Perhaps you were (or still are) like me. Working that 9-5 job, looking to get off from work so that you can be home and relax and do something that was meaningful (at least more fun) or so you could be with your family and friends. You didn’t see any significance in the work you were doing because, well let’s be frank here, there wasn’t any significance in your work.
That’s what I used to think. I started off my undergraduate years as a third shift public safety officer. Although it had undesirable hours and tasks, a job was a job. I needed to work so I could get my degree in pastoral ministry and get to something that really mattered. Then, I stumbled upon a position where I could assist in online seminary courses. I gladly accepted the new role but didn’t have high expectations for it – I just wanted anything but those long nights.
It was in this job and its subsequent promotion that I began to realize work was more than the 9-5 grind.
I learned one of God’s primary ways of discipleship is through the incredibly forming powers of work.
Discipleship is one of those ideas that can be hard to pin down. We all probably have an idea of what discipleship looks like, but when it comes to explaining it, we often struggle with forming coherent thoughts.
When a lawyer questioned Jesus concerning the greatest commandment, he said,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Matthew 22:37-39, ESV
The center of our relationship with God and each other is love.
I believe James K. A. Smith, professor at Calvin University, helps us realize the fullest extent of this commandment. Smith makes the radical conclusion that
“[b]eing a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.”
Discipleship is the process of forming someone into a lover of God and neighbor.
When we think of work, our first thought might be of work that brings in a paycheck or work around the house. True, this is work, but these thoughts alone are not the whole picture.
Although it may feel like it, work is not a result of the fall. It is actually a fruit of creation. In Genesis 1:28 (ESV) we read,
“And God blessed [Adam and Eve]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
From the outset, Adam and Eve were meant to “have dominion”. In essence, they were to steward the world God gave them by tending the garden. This is a glimpse of what it means to be made in the imago Dei, the image of God.
Although work is not a result of the fall, it has certainly been affected by the fall (Genesis 3:17-19, ESV):
“And to Adam [God] said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Instead of creating and caring for the glory of God, we choose to create destruction, consume items that were made in unjust conditions, destroy God’s creation to make the next best thing as cheaply and quickly as possible, and do our work halfway. We were meant to tend the garden, but now we destroy the garden.
When Christ came, he not only redeemed our souls, he also redeemed all the spheres of our life—including our work—by putting things back into proper order. It doesn’t take long for someone reading one of the Gospels to see that work was an example Jesus continually came back to when he taught others because he knew it was important for his audience.
Through Christ’s redemption, we are able to change the direction of our culture by creating—fulfilling the original commandment God gave Adam and Eve. Andy Crouch, executive editor at Christian Today, gives this incredible advice:
“[I]f we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal.”
This doesn’t have to be an invention. This can be something as simple as developing a lesson plan to teach, making food for others to eat, or planting gardens for yourself and others to enjoy.
Contrary to popular belief, everything we do in this life will not be burned up when Christ returns. I love how N. T. Wright, a former bishop, puts it:
“what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.”
This is often hard for us to conceptualize because we are confronted with the evil in this world every day. But Isaiah communicates so vividly what a fully redeemed earth with God’s kingdom fully established will look like:
“They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”Isaiah 65:21-22, ESV
Work is clearly so much more than simply drawing a paycheck—work inside the 9-5 and outside the 9-5 matters to God! Greg Forester, author of Joy for the World, sums up God’s view of work this way:
“God wants human beings to serve and bless one another, so he designed us such that serving others and making the world a better place—working—is what we do most of the time.”
In short, our work is meant to serve God and neighbor by furthering God’s redemption by creating what is good.
This thing we call “work” takes up almost 25% of our lives in a week if we work 9-5, not including the other responsibilities outside of work like raising children, serving in the church, volunteering in the community, etc. Since work takes a significant portion of our lives, it is a power strong enough to shape us.
Living as Exiles
Most people will probably not find themselves in the upper echelons of organizations. Instead, most people will find themselves as simple workers, maybe even leading a small team. In this context, work looks like rightly loving God and others through submission, faithful service, and creating.
When your boss hands you a task that isn’t pleasant, you don’t grumble about it—you do with a cheerful attitude and you do it well. You are pushing back the fall and bringing God’s kingdom by cleaning up after others, ensuring customers have a pleasant experience in your store, and completing the daily tasks that you normally don’t give a second thought to the best of your ability. When you create something, you create it with the best possible materials and care because you are stewarding God’s world and giving someone a quality product.
What about those who are not working a 9-5 job?
For instance, as I am writing this, my wife is currently going up to her uncle’s place with her dad on a crisp, cold morning to buy us meat for the upcoming winter season (Proverbs 31:13-16). This act of work is a form of discipleship because it is forming her. She is learning what it means to love God and neighbor by being a homemaker in our young marriage.
Meanwhile, I made pour over coffee from whole beans from my hometown’s only coffee shop. With coffee nearby, I sat down at my wonderfully crafted desk that my grandfather used for years at his insurance agency to write this article. This act of work is a form of discipleship because it is forming me. I am appreciating the work required to take beans harvested from a shrub which were then roasted with incredible ingredients. Then, I grind them just fine enough and brew just long enough so that I now sit here and write – enjoying something that was cultivated from the garden. Even as I type this article, this article is forming me. I am thinking about how I can serve a particular audience with one of the topics I am passionate about, using one of the skills God has endowed me with.
If you cook, your love is directed outwards by serving your family, friends, or neighbor delicious food. You are fulfilling the original commandment God gave by stewarding the world through cooking and eating.
If you are the budgeter, your love is directed outwards by giving money to a church to further God’s mission through caring for the poor or supporting missionaries. You are fulfilling the original commandment God gave by stewarding the world through proper economic management.
If you are raising your children, your love is directed outwards to your children through raising them in the faith and teaching them how to do things and helping them learn new topics. You are fulfilling the original commandment God gave by stewarding your life through raising children.
Work has an incredible power to form you. It is in these daily tasks that we are being formed, if we do our work well. In short, your work—whether on the clock or in your house—is a powerful, God-ordained discipline. Work is forming you to love God and neighbor in whatever you do.
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, 3 vols., Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009). 32-33.
- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008). 67.
- N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008). 208.
- Greg Forster, Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence & Can Begin Rebuilding It (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014). 218.