I remember getting out of college and dreaming of doing an important job that I would enjoy. When I was done with school, I headed west on I-90 from the cornfields of Indiana to Spokane where my best friend lived. I had an excitement! I was not living with my parents, I was out of school and now I would be on my own. I would Work a cool job that I would enjoy, pay my own rent and utilities, and be a responsible adult. As I was driving, I literally remember feeling an immense sense of freedom.
I got all my stuff moved into our apartment in Spokane and set out applying for various jobs around town. I never got any callbacks. No one called me back. I applied at a grocery store. No callback.
After about half a month, I finally went to a temp agency where I got a job selling furniture at Costco. I knew nothing about furniture. That lasted two weeks. Then, I got another temp job at a postage meter company giving customers technical support over the phone. I got hired on full time. I was making $9 dollars an hour and working 8am-5pm. I felt defeated.
If this was the “real world” of work, I wanted to go back to college. The weeks and months dragged on at this job and I was forced to think about work on a bigger scale. A career that I would be doing for the next several decades of my life. This job at the postage meter company was not satisfying me and I wondered if I could ever get a job that would satisfy. I wondered if time would continue to creep on as I worked year after year staring at the clock.
Being a follower of Christ at this point in my life, deep down inside, I wondered if my work glorified God? Even more so, I wondered what it meant to glorify God through my work environment? And I had a really serious challenge of my faith: what would it mean for me to be content in my work when I didn’t like the work that I did? These questions and thoughts swirled around my mind during my first year of employment. The whole endeavor was a very rude wakeup to the reality of working an 8-5 in order to pay the bills, do fun things and give to others/church.
We are going to be talking and thinking about what God inspired the apostle Paul to say in Ephesians 4:28.
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
Thesis: Paul challenges us to work hard at whatever our vocation is for the glory of God.
Background: How did the Ephesians think of work? It really helps us to understand the historical context of Paul’s writing. There was no welfare system for a person out of work during this time. Most people would not have had enough wages to save for times of unemployment. Obviously, with these circumstances, many people stole for themselves or to provide for their families. Ephesus was the largest trading center in Asia Minor west of the Taurus which is on the eastern end of Asia Minor. The mouth of the Cayster River provided a harbor for Ephesus. A lot of people worked with their hands probably on the docks and on the ships.
Judaism valued laboring with one’s hands and sharing with the poor. Greek artisans of this time prided themselves in work and disdained working with their hands as work that should be done by a lower class. Ephesus in this day was a provincial capital of the senatorial province of Asia so there was a proconsul who resided in the city. This may give us a little bit of insight to the aristocracy and the work of lower classes of people during this time.
After looking at the historical background, let’s launch into looking at what Scripture says about work via Ephesians. How do we glorify God with our work?
1) To glorify God, we need a healthy perspective of work.
How do Americans view work? By and large, we have negative views of work. We (generalizations here) view work as something to be escaped from. Our view of “heaven” is a nice vacation, an afternoon in the amusement park, watching a movie, being able to do things on our time. Hardly anyone often dreams or gets excited about being at work. In our society “get rich quick” schemes are incredibly common. How many people in our society buy lottery tickets? They are not going to win. Have we ever thought about why these things are popular and think about the deeper motives behind them? People want to escape from work. They think that millions of dollars dropped in their lap will free them to be able to do whatever they want without being confined or trapped in some job. Same with get rich quick schemes. Make a lot of money in a short time and retire early. That’s what some of these schemes promise and 99.99% of them are completely fraudulent.
Let’s go a little deeper into examining some of our culture’s views of work. In Lee Hardy’s book “The Fabric of this World”, he says: “According to the cultural taxonomy developed in Habits of the Heart, modern American individualism comes in two forms: utilitarian and expressivist. The utilitarian individualists among us locate the meaning of their lives in the public world of work. They turn to work in pursuit of personal success, which is often measured financially. They are hard working, highly competitive, and willing to sacrifice their private lives for the sake of career advancement. Expressive individualists, on the other hand, typically turn away from the harsh realities of the world of work and seek meaning in private life-personal relationships, leisure activities, and “life-style enclaves.” They have decided to bow out of the rat race for the sake of a more humane and sensitive existence. Both kinds of individualists, however, live primarily for self. One seeks self-fulfillment on the job; the other seeks it off the job. Neither approaches work with the primary intention of serving others in it, of making a contribution to the common good.”
Some people find their identity in work. Work is an idol to them that they sacrifice family or community or leisure time on their altar of adoration to their job. They may do this for money (which they wouldn’t really get to enjoy because they are working all the time) or the power that money brings. Other people flat out want to avoid work. They don’t like the harsh realities of work and some of these individuals in our society may scam the systems and seek to get money from other people’s work. Look at the commonality though between these two views: they are both for self. They are both about self-fulfillment and not about serving others or contributing to a community.
We can perhaps deduct that many people’s views of work in our society are unhealthy. We need a healthier perspective and balance to life.
We’re talking about our own culture and society but we cannot just pick on those elements exclusively. How do Christians view work? How does the church approach a theology of work?
In the middle ages up until the reformation, the church largely did not view work in a healthy way. The churches view of work in this time was probably very much influenced by Greek thought. “To the Greeks,” as Adriano Tilgher puts it, “work was a curse and nothing else.” In their world, work was an unmitigated evil to be avoided at all costs. It had no redeeming features or compensating factors. Unemployment, on the other hand, was a positive social virtue. In fact, unemployment was one of the primary qualifications for full participation in society and a necessary condition for the possibility of a genuinely worthwhile life . In ancient Greek society, to be out of work was a piece of singular good fortune. “ – Hardy, “The Fabric of this World” “The Greek definition of the human being as a rational animal was also retained by the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages. It was generally agreed that the highest of human activities is the activity of the mind. For this reason salvation, as the fulfillment of human life, was primarily understood in intellectual terms-it was to culminate in the “beatific vision,” the direct and immediate knowledge of God in the afterlife, unhampered by the distracting demands of the body. The preeminent theologian of the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas, states in his Summa Theologica that, “the contemplation of divine truth … is the goal of the whole of human life.” This is because “the contemplative life is according to that which is most proper to man, namely his intellect.” Productive work, which meets the needs of this temporal bodily life, is therefore in itself of no lasting religious significance. For the most part it hinders the individual’s relation to God, which can be cultivated only in the leisure of contemplation.”
So, a large chunk of Christian history had an unbalanced view of work and life. With all of this talk on bad perspectives of work, where is the basis for finding a healthy perspective?
In Genesis 1:26-29, God created man and woman to take care of the earth. “Subdue” and “dominion” are very loaded phrases in our day and age but these are not negative. Humanity is unique. We bear the image of God and God asks us to take care of the earth. This was man’s original job before the fall and prior to sin entering the world. Note the personal working touch that God had humanity perform in the garden. Adam named the animals.
Work is a God-created thing. It was the fall of humanity that made work harder. The thorns and thistles would cover the ground where humanity worked and the work would be more difficult and frustrating. Before the fall, we can imply that work was a part of the perfect balance that God created people for. And it’s important to look at this account of Scripture when we go to find meaning in our work. God created us for work.
Many people seemingly long for retirement. The golden idea of retirement being, one doesn’t have to work, and saving up a lot of money so we can live and not work. There is nothing wrong with saving money for retirement. That is very much encouraged. But is retirement a Biblical idea? We are created to work. We may retire from our career or job but this shouldn’t stop us from maybe working at volunteer work or being involved in other stuff. Massive studies show that God knows best. Our health and mental capacities often decline when we do not work.
Largely, Christians across our culture work so we don’t have the unbalanced issue as the middle age Christians so much of just sitting around and thinking. What are the things related to modern day work that we struggle with?
One of the ideas that we struggle with that I have discovered is going to sound wrong! We overemphasize vocational ministry. Oftentimes, leaders in the church will see a Christian who is very spiritual or who has a very strong walk with Christ and push this person toward a vocational ministry job.
We need Christians with strong walks in all areas of our economy and in all kinds of different jobs. By the way, being a pastor is an important job and an amazing calling. But other jobs are incredibly valuable as well, not just to the church, but to society as a whole. Being a pastor is not the only special calling that God may give to someone.
This is the perspective we need to have of work. God created work for us as a good thing. Work is a part of the balance of life that also includes good things like leisure and vacations and studying and cooking and being in community and other good things.
2) To glorify God, we need to strive to be the best employees as believers.
The Apostle Paul says let us labor and asks us to do honest work with our own hands.
Let’s look at this closer. The meaning of the word “labor” in this passenger can mean, “grow tired, be weary, toil”. Essentially, what he is asking believers to do is to work hard. Be a hard worker.
I’ve talked to a Christian business owner and they have told me that over their years of running a business, they have never experienced a positive correlation between someone’s Christian faith and a strong work ethic. They have had some Christians who have worked hard at the job and others who have slacked.
They mentioned a mentality to me that some believers often have. That is that “hey, we are under grace” when it comes to work. In some people’s minds, this can translate to: “oh, I don’t necessarily have to be at this work appointment on time” or “oh, I can do a half-hearted job on this project”. After all, my boss will give me grace. Especially if he is a Christian. Even worse, sometimes when a boss can ask his Christian employee to do a task or to impose rules and boundaries upon the work place, the employee may think of this as legalism.
I hope it is not much of a shock to share with you that these mentalities are completely erroneous. And the Apostle Paul calls them wrong. We are to “work hard”. Let’s do the tasks the way the employer wants us to do them. Let’s be on time or early to appointments. Let’s take our work seriously.
The sad thing is many Christians may work hard at ministry and they rightly see the eternal importance of this volunteer work that they may be doing. But they fail to translate this work ethic to their job and to also see their job as a spiritual task. The job or service that we are providing is benefiting society in some way. It is either a good/product that people want or desire or maybe an essential service task to our city or community. This is all spiritual work.
God calls us to work hard and to strive to be the best employees on the job.
3) To glorify God, we need to work in order to give to others.
Paul writes: “…so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
This is completely upside down thinking compared with how a lot of the world thinks. The common wisdom of the world is: We suffer through work in order to get money to live the sort of lives we want to live on the weekends or on vacation. Treat yourself. If we make enough money, we can buy some fancy cars and designer clothes and a couple of houses, etc. It is all about you or me.
Scripture challenges this view of making money to exclusively treat ourselves and to buy things for ourselves. Jesus’ kingdom values turns this thinking on its head.
The purpose of work is NOT self-indulgence but to benefit those in need. We should always be looking to give as Christians. Giving to our local church that we belong to is vital but we should also look beyond that. What other great causes can we give toward? What homeless people can we buy meals or clothing for?
By the way, the word “share” in this context means “to give part of, to give a share.” Paul is allowing here that we are to provide for ourselves. We are to work to pay our bills and take care of our families. Absolutely. There is nothing wrong even with a Sabbath (such as taking a vacation). But this definitely includes, as a PRIORITY, sharing material gains with people who are in need.
We need to sense real need and then share the fruit of our diligent labor. This requires knowing about our communities. We need to know about groups of people who are having a hard time or suffering. This requires knowing people in the Body of Christ and perhaps seeing ways that we can help in our immediate congregation. We have to know people well and know the communities we live in well. This, in and of itself, takes work, observation and a will to act.
Our example is Christ. How much as HE given to us? He came to this world and worked a job and did ministry and suffered and died for the sins of the world! He has given the most out of anyone who has EVER lived. Ever!
Sometimes its hard to quantity giving. We always ask how much or what percentage. Maybe we can keep the example of Christ in mind as a principle. Are we giving sacrificially by the fruits of our labor in the spirit of how Christ gives? A very convicting question for me.
By having a healthy perspective of work (the Biblical view which shows work as a part of life), by working hard and being the best employees we can be, and by working to give to others and developing a heart to do so, we can truly glorify God by our working lives. More than just this theological concept of glorifying God, I think we can truly find more meaning in our work and in our lives as a whole. We have opportunities on the job to be an ambassador for Christ and I’m not talking about evangelism (which is definitely important) but in being a good worker. It involves contributing to our respective companies. How many of us really believe this and see our Monday through Friday tasks in this way? This is the foundation in finding meaning in our work for the glory of God and I believe, finding more satisfaction.
One question that may come up regarding satisfaction on the job is someone who really struggles around the work contentment question. What if you are in a job that you really don’t like and you long to do something else? Where is the line of being discontent but still being open to what God has for you?
If you are in this situation, there is nothing wrong with dreaming to do something else. Maybe think of a plan or enlist help from people in your community to take steps toward this goal. I think the way that a sinful discontentment would show in this situation is if you weren’t being a good employee at your current line of work. Work hard at what you are doing but pursue other opportunities along the lines of what you want to do when you can.
Let us all work for the glory of God which means finding more meaning in the labor tasks we do and seeing the big picture of how we serve society (not just to build ourselves up) but to point people to Jesus.
-This sermon was originally preached at King’s Cross Church on 01/13/2013. You can listen to the sermon here: http://www.ourkingscross.org/resources/sermons/. It is titled: “Work Unto the Lord”