A brass-tacks, real-world theology of work and vocation, with thanks to Tim Keller

depressed working guyThe current series of posts (starting here) has been sketching a theological understanding of work and vocation, drawing from Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf’s excellent book Every Good Endeavor. The last two posts have tapped traditional Christian understandings of Creation and Incarnation for what they have to say about this important topic. This one wraps up with the New Heavens and New Earth, and then asks what difference all this lovely meaty theology makes to how we experience our own work and vocations here in the Real World:

Heavenly-earthly work

But there is one more part of the Bible story that evangelicals have forgotten, and that prevents us from having a healthy view of ordinary work. That is the ending of the story—not in heaven on fluffy clouds with angels playing harps, but in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

“According to the Bible, this world is the forerunner of the new heavens and new earth, which will be purified, restored, and enhanced at the ‘renewal of all things; (Matthew 19:28; Romans 8:19–25),” say Keller and Alsdorf. “No other religion envisions matter and spirit living together in integrity forever. And so birds flying and oceans roaring and people eating, walking, and loving are permanently good things.”

What does this triumphant re-creation in the End Times mean to our ordinary, daily work today? It means that contrary to some popular opinion, the things we do and make and even accumulate are not “all going to burn.” True, there are no U-Hauls on hearses. But all of the beautiful, valuable things we make in our earthly work will, in some form, be present in the unimaginably better, but still familiar, reality of the new heavens and new earth.

The Apostle Paul and the purpose of our work

All of this comes together in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Famously, Paul insisted that Christians who are able to work must do so, for those who don’t pull their weight, shouldn’t eat! But there was more to Paul’s theology of work than mere necessity and responsibility. In 1 Corinthians 7, he talks about work in terms of calling, saying the following:

“Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” 1 Corinthians 7:17

Genesis explains the “design, dignity, and pattern of work” (Keller), but Paul explains how work gives us purpose in our callings. Of course we all have a calling to live as Christians and to share the gospel. This is what the Reformers call our “primary calling.” But we all also have a second calling: to do the particular kinds of work suited to our gifts and abilities, which God leads us to, and which serve the world.

This is what in secular parlance has often been called “vocation.” God has created each of us with talents and drives that, if we are able to overcome the effects of the Fall and discover our proper work, can lead us to a true calling.

What is “calling” in this sense of vocation or work? We can’t call everything we do in life “calling.” “Our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others. And that is exactly how the Bible teaches us to view work.” (Keller) A true calling is something like Buechner’s famous definition of calling or vocation: “The place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

two motives for working – it matters which one you choose

In other words,

We are not to choose jobs and conduct our work to fulfill ourselves and accrue power, for being called by God to do something is empowering enough. We are to see work as a way of service to God and our neighbor, and so we should both choose and conduct our work in accordance with that purpose. The question regarding our choice of work is no longer “What will make me the most money and give me the most status?” The question must now be “How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and of human need?”

This may sound like impractical, pious talk. But Keller points out something interesting. Perhaps counterintuitively, of those two motives for working in a particular field—the first being money and status, and the second being serving others within a kingdom framework—it is the second motive that will lead us to a more sustainable motivation for discipline and excellence at work.

What does that look like? Well, if everything we do in our work is to aggrandize ourselves—to gain more fame, influence, power, money—then inevitably we will burn out. It’s all self-referential and selfish, and that sort of impulse never truly satisfies. It just sends us down into a spiral of sin. But if we work in order to “serve and exalt something beyond ourselves,” then even on days, or in weeks or months or years, where we feel tired and cranky and put upon, we have a higher motive and a farther horizon to pull us through. And in the end, “we are more likely to be successful in the long run, even by the world’s definition.”

To conclude, what recent thinkers like Tim Keller, Tom Nelson, Amy Sherman, and others have been reminding us about work is that our work—by which we serve others by helping to creating a culture in which humans can thrive and flourish—is a good part of God’s kingdom purposes.

This is a solid, biblically grounded Christian view of work, and much healthier than the sort of attitude we’ve all seen in some evangelical circles, where we find a super-spiritual hierarchy in which full-time church-related ministry like pastoring or missions is at the top, with the helping professions in the second tier and everything else—including the work most people in the world do in the marketplace—far below in a sort of “unspiritual” third tier.

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