Genesis 1:26-28; 2:8; Proverbs 24:27
The Bible everywhere assumes that man was created to work. This does not mean, of course, that our lives consists solely of work, but meaningful work, in imitation of our Creator, provides one key purpose and the overall structure of our lives. In important ways, work is even more fundamental than family – not that work is more important than family or that we may neglect our families for the sake of our work – for our work or calling is an essential outworking of the image of God in man, in a way that even the family is not. This may be illustrated by the simple observance that while every man is called to work, not every man is called to have a family, as our Savior taught. Moreover, in the consummated state, when family relations will be significantly altered (Matt. 22:30), the gifts and callings God gives each one of us will continue to operate, albeit on an indescribably higher and more fulfilling level, so that we shall serve God in the new heavens and earth with our individual gifts and in our unique callings, spiritual and material (Rom. 11:29). Work, then, is not part of the curse, is not something from which we should seek escape, and must not be viewed as an impediment to pursuing the more important and fulfilling aspects of our lives. Rightly pursued, work brings happiness and satisfaction to us in ways that few other things can.
All of this assumes, however, that we view work rightly. For most today, work is defined as that which will bring the desired level of remuneration so that I can enjoy my preferred lifestyle. Most choose a vocation and related educational path with these considerations foremost in mind. This is the reason so many are miserable, or at least haunted by a deep sense of dissatisfaction, with a significant number of these suddenly experiencing an indefinable “crisis” in middle age, a longing that a convertible will not satisfy. This crisis is the result of being told that “you can be anything you want to be.” It is the result of an entire society being organized around the principle of making money as the key to happiness in life. Frankly, it is the consequences of bowing to the idol of white collar-ism, with the attendant evil of encouraging men to pursue certain jobs purely for pecuniary reasons, and that even though they are not fitted for them, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally. You see, while work is a means to provide the basic necessities of life, this is not all work is, and it is not even the most important aspect of work. Work is a calling from God, a holy vocation in which we seek to use our individual gifts, talents, if you will, to serve God in our particular corner of his vineyard. Every man’s talents are different, as are his station, propensities, and unique mental, mechanical, and intellectual gifts. The “secret” to joy in work is to bring these together: my unique, God-given abilities with a particular line of work, or calling. Without this union, you may make a good deal of money, but you will never be satisfied. Gainful employment does not always equate with meaningful employment. Many painfully awake to this reality, without being able to define or explain it, somewhere in the course of life, but lacking any certain direction and not being rooted in God’s word, their desire to escape the “rat race” often leads them to pursue fantasy. This response is fully understandable, though it is not one that addresses the true needs of the soul and brings a different kind of despair to men, one that makes them worse off than before.
While it may seem to be of little practical benefit to understand the proverbial and even idolized mid-life crisis, it is a good starting point for us to reevaluate our attitudes toward work. Can you honestly say that what you are currently “doing” is a calling, a holy vocation that you pursue each day for God’s glory, that it is consistent with your particular gifts and abilities? On one level, assuming a particular job is not intrinsically sinful, any position can be done to God’s glory, as part of your life-service to him. Are you, however, cut out for the particular place in which you spend, by far, the majority of your waking hours? Do you sense that in performing it, you are walking in harmony with your Creator, working as he works, doing what he created you to do? This can be a disturbing question, admittedly, for by the time we reach middle age, two or three decades of educational, financial, and lifestyle decisions are behind us, and we are typically so set in our “ways” that we can apparently do little but continue to pursue and fund them. This, in itself, is part of a larger problem. We are trapped: by bad advice we received early in life, bad choices we have made, and a bad system that encourages us to view ourselves as cogs in one grinding economic wheel. Even if this is you, understanding the season of your discontent can at least help you be open before the Lord, confess your sins, seek his wisdom and preserving grace, and recommit yourself to serving him where he, despite, perhaps, unwise decisions on your part, has providentially placed you. It can give you a renewed sense of purpose to do the very best you can, without viewing your job simply as a means to a check but as one of the primary ways you glorify and enjoy him. And, rather than buying a convertible, these seasons must be used to evaluate and work toward changing, at a crawl, if necessary, life decisions you have made that are contributing to your discontent and frustration. We may not, honestly, be able to alter our work circumstances, but with the help of our omnipotent and loving Father, we can change our attitudes toward work and the way we use the fruits of our work.
For the younger men in our midst, it is vital for you to come to grips with this before your working life begins in earnest. I have always counseled young men and women not to work in the carnival of consumerism if at all possible. While working fast food and retail are not intrinsically sinful and may seem to be the only options available, you must beware of the attitudes toward work that are already evident in these environments. Everyone working in them is doing so for one reason: to obtain a check. Few, hardly any, feel called to flip burgers, sell movie tickets, or hawk the limitless wares of our sick mall culture. Yet, they do it, without a moment’s thought, without any awareness of the attitudes about work they are unconsciously picking up from their dull peers. Before you enter this world, you should take stock of the situation. Ask the adult men in your life, especially your fathers, if there is not something else you can do to learn a good work ethic, hone your particular God-given gifts, and yes, earn a little money. Earnestly pray that the Lord will open up other opportunities for you to serve him in your earlier years, stations that will prepare you and perhaps even be clear stepping-stones to your life-calling. And do not listen to the mantra of guidance counselors: you can be anything you want. No, you cannot. You can only be happy in the place God has placed you, and it may not be in a white collar profession. It may not, and, I say this with confidence, often should not be following the masses to the middle-class job placement service known as college, because it is the next and safe step and, you are told, will help you experience life, i.e., learn to live independently from all authority structures and dabble in so much nonsense and immorality that your slavery training is completed. There are, certainly, callings and vocations where technical, professional, and philosophical training are necessary, but your decision to attend college should be with a clear sense that additional education will contribute to the overall development of you gifts and prepare you to stand where God will place you. Since this is a fundamental duty of life, and since we cannot righteously pursue any course unless we are persuaded that it will help us serve God better, this must be the decision-making grid that you utilize. Of course, necessity sometimes means that we lack the means and freedom to be so deliberate about these decision, but even straitened circumstances do not free us from the responsibility of thinking and living self-consciously, especially about something as vital to our overall well-being as work.
At the heart of fulfilling work and a satisfying calling is the duty of knowing oneself. Our culture does not encourage this: in fact, in many ways it discourages honest self-reflection. The constant noise, catalogs, staying-busy activities, disdain of “menial” labor, and infatuation with possessions combine to make even the “personal evaluation tests” little more than a means whereby other professionals that have a vested interest in the “system” help you find your place in it. There are exceptions, of course, but few things better prepare you to make good decisions about your calling, wherever you happen to be in the cycle of life, than the following: good listening to the advice of wise men about your personal aptitudes; prayerful consecration of your life to God, including “Lord, I am yours, please direct me to the place I can best serve you;” remaining as free from debt as possible so that later revelations in life can give you the flexibility to make changes, even fundamental ones, without the financial slavery that prevents us from following the Lord, as he leads us through circumstances, the desires of our own hearts, and the development of our individual gifts; waiting upon the Lord; and, the most important of all, obeying him in the known things, the revealed things of his word. The secret things belong to him, i.e., his unfolding providences and purposes, but his revealed will is our daily marching order. If we seek his kingdom and righteousness in the known, he will, in time, provide everything else we need, including meaningful, satisfying callings.
Among the many other things that might be said about pursuing your calling, there is one that cannot be omitted. It has to do with the idea that some work is holy and sacred, while other work is secular or worldly. For at least the last century, the church has been held tightly by the error that if you really want to give yourself to God, you should pursue the gospel ministry, missionary work, or other “full-time Christian service.” This is a miserably false dichotomy, an artificial cutting up of life into areas where I can really serve God and others that are not so important, though they may perhaps be practically necessary. Our work is part of dominion. That is, since we are made in God’s image, we are called to take dominion of the earth, to rule over it under him, to bring his word and will to bear upon the totality of human existence and endeavor. Putting these two ideas together, work and dominion, it is self-evident that Christians can be involved in a great many endeavors as part of their service to God, from professional to non-professional callings, white and blue collar, intellectual and technical, industrial and mechanical. Each of these callings has its place; each is a gift from God. Therefore, you must learn to view your gifts and vocation as the particular way you bring the order and beauty of God, the law and rule of God, to bear upon this world. It means, in effect, that every calling is holy, that it can be pursued in a way that is pleasing to God and useful to his kingdom, the rule of his Son over every area of life. Hence, we can work within this present system, though it has many deficiencies, if we will seek self-consciously to bring our work under the headship of Jesus Christ and pursue it for his glory. Even the most menial of jobs can make an impact upon this world for the glory of God and the implementation of his kingdom or rule over every of life if we will pursue it wholeheartedly as to the Lord and not unto men. Even the slave, as Paul once wrote to the Ephesians, can do his work with an eye to the pleasure and glory of Jesus Christ.
I cannot forebear mentioning yet another sacred cow of the modern work environment, though it touches upon many areas above. Menial labor, in which would be included farming, many mechanical and traditionally blue-collar professions, are almost always looked down upon by our culture. This idea is so engrained that even school children have this attitude. Now, there is nothing particularly glamorous about certain “lower end” jobs, to be sure. We should remember, however, that God put Adam in a garden, to tend and cultivate it. That is, the first man was a gardener-farmer. This should forever instill in use a sense of the essential nobility of manual labor, of caring for the earth, of farming (1 Thess. 4:11). It also provides a ready explanation for the many psychoses of consumer culture among men. Many should never have been encouraged to pursue traditionally white collar jobs. They, perhaps you, would have been happier working with your hands as a carpenter, plumber, or electrician. I say this not because I am like the proverbial city-dweller who would like nothing better than to get out of the rat race and live the idyllic life of a farmer. Having seen a farm in operation, there is nothing idyllic about it. Yet, if you are called to do this, if God has gifted you to do this, you will not be as happy if you pursue another calling, especially if your motivation is the ridiculous idea that such work is beneath you or that there is not enough money in it.
With respect to the prosecution of your work, there are several attitudes and practices necessary if you are to pursue your particular calling in a godly fashion. First, you must look to God to bless your endeavors, beginning each day prayerfully that he will give you strength, wisdom, cheerfulness, and contentment. Whatever your particular calling, piety before God is an absolute prerequisite for success. Then, you must expect your share of thorns and thistles. These are part of the curse. I cannot think of a vocation that is without them, a job in which every project, relation, and duty in the workplace, even if you own your own business, always proceeds smoothly. Hence, we must have realism about our work; this will preserve us from self-inflicted frustration. You will have to work harder and longer in some seasons, without necessarily more compensation. Again, the best and only biblical motivation for work is to please the Lord; do this, serve him and his kingdom where he has placed you, and he will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory. Then, you must trust God. Faith in his sovereignty and provision are viral in every calling in every season, and especially so when you find yourself facing unemployment or vocational uncertainty. Remember, work is not only the activity you perform for eight hours each day; even if you find yourself without gainful employment or scrounging around for odd jobs, you must still work, looking for meaningful ways to serve God. This, by the way, is the reason our retirement mentality is so unbiblical and, therefore, so harmful to the health and welfare of men. You may not always need, want, or be able to hold down a traditional job, but you must always be working, always serving God, your family, and his church. Older men are especially needed in church leadership roles, though the immaturity of the modern church is nowhere better exposed than its preference to be ruled by children. Above all, perhaps, whether you are just starting out in your vocational history or have been doing the same thing for many years, ask yourself this question. Am I working simply to support a lifestyle, to get a check? Or, can I honestly say that I am working because when I do, I feel his pleasure and find great fulfillment in using the particular gifts he has given me? That I love what I do, even though it sometimes has its challenges? That even if there were no such thing as “money,” I would still be doing this because I have found the place God wants me to serve him? I know this seems idealistic, but sometimes being faced with the ideal forces us to evaluate honestly our realities and, by God’s grace, to change them.
Suggested Discussion Questions for Lesson Four
1. What is the relationship between work and dominion? (Genesis 1:26-28) How, then, is work a “creation ordinance,” a condition of man’s very life and existence on earth?
2. For Reflection: Will we work in heaven?
3. Do I see a clear connection between my perceived gifts and the vocation I am currently pursuing?
4. Why is the “mid-life crisis” often a self-inflicted consequence of bad vocational decisions?
5. What difference does it make to speak of a “calling” rather than “work?”
6. How should/can the older men help the younger in their pursuit of a calling?
7. How have sub-and anti-biblical views of menial labor brought untold misery and discontent to our society?