Today we are going to continue our mini-series on stewardship. We’re going to explore something that everyone in this room participates in, and will participate in — something that is so foundational to our existence that you literally can’t get out of bed without it. You can’t consume food or take a breath without it. It’s something that can be incredibly fun at times and incredibly frustrating at other times. It can result in far-away adventures filled with intrigue and excitement, and in painful, sweat-inducing, frustrating exhaustion.
This four-letter word is work.
Now, when I say “work,” I’m not just talking about the work done at a job or occupation. I’m talking about all the work. The big project work and the every-day small work. The paid work, and the unpaid work. The work that gets recognized and applauded, and the work that is simply done and goes unnoticed.
A number of years ago I learned of something called the doctrine of vocation. This particular doctrine teaches us that all Christians are called by God to live faithfully not just in the church, but in our homes, and in our work at jobs, and in our every-day work. It teaches that God has a specific calling and purpose for our work — not just for missionaries and pastors, but for plumbers and internet service providers and insurance salesmen and hairdressers and homemakers and students and 5-year-olds whose biggest chore might be to unload the dishwasher.
What I began to realize when I learned of the doctrine of vocation is that I had believed a number of lies about my work and about my calling, and that was affecting big decisions I was making in my life. It was affecting my daily motivations, the type of work I decided to pursue and get better at and get excited about every day. It was also making me feel a sense of guilt when I wasn’t participating heavily in things I thought of as spiritual work – like evangelism and prayer and Bible reading. So much of my regular, every-day work felt incredibly meaningless, pointless, worthless, frustrating, and I just wanted to move past it to get to the things that I thought were my true purpose, the things that would make a real difference in the world.
What I’ve found as I’ve studied the Bible around this topic for a number of years is that the Bible has answers to many of my big questions about work:
- Why we work
- How we choose what work to do
- What type of work pleases God the most
- Why we struggle in work
- How to persevere in work that I don’t like
- and How to measure success in our work
This morning, we’re going to look at how God has answered these questions in His Word, the Bible, and my goal is that you would go home today feeling more fulfilled, more encouraged, and more on-mission when you go to tackle your work on Monday morning.
We need God’s help in our minds and hearts as we look at this, so let’s pray before we jump in:
II. Purpose: Why do we work?
So, our first question is: Why do we work?
Let’s look in our Bibles to see how God answers this. I’m going to be jumping around to different passages a lot this morning, so feel free to utilize the screen to read them, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can open your Bibles.
It doesn’t take long to see work show up in our Bibles; it’s right there on page one, paragraph one, sentence one:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Verse 3 – “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
Then God continues creating. He makes the moon and the stars and lakes and forests and flying and land animals, and saw that it was all good.
26Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
2:1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
We should notice three key things in this passage:
1. God is a worker
God was doin’ work. And he was doing a lot of it. The very first thing we find out about God in the Bible is not that he’s loving or that He’s just or that He’s faithful, but that He’s a worker. He’s a creator of things. He’s an architect. He’s a builder. He’s an artist. I’m sure that God would be soooo good at making things with LEGOs. And by the way, we see later in the Bible, that Jesus says in John 5 “My Father is still working, and I am working also.” God didn’t just do the work of creation and then call it quits. He continued to work and is working to this day.
So we see first that God is a worker.
2. Work is good
We see this over and over again in the creation account that God makes something and He’s like “that’s goooooood.” Then He makes something else, and He’s like “oh that’s good.” Then He makes something else and it’s…you guessed it: good! We see that God delights in His work. He’s not working for the weekend. He’s not bored. He’s creating all these beautiful, vast, colorful, intricate galaxies and formations. He created some animals to be soft and fluffy and others to be hard and protected. Some to be majestic and mighty and others to be tiny and cute. He exhibited creativity and excellence in His work.
So, we see that God loves work: that work is good.
3. Mankind was created to be workers
Just like their Creator, Adam and Eve were made to be workers, and God gave them specific work to do. Genesis 1:28 contains what is known as the Cultural Mandate (aka. the Creation Mandate).
This cultural mandate is the command to exercise dominion over the earth, gently subdue it, and to develop it. God wanted humans, who were made in His image, to fill the earth with His glory through creating what we commonly call culture (hence the name, the cultural mandate). Notice that while God gave this command to Adam and Eve only, as the only people at the time, they were the representatives of all humanity. We see this mandate reaffirmed later as it was also given to Noah as the representative of all humanity in Genesis 9:1.
So, this command is for us. It is at the very core of our purpose on this earth. It’s why we’re here. We are to be creators. We are to be culture makers. We are to be workers.
III. Calling: What work should we do?
A. All Works Can Glorify God
So, now that we know why we work, what’s next? We need to know how to decide what work we do. There’s a lot of work out there that can be done, so how do we decide what to work on? What work should we do?
Let’s look at a passage in 1 Corinthians 10 that addresses this:
v23b-24 “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.
v26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
v31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
This passage is addressing whether Christians should eat food that has been sacrificed to idols — not something that we particularly deal with on a daily basis today — but in the midst of it, we see three really key concepts:
- Everything on the earth is God’s (v26)
- Not everything that we can do is helpful to others; we should do the things that benefit others (even to those who don’t benefit you) (v23,24)
- Everything you do has the potential to glorify God (v31)
Numbers one and two seem pretty basic, pretty foundational, pretty familiar. But the reality that everything you do has the potential to glorify God, that was shocking to me, and completely changed my life when I first learned of it a number of years ago.
Just sit on that for a minute: verse 31 literally says “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
We all know that we can pray to glorify God, sing in worship to glorify God, share the gospel to glorify God. But did you know that you can drink a beverage to glorify God? You can tie your shoes to glorify God. You can make a snowman to glorify God. You can plunge a toilet to glorify God. You can design a building to glorify God. You can sell products to glorify God. You can cook a meal to glorify God. You can eat a meal to glorify God. You can give a meal to glorify God. You can change a diaper to glorify God. You can learn about math to glorify God. You can do your homework to glorify God. You can honor your parents to glorify God. You can make a new friend to glorify God. You can care for a pet or two or twenty to glorify God. You can be patient with your wife to glorify God. You can forgive a friend or even an enemy to glorify God.
“Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That means that you have the potential to glorify God (or to not glorify Him) in all things that you do.
B. Our Work as Obedience to The Greatest Commandment
But the Bible gives us a lot of instruction about what we should and shouldn’t do, right? And our parents tell us what to do or not do, our bosses tell us what to do our not do, our government tells us what to do or not do. So how do we determine which of those things glorify God and which don’t glorify Him? How do we decide what work we should do?
When someone asked Jesus, “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” – which is like asking “what is the most important thing that God tells us to do?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
So, if we know that God wants us to love Him with everything we’ve got, and to love other people, and God put us on this earth to be workers, and to glorify God in all the work we do, then the work that he wants us to do is work that demonstrates love for God and love for others. This isn’t talking about a hugging, kissing sort of love. This is talking about a love that is a care and concern and wanting the best and doing the best for others: a love that brings about good for others.
What this means is that any work that is for the good of others, done for the glory of God in faith, can be an obedience to the Greatest Commandment. That means that this work is not merely physical, not some kind of necessary neutral activity in between the real opportunities to love others. Your work is part of the main event. Your work for the good of others has spiritual significance, and pleases the Lord when done unto Him. In your work, you can act as an agent of God’s love for people.
The first time I heard this, I had a hard time connecting the dots on that, so let’s unravel it a bit to look more closely. We’ve been given the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission, so we are supposed to make culture that results in good for others. Another way to say that is that your work should result in human thriving.
God didn’t give us the bare minimum required for life on this planet. He could have given us a very utilitarian existence, and could have created that to be satisfying for us. Instead, he gave us an incredibly diverse set of foods with pleasurable flavors. He gave us landscapes with color and beauty — tall mountains and deep valleys and wide grassy fields that are fun just to look at. He gave us changing seasons for crunchy leaves and snowy hills and green grass and hot summers. He gave us different personalities and a wide range of emotions to experience the world with. God created us to thrive, not just to survive.
As image-bearers of God with a calling from Him to go create, our work should follow this pattern: it should be creative, excellent, expanding goodness in this world. You should have a good handle on how your work accomplishes that, and your work probably has far more potential to do that than you may realize.
A good way to consider how your work promotes human thriving is to ask this question: what would life for others be like without my work — without my job, daily work, calling, etc?
Let’s say I’m a home insurance salesman: if I don’t take the time and care to find the right policy for someone, or don’t sell it at all, let’s say as a wild, hypothetical example that a crazy derecho storm rips through town. If I didn’t do my job, that person just had a tree fall through their house and can’t afford to fix it. Or if they can, they can’t afford to buy food. They are cold, wet, distraught, anxious, frustrated, hurt. But if you did the work to get them the right policy, you just changed their life, you helped them thrive.
Let’s say I stock shelves at a grocery store. I take care with the organization of the product. I’m careful to arrange it in a way that is clear and appealing so everything can be seen. I make sure the prices are all displayed correctly. I work hard and fast to make sure everything gets on the shelf before customers arrive. What happens if I don’t do that work? First off, if no one does that work, people just can’t buy any groceries and can’t eat, so that’s kind of a big deal. But if you don’t do it well, someone arrives with a meal plan for the week, and can’t find half the ingredients. Her 2 year old is getting grouchy in the cart seat, because it’s taking so long to get around the store. The customer has to change all the meal plans on the fly; maybe to easier meals that aren’t as healthy – or to more expensive options if the products on sale are gone. This disruption leads the customer to get home late, and that throws off the schedule of the whole household for that day.
What if you’re a mom, who’s primary role is to care for you children day after day. You get up countless late nights to calm your crying children. You change a pile of diapers so large, it could have its own Zip code. You love your kids and provide for them through thick and thin. You show them love and care and forgiveness and you train them up in righteousness, even when they seem to hate you for it. You have the humility to ask for forgiveness when you sin against them. Do you know at awards shows when an incredibly talented individual gets up to give a speech, almost without fail, who is the first person that they thank? They thank their mom!! Because they understand how much of a difference their mom made in their life. They understand the deep sacrifice, and know they would be a different person without that sacrifice. They know that their mom promoted thriving in their life. Speaking of, my mom is in attendance today, so I’ve got to take the opportunity to say: thanks Mom (and Dad, for that matter)!
When you run into someone who is passionate about promoting thriving in their jobs, doesn’t that just make you feel so good? And that can happen just about anywhere: bakers and Uber drivers and businessmen and teachers and students and coaches and hairdressers and the Chic-Fil-A drive thru — I’m smiling every time I leave that place, which is probably a disturbingly large amount of times.
C. The Sacred-Secular Divide
I want to take a minute to step back and zoom out a little bit to a bigger concept that we’re dealing with here, which is beyond just our work. This concept is known as the so-called “sacred-secular divide.” Many of us have accepted at least a portion of this concept, which states that there are basically two types of activities that we can engage in.
The first type are spiritual or sacred things — things like prayer, going to church, reading your Bible, and so on — and these are the best things you could be doing at any given time because they’re the most spiritual.
On the other side of the divide are secular (non-spiritual) things: things like making meals, working at a job, balancing a household budget, doing the laundry, learning about grammar, and even fun things like going to a party or watching Iowa State win the Fiesta Bowl.
In this way of thinking, the secular things are things we have to do out of necessity, but would be better off not having to do. In this mindset, our regular every-day work is a bad or neutral thing because it keeps us from doing the spiritual things. Another way of saying that is: at our jobs we serve our families and other people, but at church we serve God. At our jobs, we’re on the sidelines, but at church and in ministry, we’re on the front lines, doing “the Lord’s work.” A natural outworking of this philosophy is that the best career a person could pursue would be one in full-time ministry, because then you could be doing spiritual work all day instead of the secular work.
I have to say that this way of thinking is completely false. It’s wrong. It is contrary to the teachings of the Bible, and it’s contrary to the teachings and life of Jesus. And yet it has seeped into many of our lives. It is something that I have wrongly believed, and affected the trajectory of my life for a time.
You may think that a plumber is doing secular work until your toilet stops working. Then you know that that plumber is doing the Lord’s work! Can I get an amen?
Seriously, though, think about it: Jesus didn’t begin His public ministry until about the age of 30. The first 30 or so years of His life were spent as an occupational craftsman – a builder, stepping into the family trade. Really, He could have began his public ministry much earlier than that, but He chose to engage in manual labor for many years.
And this was God himself, who carried the very words of God with complete authority and power. He could have started His adult life by building the biggest church, creating the largest following, doing incredible miracles, baptizing tens or hundreds of thousands, and living what we might think of as a highly spiritual life. After all, wasn’t that what He stepped down on earth to do, was to proclaim the truth of God? But the path He chose was to be faithful in the important, difficult, dignified labor of working with His hands.
This truth — that God values our work in all areas of life — isn’t just made clear in 1 Corinthians or through the Greatest Commandment or through the life of Jesus.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with [all] your might.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
We see throughout the Scriptures that we were created for good works, and that good works are not simply the, rare, special, seemingly spiritual things we do, but are anything good that we do in faith.
IV. The Struggle
A. The Fall
If you’ve been tracking so far, there may be a question that has arisen for you: If work is good and God created us to be workers and I’m doing the work that God has called me to do, why is work so painful — so frustrating, so difficult? Why is it that this beautiful, fulfilling, sweet view of work does not describe my experience on the regular? Let’s go to Genesis 3 to try to answer this.
Genesis 3 describes something known as “the Fall.” Up to this point, God has created the world and put Adam and Even in it and given them a task to do, but he asked them to not do one thing, to not eat the fruit of a particular tree. Seems simple enough, right?
But along comes Satan, and he convinces Eve who then convinces Adam that it’s in their best interest to disobey the God who gave them everything. They thought they had a better idea of how to use the tree than the one who made it. They rejected God’s truth, and with their actions showed they believed themselves to be smarter, wiser, better than God. And the consequences for that were dire. Let’s see them in verse 17:
To Adam he said,
…cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground…
We see that Adam and Eve (and therefore the rest of the human race) fell into sin, resulting in an unravelling of the fabric of the entire world. The Fall affected many areas of life, but it particularly affected the work of mankind. Work would still be good and necessary, but it would now be painful and difficult.
The earth was cursed, meaning that it would now be hard just to get food to eat. Thorns and thistles would come up from the earth — new obstacles and challenges for every task. You pull up one thistle and a new one grows in its place. You solve one problem just in time for another to arrive. You replace the tires on your car and the next week the engine goes out. You shovel the driveway and then the snow plow drives by, dumping a big pile of snow for you. You get a new set of white shoes, and then you step in a wet, sloppy mud puddle. Does this sound a little more familiar to you?
Frustration and failure would now be a normal part of the experience of work. And it wouldn’t just affect the physical part of work — it would also affect the work of our souls and minds. It would now be hard work to maintain a regular prayer life, hard to avoid worry, hard to understand the truths of the Bible, hard to fight off despair and doubt, hard to believe that God loves me in the midst of trials, hard to do the things that I know I should do. We would be, as a song puts it, “prone to wander — prone to leave the God I love.”
This is not good. This is not the way that things were created to be. But it would become the normal, regular experience for people going forward. That is, unless the Fall was able to be reversed somehow.
B. The Hope of Restoration
Apart from God, we see life in this world as a constant struggle, and that’s just how it’s always going to be. Yet, as Christians, we know that God didn’t leave us there. God the Father sent His son Jesus into this world. Jesus came not only to save us from the legal punishment of our sins — death and eternal separation from God — but also to restore this world back to what it was created to be; to restore our work, to restore our bodies, to restore our lives.
For those of us who are in Christ, that is, who repent of our sins, trust in the finished work of Jesus on the cross to cover our sins, and turn from our rebellion against God to serve Him with all of our lives — we have hope that one day all things will be made right. One day, there will be a New Heavens and a New Earth. And we will live on that New Earth, and we will work on that New Earth, and our work will be free of the frustration, failure, and pain brought on by the Fall. It will be free of sickness and death, free of loss and sorrow. What a beautiful hope we have in Jesus.
Romans 8 teaches us this truth:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. … And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” – Rom 8:18-24
This reality — that one day all of creation will be restored — should lead us to persevere in this life now, knowing that one day everything will be made right, and knowing that God even has the power to redeem the pain, the struggle, the frustration to make something good out of it. And when we struggle in work, this should be a constant reminder for us of the negative effects of sin. It should lead us to repentance, knowing that our sin, my sin, has consequences. My sin has negatively affected the lives of others. I have hurt others with my selfishness, my anger, my laziness, my dishonesty, my unfairness.
But it should also constantly remind me of the grace in Jesus, and the hope I have that because of Him, brighter days will come. Keeping this at the center of our minds and actions is something we call “walking in the gospel.” It keeps us humble, knowing that we are lost without Christ. It gives us courage to meet the struggles of our day, knowing there is a reason for it, and that God can redeem even the hard things. And it keeps us hopeful, knowing that things will not always be this way, and that one day all things will be made right.
V. Success in our Work
A. The Parable of the Talents
So, where does that leave us? We now know why we work: because God created us to be workers. We know what work to do: work that is for the good of others done in faith. We know why work is so painful: because of the Fall (but it won’t be one day). But how do we know if we’re doing work correctly? How do we know if we’re doing a good job or not? How do we know if God is well-pleased with our work?
The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 answers this question for us. The term “talents” can be confusing to us, because in this text, it’s not a set of skills, but it’s actually a very large sum of money — close to 1.2 million dollars in today’s money. So, this might be better referred to as “the Parable of the Stacks of CASH MONEY.”
Anyways, the parable goes that a man entrusts three of his workers with talents of money. One gets 5 talents, another 2 talents, and the last one 1 talent. After a long time, the man comes back to check in on his workers. The first worker who started with 5 talents had worked hard, and earned 5 more. The man says “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share in my joy!”
Then the man checks in with the worker with two talents. He worked hard and turned two into four. He says the same thing to that worker: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share in my joy!”
Finally, the man checks in with the worker with one talent. Now, instead of working, this so-called “worker” dug a hole in the ground and hid the money in it. So, he presents the one talent back to the man. And the man is not happy. He calls the worker evil, lazy and says “you should have at least put in in the bank to earn interest.” Instead of commendation, he gets condemnation.
There are two big things we can learn from this:
1. God gives us all different skills, opportunities, and resources.
2. The success or failure of our work is is not measured by our result compared to someone else’s result; it’s measured by how we stewarded what we were given.
No matter what it is that we have been given, no matter what our background is, no matter what our job or calling is, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we have a responsibility to use what we have — to steward our work. Our work might be simple or complex, utilizing our hands or our mind, growing in what we know or passing on what we know. Whatever it is, we are to do it with our all — with everything we’ve got.
Success will look different for all of us, and our situation and calling will change at different times in our lives. Whatever it looks like, don’t compare it to those around you; measure it by what you put in, putting that effort into the good, right work that God has called you to, and measure it by whether it is increasing human flourishing and bringing glory to God.
VI. Conclusion: Hope for Struggling in Your Work
If you feel stuck in life, look to the example of the life of Joseph. After being sold to the Egyptians, he could have grown discouraged, but he was the best worker he could be, and worked his way up to become the manager of a household. Then, when he was unjustly put in prison for over a decade, you would have think he would have lost his sense of calling. But no, he lived out his faith right where he was at, even in jail, so much so that he ended up basically managing the prison. And eventually, because he was faithful in the small things, his time came for God to exalt him all the way to the second in command of the entire nation, and the project that he undertook saved everyone in the entire region from starvation when a famine came upon them.
So go, steward your work, all of it, in whatever calling you find yourself, all for the glory of God and the good of others knowing that one day you may hear God himself speak the words: well done, “good and faithful servant.”