Some of the most depressing hours of my life ticked by while I was sitting behind an artificially shiny desk situated within a coffin-like bank lobby just a few feet across the tile floor from a thick vault. Freshly married and not yet in vocational ministry, I had to bring home some bacon from somewhere. That somewhere was SouthTrust Bank (now defunct), and the “bacon” wasn’t enough to buy real bacon, not much anyway.
I appreciated having a job, or at least the paycheck, but I didn’t want to be there. Most of my three years at SouthTrust were whiled away wishing and hoping and praying that God would give me a bit of mercy and allow me to leave this “secular” job so that I could pastor a flock full-time somewhere and finally be fulfilled in a “real” and “sacred” ministry.
That was about eighteen years ago. Now, I realize I was wrong. I felt called to ministry but couldn’t fathom that a banking job might in fact be a wonderful ministry. Since then, several faithful Bible teachers have taken me back to God’s Word and helped me construct a sounder theology of work.
Looking at the concept of work now from a different angle, as a pastor, I’m concerned that many Christians are experiencing what I did at coffin-like SouthTrust. They’re working so-called “normal” jobs (not as a pastor, church staffer, or missionary) and feel empty about it all. Having not yet learned how meaningful and fulfilling their jobs can be for the sake of God’s kingdom, they are miserable day-in, day-out, fighting the Sisyphus syndrome: “Sisyphus was . . . forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, repeating this action for eternity.”
But your work does not have to be mere daily drudgery. If you can construct a biblically sound theology of work and daily, prayerfully saturate your mind with it, it could revolutionize your daily grind and transform it into a source of great joy.
Cultivating the Garden of the World
Think of your job as God’s calling on your life to help cultivate “the garden” of the world. Adam did not serve in vocational ministry, but God called him to work by cultivating the garden of Eden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). God’s call to cultivate happened before Adam and Eve transgressed and fell into sin, which means God’s call to work predates sin, a critical point in constructing a theology of work. It means that work is good. It is a creation mandate designed to enhance and bless human life. Work is not something we should attempt to escape in this life or in heaven to come. God’s own work and rest serve as a pattern for us (Gen 2:1–3).
Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel, and neither of them was a preacher or a missionary. One was a farmer and the other raised livestock (Gen 4:2). From the beginning, God created humanity to work the earth and the things of the earth and to have dominion over the animals. This demonstrates His interest in all vocations, not just those that seem to relate most closely with the “spiritual” realm (like vocational church leaders). Preachers and missionaries came later to help people know and grow in the Lord. The so-called “sacred” vocations exist in order to help people carry out their so-called “secular” vocations in a way that consciously glorifies God. Martin Luther said, “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.” A pastor’s job is, partially, to help her do just that, not belittle her work or make her feel less godly because she is not a missionary.
Here’s the big point: God has given humanity the task of cultivating the garden of this world. Each of us is called to take some part of the earth and move it, organize it, arrange it, rearrange it, stack it, unstack it, put it together, take it apart—all as a way of having dominion over creation and carrying out our dignified roles as God’s image-bearers. He provided the raw materials, and our job is to form, cultivate, and manufacture. As it turns out, pulling out parts of the earth and arranging those parts in certain ways can yield fantastic things, like pizza, Honda Civics, iPhones, and hypodermic needles!
I didn’t realize during my years at SouthTrust that God wanted me to help cultivate the garden of His world. I figured kingdom work was strictly limited to the church and the missionaries sent out by the church (and that most every other job was strictly secular, or basically godless). I didn’t realize that, as a banker, I was moving and arranging money in a way that helped other image-bearers dig up parts of the earth and organize them in certain ways in order to create all sorts of beneficial products in the process. Instead, I was moping about because I wanted to do “real” ministry. I was like a fish in water begging for water, unable to see that I was already swimming. I’ve since learned that God doesn’t just own the church; He owns the whole world, and he uses banks and grocery stores and factories and farms for kingdom purposes. Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Enhancing Others for the Glory of God
Use your job to enhance humanity for the glory of God. Since Eden, the goal of work has been to improve humanity’s experience on earth by serving one another via the cultivation of our particular corners of the garden (so to speak) for the glory of God. The main reason to have a garden, after all, is to grow good food, enjoy it, and share it with others. The main reason to build a house is to improve living conditions. The main reason to manufacture clothing is to enhance and protect the body. The main reason to build and sell a car is to improve travel. Every true and good vocation is a form of serving our fellow man. (Inherently sinful jobs, like being a drug dealer or a prostitute, are not from God and do not help humanity).
Of course, Christians should also want to use their jobs as an avenue for evangelism and inviting unbelievers to church and as a way to earn money to use for the support of kingdom ministries. But if you think your job has no other kingdom purposes than these, then you’ve not fully incorporated a biblical theology into your understanding of work, and you might be prone to sense a lack of fulfillment—and potential misery—at the workplace. But if you can view your job as an extension of God’s blessing to the world, a way for God to serve people through your hands (thank you to Michael Wittmer for explaining this metaphor), then it can lead to an increase in happiness and quality in your work. You’ll be the best waitress, manager, nurse, farmhand, plumber, electrician, preacher, or cashier you can be.
Once you view your vocation as God’s calling on your life for loving labor in His garden, then you’ll begin to appreciate your job so much more. Rather than drudgery and a longing to always be doing something different, you will use your vocation as a form of worship. You will understand the great blessing you are to the lives of others, and how others bless you through their work. And you will feel great honor and dignity as an image-bearer of God regardless of your vocation.
For example, see Micheal E. Wittmer’s Becoming Worldly Saints and Heaven is a Place on Earth, as well as Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor.