The Gospel at Work

Let me give you a short quiz. I want to ask you a few simple questions about your life in the workplace. Why do you work? Perhaps your first (and maybe only) thought is to make money or make a living. Now, I don’t want to imply that earning a living is irrelevant to the question of work, but shouldn’t there be more to work than simply making money? Next, What’s your view of work? Maybe you think of it as an unpleasant necessity or a distraction from what is really important in life. Yet, is work by necessity unpleasant? Shouldn’t something to which we devote 40 or 50 (or more) hours per week be more than a distraction? Finally, Where does work fit into your life? Perhaps this is the hardest question, and the result of your reflection is simply, “I’m not sure.” Many of us live divided lives. So, there is the time we spend at work and the time we spend serving God. Sadly, we have not figured out a way to build a meaningful connection between the two.

For many of us, connecting our life in the workplace to the kingdom of God is not something we have done very well. In fact, our Dilbert-like life in the modern workplace leaves us wondering if there is any connection at all. What we need is Gospel—good news about our work. For that, there is no better place to turn than to the early chapters of the book of Genesis.

The larger context for thinking about our own work is God’s work. The Genesis story begins, not with man as worker, but with God as Worker. In Genesis chapters one and two, we encounter God as Creator. Importantly, we should remember that God works because He wants to, not because He has to. Creation is not in any way a necessary work. Nothing outside God compels or forces Him to create. His work of creation is the overflow of intra-Trinitarian love. Think of that! The cosmos and everything in it is simply the fruit of the eternal fellowship of love and delight that we call the Trinity.

Notice something else about God the Worker. He delights in His work (1:31). He looks at the majesty of the mountains and the grandeur of the starry heavens and says, “Wonderful.” He considers the muscular beauty of horses and the cooing of contented babies and says, “Fantastic.” He glimpses the stunning variety of the insect world and the multi-colored splendor of the flowers and is provoked to say, “Magnificent.” Then, having delighted in the work of His hands, God rests (2:2-3).

But the crowning achievement of God’s creative work is making humankind in His image. Pause for a moment and take that in. God the Worker makes us in His image. What does that mean? We have a tendency to think of ourselves as homo sapien, knowing or thinking man, and view rationality as our most defining characteristic. But what would it mean, in light of this passage, to think of ourselves as homo faber, making man? Genesis reminds us that one of the fundamental ways we image God in the midst of creation is to work. It is part of our calling as men and women made in the divine likeness.

The Church has often failed in regard to teaching this calling from the Scriptures. Pastors and missionaries have a calling, we are told. And that’s true. But when will we begin to honor homemakers and software designers, engineers and farmers, teachers and businessmen who all have a call to image the God who works in a world that is so confused about life in the workplace?

Notice in Genesis 2:15 that Adam and Eve are called to be priests over creation. They were to receive the world as a gift from God, work in it and on it, and offer the world back to God as an offering in praise—a world touched by their gifts and transformed by their labor. And in doing so, they would imitate God. We, too, as priests are to receive the world as a gift, touch it with our labor, and offer it back to God in thanks and praise. And in doing so, we imitate God; we look like our Maker. Work is part of what it means to bear the very image of the Creator.

What’s more, that image-bearing is a call to work in such a way that when we are done working we stand back, delight in work well done, and say, “Ah, very good.” Some of you may recall the story of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner, who said, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” How about you? When you work, do you feel the pleasure of God? Perhaps not all the time; maybe not even most of the time. We still live in a fallen world, after all. But have you at least had those occasional moments where you lean back at your desk and think, “Very good”? That’s the calling and gift from God we have had as a race since the beginning: to work and experience the pleasure of God in our work.

What does this mean for the life of the local church? Dorothy Sayers’s wonderful essay, “Why Work?” is helpful here. She uses a carpenter as an example. The church says to the carpenter, “Be moral. Attend religious meetings. Don’t get drunk on weekends. Run church bazaars.” Sayers says the first thing we should be telling the carpenter is this, “Make good tables!” What good are these things, she asks, if in the center of his life he is insulting God with bad carpentry? Work must be good before it can be called God’s work.

This is the part of the story I don’t need to tell you about. We do not live in Eden anymore but in a world profoundly affected by the Fall. We look at our work and say, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be.” You experience it week after week, year after year, whatever you do. The Genesis account summarizes the situation pretty well (3:17-19). After the Fall, the work that should be an expression of our true humanity becomes, in so many ways, an alienating, dehumanizing task. One of the primary arenas where we experience the world’s brokenness is in the workplace. And why not? We probably spend 60 percent of our waking hours there—far more time than we spend with our family and significantly more time than we spend at church. The thorns and thistles of the Fall are painful in the workplace. Twenty years of faithful service, and you are downsized. There is the crushing workload or the back-stabbing co-worker who sabotages your project. Maybe you have a boss who drops the ball regularly but always finds someone else to blame—generally you. You work tirelessly for a client only to have her jump to another firm. Feel free to add your own dozen examples.

It is this seeming futility of work that leads cartoonist Scott Adams to create “Dilbert,” so that each day we can open the paper and laugh at the modern workplace. But it’s a laughter tinged with cynicism and sadness because Dilbert’s workplace is—painfully—too much like our own. The bottom line is that we wrestle with the thorns and thistles of the Fall at the office because work has become something other than what God intended it to be.

But the good news is that the sweat and struggle, the thorns and thistles, are not the last word on work. The Genesis account reminds us (3:15) that the cosmic rebellion will be defeated and the effects of that rebellion will one day be overcome. And so we pray, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We look to the rule of Jesus. But while we wait for that rule to come in all its fullness, we hear the Good News of Jesus, “Repent and believe the good news, the kingdom has come near.” That rule has begun now through Jesus’ death and resurrection and will continue to advance until nothing remains untouched by the reign of grace. What we often forget is that the kingdom of Christ’s transforming grace has arrived, not only in our hearts, but our workplaces as well.

So, in a Thank God It’s Friday culture, there is a Thank God It’s Monday people who have rediscovered joy at work and have found meaning again in their labor. For us, work is not a distraction from mission but part of the mission. We have been freed to know God’s pleasure again through our gifts and calling in the marketplace.

A few years ago I listened to the tape of a lecture by Dennis Bakke who was, for a number of years, the CEO of AES Corporation, a large multi-national energy company with 40,000 employees and a market capitalization of 40 billion dollars. It was an amazing lecture. Here was a man who could have had success the easy way: simply assume that the business of business is business and move on from there. But Bakke looked out on the day-to-day work of 40,000 men and women serving this huge corporation and said, “What does it mean to take work at AES back to the garden?” And then he began to unfold the implications of Genesis 1-3 for the workplace, describing the many ways he sought to transform work in light of a biblical worldview.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, sure, with such vast corporate canvas to draw on, I hope he’d color outside the lines a bit . . . but what about me?” I have two entrepreneurs in my congregation who together have started two high-tech companies in the past few years. Sure, their companies are not huge, and they still struggle to raise the investment capital that funds the research and creation of new products. But I am struck by their vision for these companies and future companies they hope to launch. “We’re nucleators of kingdom communities,” they tell me, “where broken people are loved and a workplace is created where they can excel and thrive and be loved intensely.” What are the odds that men and women who work at these companies will hear the Gospel, see the Gospel, and experience the Gospel? And not just apart from their work but in their work?

I’ve got some good news for you today. The Gospel says you are freed from the burden of always having to figure out how you will serve God after work. You are unleashed to discover the joy of serving God in your work and by that bear witness to the reality of the reign of grace that leaves nothing it touches the same.

Lewis Smedes, in his memoir, My God and I, recalls his first day in his first class as a young student at Calvin College. The class was English Composition; the teacher was Jacob Vandenbosch. Smedes remembers being introduced that day “to a God the likes of whom I had never heard about.” This God,

liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers. Once you believe this, where can you stop? If the Maker of the universe admired words well put together, think of how he must love sound thought well put together, and if he loved sound thinking, how he must love a Bach concerto and if he loved a Bach concerto think of how he prized any human effort to bring a foretaste, be it ever so small, of his kingdom of justice and peace . . .In short, I met the Maker of the Universe who loved the world he made and was dedicated to its redemption. I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting, but in English Composition 101.

That’s faith at work. So what will you do, what will your church do, to pursue together the calling we have beyond the four walls of the church? Workplace discipleship is not an option. Together we must take seriously our responsibility to be a community of marketplace missionaries who in their labor give glimpses of the dawning kingdom of justice and peace to a work world that groans and waits, like all creation, for the day when it too will enter into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

The Rev. Robert Lynn is associate pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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