Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

When I was in high school, I worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant in my neighborhood on weekends and some evenings. They loved me. I was always on time for work. I never called in sick. And I worked hard the whole time I was there. When I tried to get a “promotion” to bus boy, they reluctantly agreed, but since other dishwashers were unreliable and would call in sick or not show up, guess who ended up washing dishes!

I didn’t like washing dishes (I still don’t), but I believed I needed to do my best – even at though it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. That commitment has stayed with me, though now I understand this inner compulsion in broader terms. I think it comes from being created in God’s image and imitating him. We were made to work – to build and create; to plant and harvest; to contribute and trade.

In the last week I’ve written about Sabbath and how it is good for the soul and calling and how we need to find our unique bent. I want to take this thread one step further and think about work and how we approach it. For many of us work is a necessary evil. It’s the thing we do for five days each week so we can do what we really enjoy. It’s what we have to do to be able to afford what we really need (and want).

Here are some thoughts I’ve been mulling over that might point us toward a theology of work…

1. God works, so work must be good.

God worked for six days in creation and it was good (Genesis 1-2). In John 5:17 Jesus tells the Jews persecuting him for healing on the Sabbath, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” Work is ordained by God. It is something he does. And as such, it is good.

2. Work is part of our calling, not a curse.

As human beings, we have been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Part of that was the call to rule over creation and care for the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:26; 2:15). The call to work predated Adam and Eve’s sin and expulsion from the Garden. The Fall of man did not curse work, but made work more difficult (Genesis 3; esp. 3:17). We are called to work. We imitate God, who is always working, when we work. Paul gave the Thessalonians the rule that, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).” He himself worked hard among them “not because [they did] not have the right to such help, but in order to make [them]selves a model for [the Thessalonians] to follow” (2 Thessalonians 3:9).

3. Our work is to be done (joyfully) for God’s glory.

It is good to work. But we should never think our work is just for a paycheck or just to make a living so we can do what we are really called to do. Our work is a part of what shapes who we are becoming. How we respond to those in authority; how we take on the task we have before us; how we work shows a great deal about our character. Paul told the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:22-23; cf. 3:17 and 1 Corinthians 15:58). Whatever our work, we are to do it as if for the Lord.

4. We are not defined by what we do, but whose we are.

Our culture usually defines a person by his/her work. But that is not who defines us. Who we are in relation to Jesus Christ defines us. I think this is part of why Paul emphasizes character more than specific vocation. We are to live lives worthy of the Lord no matter what we do (Colossians 1:10; Philippians 1:27). Whether we work as the CEO of a corporation or a dishwasher in a greasy diner, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are children of the King. Our work does not define us, but the attitude we bring to it and the way we conduct it should reflect who we are in Christ (Colossians 3:22; 4:1).

5. Our work, well done, is part of our witness.

Paul tells the Thessalonians to work hard so that their daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). We need to be hard working people – in whatever God gives us to do – so that we will be respected and will earn a right to be heard as we speak about issues related to life and salvation.

One of things I love about being a pastor is that my vocation and my calling intersect. I have the sense that it’s “what I was made to do”. For many of us, it takes a long time for that to happen – if at all! Our calling may be to work with orphans or to teach Sunday school or to mentor young people…but we may not be able to do that as a vocation. Whether our calling and vocation intersect or one is the means to do the other, we need to do our work as though it is the Lord Christ you are serving (because it is!).

As I finish, let me throw out a few questions for us to think about related to our work/vocation…

Does my work allow me to express my love for God and for others? Does it hinder it? What do I need to change in me to make this happen?

How is God using my work to shape who I am or who I’m becoming in Christ? Do I even see it as a tool He can use in this way? What might I need to change so I could?

How does a theology of work balance with Sabbath? How do I work with my whole heart but not become a workaholic? How do I prioritize Sabbath but not become lazy or unmotivated?

Do my calling and vocation intersect? How does the former impact the latter? What might I change so my calling becomes more a part of what I do?

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