool, either. Let them feel the awkwardness, and realize that something’s wrong—and honestly, it will probably prompt some conversation.
Two General Takeaways from Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church:
- Work is a big deal. If you see it as something optional, you’re wrong.
- In the church an individual’s attitude towards work is important because of how it impacts the entire church community. The church has always been focused on caring for poor members—especially widows and others who can’t take care of themselves…But, in that kind of environment—where there’s a lot of generosity being practiced and everyone is getting taken care of—it can be easy for some people to think that work doesn’t matter, and that the church just takes care of anyone who needs anything at that moment. But Paul says, no, everyone in the church who can be working needs to be working—and that’s most people in the church. So the point of work here is so that the church can be freed up to take care of people who can’t work.
Points for Us Today—How Should the Christian Work?
1. Assume that work is a necessary part of life that God designed. It’s not evil. We see this in Paul’s teaching to the church. He didn’t view work as a punishment, but just a basic part of life. And in Genesis 2 we see that work was part of God’s original plan for Adam and Even—It was part of his plan for humanity to spread out and cultivate the entire world. The language of “ruling” and “subduing” is used there in the beginning—it was going to take work for the humans to cultivate the earth and get to the place where it served God and Humanity’s aims. That’s important. The situation was not that Adam and Eve were laying around on long couches eating grapes in the Garden of Eden, and then work was some kind of punishment later on for their sin.
When they sin in Genesis 3, God doesn’t say, “Now you’ll have to work,” He says that now their work will always be messed up with futility, and that their work will be necessary to stave off immediate death, and even then it won’t work forever, eventually they’ll die anyway. In other words, the awesome reality of the good things God gave humanity to do were now bent—there would be sweat and tears in it all, and ultimately it would go back to dust. But then, as we look forward, the good future God’s bringing us seems to restore the original situation—and we can only imagine that there will be things to do in the New Earth.
2. Think about how to do your work in a way that will glorify God. (1 Corinthians 10:31) When the bible talks about our lives, we see that God thinks of our whole life as significant. He talks about things like, “Every word out of your mouth” matters. Sometimes we see people like public officials who have a lot of power, but they use their words and actions really carelessly. And we think, don’t they understand that what they do matters because of who they are? And this is the point of the bible’s teaching about humanity. Because of who we are—made in God’s image, appointed to be rulers over his creation, and created to be in friendship with God himself—everything we do matters. This means that nothing we do is outside of all that significance. Even jobs we might think we hate—even these matter—because we’re the ones doing them. And a Christian man or woman is someone who is having these ideas restored to them. We’re learning to live and work in ways that make sense based on how much we matter. King Solomon wrote, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might..”. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
So when you work, remember—your job’s significance doesn’t come from how glamorous or exciting or fulfilling it is—it comes from the fact that you’re made in God’s image, and this is something God gave you to do. And so practically living this out is going to include all kinds of things like doing our work with excellence and skill, and working with honesty and integrity, and caring for people we work with and the people we serve as we work.
3. Work in a way that glorifies God–do it “from your soul.” (Colossians 3:23) So half-hearted work is sub-Christian. We all get tempted to slack and cut corners, but when a Christian lives that way it shows they’re giving in to the feelings of meaninglessness that pervade our society. And part of the message of Jesus includes the good news that life matters. And not just some lives. Or famous or exciting lives (why would we ever make those distinctions? They’re total nonsense!) No every human life matters—because it’s a human life. So when you watch a follower of Jesus work—you’ll just see a visual message, and the message is, this really matters. And then you’ll talk to that person and you’ll find out, he thinks everything matters!
4. Do your work in the name of Jesus. (Colossians 3:17) Remember, everything we do as followers of Christ reflects on him. So when we work “in his name,” we do our work in ways that point to him and honor him. And then when people find out we’re Christians, they think better of Jesus because of the way we work. And then whenever it makes sense, we explicitly point to Jesus as we work.
5. Give thanks to God while you work. (Colossians 3:17) Isn’t there a lot of negativity and bitterness in the world? Aren’t most work places like totally permeated with that? When you watch a Christian work, you’re supposed to see someone who is thankful. And that’s just a totally different flavor than the one most people are bringing to the table.
6. Work with the aim of being able to help meet other people’s needs. (Ephesians 4:28) Paul said this to both the Thessalonians and the Ephesians—one of the reasons for Christians to work is so that we can have something to give to others. And collectively, work, and the giving of Christians to a general fund, enables the church to be able to care for members of the community who are struggling financially, and other struggling people as a way to promote the gospel. People who don’t follow Christ can work to make their own lives richer or easier, but a Christian works to promote God’s work and God’s people.
7. While you work, think: I’m doing this for God, and to God. (Ephesians 5:5)This is worship! Every kind of honest work can be offered up to God in worship. Or if that seems hard, because a job is repetitive or something like that, at least we can say… we can offer worship to God while we work. Along these lines, I love this quote from A.W. Tozer:
“It is my experience that the totality of our Christian lives—our entire attitude as persons—must be towards the worship of God! If you do not know the presence of God in your office, your factory, your home—then God is not in the church you attend, either! I became a Christian when I was a young man working in a tire factory in Akron, Ohio. I remember my work there—but I remember my worship there, too! I had plenty of worshipful tears in my eyes. No one ever asked me about them, but I would not have hesitated to explain them. You can learn to use certain skills until they are automatic. I became so skillful that I could do my work and then I could worship God even while my hands were busy. If the love of God is in us and the Spirit of God is breathing praise within us, all the musical instruments in heaven are suddenly playing in full support! Even our thoughts become a sanctuary in which God can dwell.”
But there’s one really big point to address in all this. As I started to say a minute ago, one of the big ideas about work in our culture is this idea that life is basically boring and meaningless, so you should try to live your life by finding your excitement and meaning in your work. So—discover your passion, and then try to figure out how to get paid to do that, and that’s how to find fulfillment in life. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in some dumb job and you’ll hate your life. Sometimes Christians get into telling each other we should think this way too.
But that kind of thinking is really not found in the teachings of scripture. First of all, it totally misses the fact that work isn’t meaningful because of our passion, or because of itself—work takes its meaning from the larger world God created. Its meaning doesn’t come from it, or from us, it comes from outside both it and us. It comes from God. God makes work meaningful because God made the world meaningful and gave us a meaningful role to play in the world. So when we get that backwards, and we grow up being told that we and our world are basically meaningless, we’ll try to make our jobs be containers for all this passion and meaning—and jobs can’t carry that kind of weight.
Not only that, but when we talk like that, especially to young people, let’s be honest—everyone will look into their hearts and find a passion for being artists or skaters or musicians or travel writers—everything fun and famous—but there’s like 98 percent of all other jobs that a society needs to run. The fact is only a very small percentage of people will get to do those “really cool jobs.” Everyone else has to do the normal jobs—the jobs everyone’s saying they hate right now. This is a recipe for a sick society. And it’s not real anyway. What happens is that 98 percent of people end up miserable with their actual lives, and then they spend their free time looking at pictures of people getting to do the fun jobs, and wishing and scheming to get a cooler life. There’s got to be a better way… And there is.
I think a biblical way to talk about jobs, and work in general would be something more like this:
“Everyone needs to work, because it’s what humans are meant to do, and also because we live in a fallen world, and right now, work is necessary to our survival. Christians have been freed up from idolizing their work, or finding their meaning in their work, but they’re also delivered from feelings of meaninglessness or laziness.
“So every believer should think honestly about a couple basic questions when it comes to work. Questions like, “What skills do I have, or what kind of raw abilities do I have that I could reasonable get training for—so that I can have a skill someone will pay me for?” God has made everyone with different skills and aptitudes. After we’ve honestly appraised these in ourselves, or even ask others in the church community to help us appraise them, we can next ask, “what actual opportunities do I have for training or work?” Then, we can pray, and use our circumstances to take the opportunities in front of us to find honest work to do—work that will actually pay our bills, so we can “eat our own bread,” and work that will put us in the position to have something to give to those in need, and support the church’s work to do the same.
“But we don’t need to burden ourselves, and our work, and the decisions we’re making for the future, with the idea that we have to find personal fulfillment in the work we do to make a living. We don’t. We just have to make a living. And as followers of Jesus we find our fulfillment from God, and from communion with His Spirit, and from doing his work in the world—often outside of our career. Work doesn’t fulfill us, work provides what we need to live so we can be freed up to pursue God’s work in the world however we have opportunity.”