Work is a gift from God
It is an unfortunate but common misunderstanding for Christians to feel that their job or work is secondary in comparison to that of a pastor or missionary. Either implicitly or explicitly, the message has been communicated that working a "normal job" is just a hindrance to doing "actual ministry." I am not entirely sure where this idea has come from. I would guess you could trace its development throughout history, but I am not going to attempt that in this post.
My goal is to present a framework that shows the beauty of our work and God's design for us to work. I was reminded of this recently while reading the book Middlemarch. This classic book by George Eliot is one of those books that commonly finds itself in a list of the top 100 novels everyone should read. Especially lists that are created by the Brits.
Within the book there is a simple yet profound character named Caleb Garth. Caleb is a man who cares a great deal about doing good work that requires some manual labor. He calls this "business." After being offered the honorable task of managing two different estates, he was reflecting on the privilege it would be to engage in this new business. Caleb was often unconcerned with money, because the work itself was worth doing. His wife on the other hand, appropriately concerned about the necessary income required to pay for food, shelter and other necessities, encouraged him to request a fair wage for this new work.
In the following passage, Caleb reflected on the new work he had been offered. There is a great reverence in his words for the work itself. As I read it this past week, it reminded me of the great value there is the glorious task of work:
"'No, no; but it's a fine thing to come to a man when he's seen into the nature of business; to have a chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, a they say, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done - that those who are living and those who come after will be better for. I'd sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honorable work that is.' Here Caleb laid down his letters, thrust his fingers between the buttons of his waistcoat, and sat upright, but presently proceeded with some awe in his voice and moving his head slowly aside - 'It's a great gift of God, Susan.'"
- Middlemarch, by George Eliot
I love the way Caleb ends this paragraph. He views the work itself, not just the income it would provide, as a great gift from God. While Caleb is not an intellectual character, he might have most pure and accurate understanding of work you could find in all of literature.
God created work from the beginning
The task of work is something God created us to do. Before the fall, before things were tarnished by sin, God instituted work. Here is what it says in the early part of Genesis:
"then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil... The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 2:7-9;15 ESV)"
Before the fall, God put the man in the garden to work it and keep it. We have been called to cultivate God's creation from the very beginning. Work has always been part of what it means to be God's people. Our work itself is part of what God has created us for. That is good news. Your work is not meaningless. It is not simply a way to earn a paycheck. It is not a waste of time or something you must endure until you can do "real ministry." Our work is an important element in the framework of how God created us to function.
The fall tainted our understanding of work and has made it more of a burden than God originally intended (Genesis 3:17-19). The good news of gospel of Jesus is that not only are we made righteous, but our work is also being redeemed. We have the privilege of helping to renew God's purpose in our own sphere of work.
You have been called to your work
The root of the English word vocation (another word for career or occupation) comes from the Latin verb voca, which means "to call." This suggests that the notion of your work being something you have been called to do is not only a Biblical concept but also one that has been present at different points throughout history. The speech given by Caleb Garth in Middlemarch also points to work being something more than simply a way to generate an income - it is a God given gift to be able to work.
Do you feel called to your work? If your primary vocation is as a stay at home mother, do you feel called to that role? Do you feel called to the glorious task of raising little disciples of Jesus? If your vocation is in the area of Human Resources, do you feel called to provide support to the employees of your company? Do you feel called to help provide fair and equitable conditions for the men and women who work for your employer? If your primary vocation is as a landscaper, do you feel called to the work of beautifying the grounds of a building or home? Whatever your current vocation, do you feel called to it? If not, maybe you need to change your perspective on the work you have been called to do. Or maybe you need to find a way to change your work so that it has greater alignment with the vocation you believe God has called you.
Regardless of whether your current profession is a perfect fit, you have still been called by God to steward your current work well while you are there. Paul gave the following exhortation to the church in Colossae, "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)." Our work brings glory to God in the way that we conduct ourselves and also in the quality of the work itself. Our work is a context to verbally share the good news of Jesus and also represent the good news of Jesus through our work itself.
One day, when God makes all things right in the world, I fully believe that we will still work. Our vocations will be perfected, and we will have a greater sense of purpose in our work. God placed Adam and Eve in the garden and gave the task of work before the fall. We were created for work and when God renews his creation and sets things right again I see no reason to think it will go away. We will continue to work and you and I have the privilege of helping to bring God's Kingdom to bear in our sphere of work even now.