When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.
We spend roughly a third of our lives working—commuting to our offices and schools, making decisions, representing our employers, working side-by-side with others, creating works of art and new products, repeating tasks day after day and week after week, and commuting home again.
Too often, the church has only equipped its members for Sunday vocations—worshipping, teaching and learning, and serving one another. But how are we to live the other six days? How does God call us to live our lives in Christ among our co-workers and communities? How do we integrate our faith at work? How do we decide which careers to take and what opportunities to pursue? How do we handle setbacks and failure—as well as promotions and awards?
How do we hear and respond to God’s voice for our work?
Vocatio: A Voice Calling
Our word “vocation” descends from the Latin vocatio, which means “a voice calling.” We often use words like vocation to describe ministry (e.g. vocational ministry as opposed to lay ministry) and reserve the sense of calling to pastors and missionaries. Yet as the church has taught for centuries, God calls all of us to our vocations, to our work. When we hear and respond to God’s call for this critical part of our lives—our vocations—we can begin to do Kingdom work every day of the week, leveraging our work for the glory of God and the good of our community.
As the ancient proverb puts it: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices” (Proverb 11:10). How do we work in such a life-giving, socially-transforming way that the city rejoices at our work and prosperity?
To understand why we work, to discover the God’s voice for our work, and to do work that really lasts, we must begin… where all things begin.
The Design of Work
In the beginning, God created work. In fact, God’s creation of the heavens and the earth was itself work.
As Tim Keller notes, “The Bible begins talking about work as soon as it begins talking about anything—that’s how important and basic it is.” God even creates all of the cosmos within a typical workweek, including a day of rest. The biblical view of work, then, is always connected with this divine and orderly design.
It’s important to remember that work is not a result of sin, a necessary evil in a broken world. Instead, God himself is our standard of work; he works “for the sheer joy of it.” We were created for work. In this paradise of a workplace, God forms man in his image, plants a garden for him and waters it, and creates for him a wife as a companion and co-laborer. To this day, God continues to work: he cares for the world by watering the ground, providing food for man and animals, and giving help to those in need.
In creating mankind, God commissioned us to carry on his meaningful work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). He created a good but undeveloped earth, in order to fulfill the world’s untapped potential through our work. In this ideal place, all of our labor is an extension and continuation of God’s good and perfect work.
The Dignity of Work
As a result, work is a mark of human dignity. God created animals to eat, think, and reproduce, but only humans are explicitly called to work. When our capacity to work—to care for and cultivate God’s creation—is interrupted or removed, we feel less than human. To be sick, injured, or imprisoned feels de-humanizing.
It’s important to note here that not just some jobs are divinely inspired and dignified. Biblically, all forms of good labor extend God’s work, whether it’s composing and directing a symphony or collecting trash and transporting it outside the city. Before we elevate any one type of work above another, we can remember that when Christ entered the world physically, he took the ordinary work of his family: carpentry. All work, then, has dignity and purpose.
Why Work Works Against Us
But, of course, it’s not all that glorious and easy. It didn’t take long for man to sin in the garden—to reject God’s plan for their lives and work against their created design. As a result, God banished man and woman from the Garden and enacted a curse. To Adam, he said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistle for you, and you will eat the plants of the field” (Genesis 3:17-18).
In a moment, our work began to unravel, as creation itself now works against us. In our broken, cursed world, farmers must cultivate their fields against the forces of weeds, pests, and inclement weather. Mothers must experience pain in childbirth, and parenting becomes an immensely challenging vocation. Our labor feels frustrating and meaningless, our workplace relationships are marked by conflict and strife, and our societies collapse into injustice and immorality.
The Restoration of Work
Yet there is hope. Since the problem of work is rooted in human sin, the first place we must begin is within our own hearts. Work is difficult, but because of our oneness with Adam and his sin, we are as much to blame as anyone or anything else. Through Jesus Christ, God has begun a new work of redeeming all creation to himself. Through Christ, God is putting an end to suffering and death, restoring peace, love, and justice in the world.
For those of us now joined to Christ through faith, we begin to understand and enjoy our work in a new way. Sure, work is demanding and often works against us, and it can become a place of selfishness and greed. But we shouldn’t turn from work or simply try to endure it until Christ returns. Instead, we can recapture God’s bigger vision for our education, our vocation, and our Nine-to-Five.
With this fresh vision, we can work under a higher calling. We can find meaning and pleasure in our work. We can labor in a way that promotes justice and enables reconciliation. We can listen for the still, soft voice of God calling out to us to live for him, to work for his glory, and to join him in the mission of his Kingdom. As Abraham Kuyper put it, “There’s not a square inch in all creation over which Jesus cannot say, ‘Mine!’”
The City Will Rejoice
As for the great story of mankind, what began in a rough, uncultivated Garden ends in a glorious New City. Yet then even in the picture of eternity (Revelation 20-22), it seems God will continue to work through our labor—as we serve one another in the new society.
The curse on work will be a distant memory, and all our labors will be fruitful, meaningful, and glorious. Work will not be destroyed; like all good things, it will be liberated and fulfilled to its grand purpose.
The work of righteous will flourish, and the City will rejoice.
[Author’s Note: This article is an excerpt from a forthcoming small group resource entitled “Vocation: Hearing God’s Voice for Our Work.”]