Monday 23 August 2010

Seeking a better understanding of work

We are just about to publish Case #24. Case is the quarterly apologetics magazine from CASE. This issue will explore a range of questions. It is framed by the broad question, what do we understand about work? Do we see it just as an inconvenient separation between our weekends? A way to earn money for life? Something you do when you can't be in 'full-time' ministry? A result of the curse that we need to endure?

Justin Taylor has suggested that many Christians have a 'sub-biblical view of work' (see previous post). He goes on to suggest that we need to:
'..recover the reformational understanding of vocation: all of life—in every sphere and in every calling—should be lived to the glory of God and in obedience to his Word.'
John Piper in his excellent book ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’ also suggests that we need a better biblical understanding of the place of work in our lives. He suggests that if we want to glorify God in our work, that our focus shouldn’t be on 'where [we] work, but how and why' we work. His challenge is 'how can I can make my life count for the glory of God' whether in Christian ministry, paid secular work or unpaid work in the home and community?

Dorothy Sayers almost 60 years ago said something similar:

'…work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do'.

But while some of us place too low a value on work, others perhaps overestimate its significance to life. Non-Christian philosopher Alain de Botton in ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ reviewed in Case  #24, argues like many Christian writers that we do. He suggests that while all societies have placed work at the centre of their activities, 'our’s is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance.'

We work he argues even in the absence of a financial imperative.
'Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.' (p. 106).
In Case #24 our varied writers contribute some fascinating perspectives on the topic.

Gordon Preece in our lead article considers the tricky notion of ‘calling’. To address the question ’Does God call people to particular jobs?’ he outlines a Trinitarian model of ‘calling’ and argues that our first focus must be on our call to God’s kingdom. After that, where and how we are to work is an area of ‘freedom in limitation’.

Andrew Laird, drawing on the work of Darrell Cosden, approaches the topic of work from the perspective of the value and meaning it has for the world we live in. He points out that we contribute daily to the order and running of this world in our work, and in so doing, reflect what God did in creation by bringing order to chaos. Laird brings additional insights to Cosden’s work suggesting that all work is to be part of the expression of our worship of God, including rest from our work.

Complementing this approach, Mark Stephens addresses the question of work in eschatological terms and sets out to evaluate the idea that work is of value not just as participation in God’s creation, but as it relates to the ultimate completion of creation. Unpacking Revelation 18 and 21, he explores the possibility that some aspects of human culture may find a place in the new creation: an eschatological city that takes account of the works of man.

Nicole Starling provides a specific illustration of how diverse work is, with a type of work undervalued by society - being a stay-at-home mother. She argues that the paid career shouldn’t be seen as the only type of socially productive work. When a woman chooses to become a full-time stay-at-home mother and wife, she demonstrates three attractive counter-cultural lifestyles that are a powerful apologetic. Caring for a family, and the many other forms of service this permits, are valuable social goods. The worth of the work done at home exceeds the social status given to it and so those making this choice demonstrate a freedom from social status and consumption. Finally, stay-at-home mothers show that their decision to work in the home reflects a “deep and secure sense of… identity as children of God”.

Dani Scarratt also revisits the insights of Sayers and C.S. Lewis on ‘good work’ in our first ‘Case History’, an occasional segment which seeks to unearth the wisdom of Christian writers from the past for the benefit of Christians today.

To complete our issue Andrew Baartz reviews 'The Missional Entrepreneur: Principles and Practices for Business as Mission' and Georgina Barratt-See reviews de Botton's ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work'.


Timaahy said...


How do Christians reconcile work with passages such as Matthew 16:24, 19:21 and (especially) 6:25-34?


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for your good question: “How do Christians reconcile work with passages such as Matthew 16:24, 19:21 and (especially) 6:25-34?” A quick comment on each passage.

In Matthew 16:24 Jesus uses the metaphor of crucifixion to make a comment about discipleship. In effect he is saying that a disciple must deny him or herself (i.e. die to self interest, focus and concern) and be prepared to accept God’s will for their lives, irrespective of the consequences.

In Matthew 19:21 the words Jesus uses reflect the fact that he knows the human heart, and that for some, wealth is a major means to gain personal identity, power, and meaning in life. Work (which he doesn’t mention directing) and certainly the fruits of work – wealth - can become an idol and the god that shapes our lives. Jesus was calling them (and us) to exchange worldly wealth for eternal wealth and ‘treasure’.

In Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus is calling on his disciples to makes the right choices in life, not worrying about material provisions like clothing but trusting in God to provide for their needs.

I think they can be reconciled quite well. We are to live life to the glory of God, including our work. We are to centre our lives on God not work and wealth. Work in itself is good (we can see this elsewhere in Scripture), not bad, but it can become a focus and driver of our lives rather than something that we do for the glory of God. While the disciples were called to give up everything (meaning paid work too), this isn’t the pattern for all. The Bible teaches that God can use paid and unpaid work for his purposes and each can bring glory to him.

I hope this helps.