Write a thematic integration of faith and learning concept paper using a well-rounded approach to the concepts found in the course texts and current scholarly literature. This paper must be submitted in compliance with the instructions found in the Thematic Integration of Faith and Learning Paper Grading Rubric. You must fully leverage the discussion opportunity in Discussion Board Forum 3 in order to research and outline your approach for this assignment.
The paper must contain the following components:

A 3–5-page overview that defines Strategic Quality Management as an academic field of study (significance of the course to business)
A 3–5-page discussion of the top 5–8 questions you believe are critical in order to demonstrate that a student who completes this course can synthesize the key concepts of continuous improvement and propose strategies for improving an organization using recognized quality management tools and best practices
A 3–5-page discussion that integrates the concepts from the Keller (2012) text into a cohesive understanding of why quality management and productivity are significant for advancing God’s purposes for business on earth
A minimum of 5 references in addition to the course texts

For this course, the concept of stewardship is especially important. As Van Duzer (2010) posited, a steward is really a trustee of God’s creation. Duby (2009) adds the following:
Stevens (2006) observes that Adam and Eve were given the role of stewards who had “the wonderful role of representing the absent monarch’s interests” (p. 6). As stewards, followers of God act as trustees that are to develop and to serve the “unfolding kingdom” of creation (Roels, 1990, p. 27). Further, Roels contends that if one believes that his or her business plays an important role in God’s kingdom, then an important concern is to best determine how to be God’s steward in such business endeavors.
Understanding this important role is critical to understanding God’s intentions for business. Thus, in this assignment, the student will link the concept of biblical stewardship to quality management and process improvement, noting how such concepts are tangible manifestations of good stewardship.Every Good Endeavor
ALSO BY TIMOTHY KELLER
THE REASON FOR GOD: Belief
in an Age of Skepticism
THE PRODIGAL GOD: Recovering
the Heart
of the Christian Faith
COUNTERFEIT GODS: The
Empty Promises of Money, Sex,
and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters
GENEROUS JUSTICE: How
KING’S CROSS: The
God’s Grace Makes Us Just
Story of the World in the Life of Jesus
THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE: Facing
the Complexities
of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
Every Good
Endeavor
Connecting Your Work
to God’s Work
TIMOTHY KELLER
with Katherine Leary Alsdorf
DUTTON
DUTTON
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Copyright © 2012 by Redeemer City to City, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and Timothy Keller
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of
copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of the
individuals involved.
All Bible references are from the New International Version (NIV), except where noted.
Figure on page 250 copyright © Redeemer Presbyterian Church
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websites or their content.
ALWAYS LEARNING
PEARSON
To the staff and volunteer leaders of Redeemer’s Center for
Faith & Work, who have helped our congregation see that
the gospel really does change everything.
CONTENTS
Foreword by Katherine Leary Alsdorf
Introduction
P ART ONE
God’s Plan for Work
ONE
The Design of Work
TWO
The Dignity of Work
THREE
Work as Cultivation
FOUR
Work as Service
P ART TWO
Our Problems with Work
FIVE
Work Becomes Fruitless
SIX
Work Becomes Pointless
SEVEN
Work Becomes Selfish
EIGHT
Work Reveals Our Idols
P ART THREE
The Gospel and Work
NINE
A New Story for Work
TEN
A New Conception of Work
ELEVEN
A New Compass for Work
TWELVE
New Power for Work
Epilogue: Leading People to Integrate Faith and Work
Notes
Acknowledgments
During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which
was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly
asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this
has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD. . . .
This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD”
through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and
strengthen all men in every good endeavor.
—John Coltrane, excerpt, liner notes to A Love Supreme
FOREWORD
n 1989 a colleague prodded me to come to her church—a start-up in Manhattan called Redeemer
Presbyterian Church. I had been thoroughly inoculated against church years before, having determined
that the religion of my family’s church was more form than substance and that any leanings I might have
had in that direction were easily overcome by enlightened thinking. But Redeemer caught my attention
in a few ways: The pastor was intelligent and talked like a normal person, he seemed to take the Bible
seriously, and he tried to apply it to parts of life that were important to me—like my work.
A few years later I decided it was time to commit to faith and “give my life” to the truth and promises
of the Bible. I was worried, I admit, that this commitment might put an end to my career ambitions and
material comforts because, in fact, two of my brothers who had become Christians had been “called” to
be missionaries overseas. One lived in rural Africa without running water or electricity. If I was going to
really put God first I had to be open to him calling me to serve him anywhere. And he did. A few weeks
after my decision, I was stunned by the sudden illness of my boss, the CEO—and his request that I take
over leadership of the company. Given the circumstances, I took it as an indication from God that he
wanted me to play my part not in the third world but in the world of business.
For the next decade, I served in executive leadership in several entrepreneurial tech companies in
New York City, Europe, and Silicon Valley. In each job and each day I wrestled with what it means to be
“called to serve God” as a leader in business. Redeemer and its senior pastor, Tim Keller, had given me
good grounding. I’d learned that I was supposed to be changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ and therefore
be “used by God” in my relationships with others, and maybe even be distinctive in the way I led
companies. Nice concepts, but what did they look like in practice?
The models were few and often seemed remnants of an age when most of America went to church.
One CEO would share that he kept a Bible on his desk and that occasionally someone in the company
would ask about it. Another prayed and the company thrived. Many viewed their corporate jobs primarily
as a means to make lots of money to give away to charities and organizations they cared about. When I
asked pastors and businesspeople how their faith related to their work, they often answered that a
Christian’s primary, if not sole, mission in the workplace was to evangelize those with whom they
worked. But most businesspeople would quickly add that evangelism was not one of their gifts. And none
of these approaches addressed the issue of how Christians’ faith should affect the way they worked.
The start-up tech world, especially in the 1990s, was rather full of itself. Entrepreneurs and engineers
were viewed as gods in our culture, and technology was the answer to all the world’s problems. My
employees had more evangelical fervor about the vision (and technologies) of the company than the
people in any church I’d ever seen. And the hope of an IPO was far more tangible and motivational than
the ethereal imaginings of heaven as portrayed by the Christian world. Much of the time I worked with
really good people—mature, admirable people of character who worked hard to contribute significantly
to the world and who didn’t seem to need church or the Jesus of the Bible to do it. I learned great lessons
about joy at work, patience and hope, teamwork and truth telling, from people who didn’t share my faith.
I
My staff who went away for a meditation weekend seemed to come back more refreshed than those who
worshipped together on Sunday at a Christian evangelical church. I started to see my work more as a
crucible where God was pounding and grinding and refining me, rather than as a place where I was
actively and effectively serving him.
I believed in the truth of the gospel—that God created all things and created man in his image and then
sent his Son to redeem all things that had been broken. And I believed God had a purpose for me as a
worker and leader, along with many other people who could make a positive difference in the world. But
in the competitive, win-at-all-costs workplace where I had to manage and lead, I had no idea how to live
out God’s plan.
Outside of Redeemer, the churches I found didn’t seem to offer much guidance on how I should do
this. Most pastors were more concerned about helping us serve inside the church than about discipling
and equipping us to serve in the world. In the boom times of Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, many
congregations seemed oblivious to any brokenness in the world or in themselves. Many who cared deeply
about the poor didn’t think about how the systems, structures, and cultures of our industries might actually
be contributing to the fractures in our culture. Living out my faith in my work seemed relegated to small
symbolic gestures, to self-righteous abstinence from certain behaviors, and to political alignments on the
top cultural and legal issues of the day.
The last company I led provided a remarkable leadership experience. I took over from the founder,
who had wooed most of the staff and early customers to a wonderful vision of product innovation and IPO
riches. In early 2000 we were being fought over by investment banks that courted us with potential IPO
valuations of 200 to 350 million dollars. We didn’t yet have products, but several were in beta mode with
early adopters. My job was to win the trust of the staff, investors, and customers, while rolling out
products that delivered on our promises and raising new money to get us to break even. There was
pressure every day to make progress in all these areas. In the process I thought desperately about how the
gospel should enter into all this. Here are some of the observations I made at the time:
• The gospel assures me that God cares about everything I do and will listen to my prayers. He may
not answer them the way I want, but if he doesn’t it is because he knows things I do not. My degree
of success or failure is part of his good plan for me. God is my source of strength and perseverance.
• The gospel reminds us that God cares about the products we make, the companies we work for, and
the customers we serve. He not only loves us, but also loves the world and wants us to serve it
well. My work is a critical way in which God is caring for human beings and renewing his world.
God gives us our vision and our hope.
• The gospel is good news. In the words of pastor and counselor Jack Miller, “Cheer up: You’re a
worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.”1 In
other words, I will continually err and sin, and yet God will prevail in my life through his goodness
and grace.
• The gospel gives meaning to our work as leaders. We’re supposed to treat all people and their work
with dignity. We’re to create an environment in which people can flourish and use their God-given
gifts to contribute to society. We’re to embody grace, truth, hope, and love in the organizations we
create.
• We’re to express our relationship with God and his grace to us in the way we speak, work, and
lead, not as perfect exemplars but as pointers to Christ.
After eighteen months of relentless work, the company failed. We were part of the Internet bubble, and
when it burst, it took us with it. While we got our product to market on schedule, we couldn’t raise the
additional money we needed after venture capital dried up. We retained bankers to shop for a buyer that
would enable us to at least keep the product going, keep some of the staff working, and provide some
return to our investors. However, the fears in the market scared off the buyer we had been courting just
days before signing the deal. I had to lay off a hundred people the next day and then sell off our
intellectual property.
How could all this good, hard work go so wrong? My questions and protests to God were on a
personal, company, and industry level. Why didn’t God enable our success when he so clearly had
“called” me to this job? I had tried to do right by our employees, and now they were out of work in a
collapsed market. I wondered if I had fed into this Internet “bubble and bust” with our company’s own
vision of skyrocketing revenues and valuations. What were my responsibilities to all our stakeholders,
including the culture at large? The only Christian businesspeople I’d heard speak were those who gave
God credit for their big successes; how was I to handle a failure? I wanted a gospel that had good news
even for this.
An amazing thing happened when I announced that the next day would be our last day, although it took
me some time to fully appreciate the full beauty and gift of it. The staff, entirely on their own, made a plan
to come in the following day—for no pay—to celebrate one another and the work they had done. Though
the celebration was bittersweet, they brought in musical instruments to play for one another or
demonstrated the tai chi they taught in the evenings, and they laughed about fun times together. I was
amazed. They were honoring a culture, an organization, in which they’d found some joy in their work and
in their relationships with one another—despite the end result. Eventually I came to see that day as a
glimpse of God at work, doing what God does: healing and renewing and redeeming.
I suppose it could be called poetic justice that the response to all my disillusionment about the lack of
support from churches was that six months later, Redeemer Presbyterian Church invited me to move back
to New York to help them start a ministry for people in the marketplace. After a decade of wrestling with
God, pondering the transformational power of the gospel, and complaining about the lack of guidance and
support from the church regarding work, I was being given a chance to help others better live out the hope
and truth of the gospel in their vocational callings.
This book captures some foundational ways of thinking about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; who we are
in relation to that Trinity; and how all this affects the work we were created to do. How we work—in the
context of our particular culture, time in history, vocation, and organization—is something we all need to
be thinking through in our own communities. But the answers will all hang on this essential theology: the
knowledge of who God is, his relation to man, his plan for the world, and how the good news (or gospel)
of Christ turns our lives and the way we work upside down.
I’m grateful to Tim Keller for the way he’s applied the gospel to our work lives over the course of his
preaching and leading in the last twenty-five years. And I’m grateful that he’s taken the time to put these
foundations into print in this book, so that all of us can dig more deeply into how God is calling us to live
faithfully as we work.
Katherine Leary Alsdorf
Executive Director, Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work
INTRODUCTION
The Importance of Recovering Vocation
Robert Bellah’s landmark book, Habits of the Heart, helped many people name the thing that was (and
still is) eating away at the cohesiveness of our culture—“expressive individualism.” Elsewhere, Bellah
argued that Americans had created a culture that elevated individual choice and expression to such a level
that there was no longer any shared life, no commanding truths or values that tied us together. As Bellah
wrote, “. . . we are moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, [but]
our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. . . . The
sacredness of the individual is not balanced by any sense of the whole or concern for the common good.”2
But near the end of Habits, the author proposes one measure that would go a long way toward reweaving
the unraveling culture:
To make a real difference . . . [there would have to be] a reappropriation of the idea of vocation
or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not
merely as a means to one’s own advancement.3
That is a remarkable statement. If Bellah is right, one of the hopes for our unraveling society is the
recovery of the idea that all human work is not merely a job but a calling. The Latin word vocare—to call
—is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was
not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them
rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service
to something beyond merely our own interests. As we shall see, thinking of work mainly as a means of
self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and—as Bellah and many others have pointed
out—undermines society itself.
But if we are to “reappropriate” an older idea, we must look at that idea’s origin. In this case, the
source of the idea of work as vocation is the Christian Scriptures. And so, taking our cue from Bellah’s
challenge, in this book we will do what we can to help illuminate the transformative and revolutionary
connection between Christian faith and the workplace. We’ll be referring to this connection—and all the
ideas and practices surrounding it—as the “integration of faith and work.”
The Many “Streams” of Faith and Work
We are not alone in this attempt. Perhaps not since the Protestant Reformation has there been so much
attention paid to the relationship of Christian faith to work as there is today. The number of books,
scholarly projects, academic programs, and online discussions on this subject has grown exponentially in
the past two decades. Nevertheless, Christians who are seeking practical guidance for their work are
often poorly served by this growing movement. Some, like Katherine Alsdorf (see the Foreword), have
been frustrated by the shallowness of the advice and examples. Others are bewildered by the diversity—
some would say cacophony—of voices giving counsel on how to be a Christian at work.
We can think of the current “faith and work movement” as a river being fed by a number of streams
from very different headwaters. Perhaps most of the energy and most of the groups seeking to help people
integrate faith and work are those with an evangelical understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith,
but there have been very significant contributions from other traditions and wings of the faith. The
ecumenical movement has contributed an emphasis on Christians using their work to further social justice
in the world. That helped us understand that faithful work demands the application of distinctly Christian
ethics.4 The small group movement of the twentieth century emphasized the need for believers to give one
another nurture and support for the struggles and hardships of work. This showed us that faithful work
requires inner spiritual renewal and heart transformation.5 The revivalist impulse within evangelicalism
has seen the workplace especially as a place to be a witness for Jesus Christ.6 Faithful work indeed
means some kind of public identification with Jesus, in such a way that a coworker might want to know
more about him.
Many have also sought older sources for the integration of faith and work. The sixteenth-century
Protestant Reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, argued that all work, even so-called
secular work, was as much a calling from God as the ministry of the monk or priest.7 The headwaters of
Lutheran theology put special stress on the dignity of all work, observing that God cared for, fed, clothed,
sheltered, and supported the human race through our human labor. When we work, we are, as those in the
Lutheran tradition often put it, the “fingers of God,” the agents of his providential love for others. This
understanding elevates the purpose of work from making a living to loving our neighbor and at the same
time releases us from the crushing burden of working primarily to prove ourselves. Those in the Calvinist,
or “Reformed,” tradition, such as Abraham Kuyper, spoke of another aspect to the idea of work as God’s
calling. Work not only cares for creation, but also directs and structures it. In this Reformed view, the
purpose of work is to create a culture that honors God and enables people to thrive. Yes, we must love
our neighbor, but Christianity gives us very specific teachings about human nature and what makes human
beings flourish. We must ensure that our work is done in line with these understandings. Faithful work,
then, is to operate out of a Christian “worldview.”8
All of these different traditions give somewhat different answers to the question of how we should go
about the task of recapturing vocation. The streams are often confusing to Christians, for they are not
perfectly complementary to one another. Lutheran theology tends to resist the Reformed idea of
“worldview” and argues that Christians should not do their work in a very different way from nonChristians. Much of the mainline church does not feel the same urgency that evangelicals feel to
evangelize, because it does not see classical Christianity as the only way to salvation. Many find the
emphasis of worldview-oriented writers and organizations to be too cognitive, with too little emphasis on
inner heart change. And even those people cannot agree on what inner transformation and spiritual growth
actually look like. So if you are a Christian who is trying to be faithful in your work, you might find
yourself trying to weigh sentiments as varied as these:
• The way to serve God at work is to further social justice in the world.
• The way to serve God at work is to be personally honest and evangelize your colleagues.
• The way to serve God at work is just to do skillful, excellent work.
• The way to serve God at work is to create beauty.
• The way to serve God at work is to work from a Christian motivation to glorify God, seeking to
engage and influence culture to that end.
• The way to serve God at work is to work with a grateful, joyful, gospel-changed heart through all the
ups and downs.
• The way to serve God at work is to do whatever gives you the greatest joy and passion.
• The way to serve God at work is to make as much money as you can, so that you can be as generous
as you can.
To what extent are these sentiments complementary or actually opposed to one another? That is a
difficult question, for there is at least a measure of biblical warrant for every one of them. And the
difficulty lies not merely in the plethora of theological commitments and cultural factors involved, but
also in how they operate in different ways depending on the field or type of work. Christian ethics,
motives, identity, witness, and worldview shape our work in very different ways depending on the form
of the work.
For example, suppose a Christian visual artist regularly shows concern for justice, conducts her
career with honesty in all transactions, has support from others to help her navigate the ups and downs of
life, lets others in her field know of her Christian faith, and understands her art to be an act of service to
God and her neighbors rather than as a way to get self-worth and status. Is that all it means to integrate her
faith with her work? In addition to these, does the Christian teaching about the nature of reality bear on
what she depicts and how she depicts it through her art? Will it influence what stories she tells with her
art? Will her art be influenced by her beliefs about sin and redemption and hope for the future? It seems
that it must be. And so we discover that faithful work requires the will, the emotions, the soul, and the
mind—as we think out and live out the implications of our beliefs on the canvas of our daily work.
On the other hand, what if you are a Christian pianist, or a shoemaker? How does a Christian
worldview affect the type of shoe you make, or the way you play the Moonlight Sonata? The answer is
not so clear.
Who will deliver us from all this complexity? Most people who have begun to read books or become
involved in groups integrating faith and work have either (a) only partaken of one of the theological
streams or (b) already been confused by reading or hearing contradictory teaching from different streams.
There is a tendency for churches and organizations emphasizing faith and work to be somewhat
unbalanced, emphasizing one or two of these story lines to the exclusion of the others. Yet simply
combining all the emphases—and hoping they add up to something coherent—is not the solution.
We do not expect to resolve all these differences in this book. But we do hope to make things clearer.
And we can begin by making two observations about the list of propositions above. First, if you revise
each of the propositions by adding the word “main”—as in “the main way to serve God at work is . . .”—
then the views do in fact contradict. You will have to choose one or two and discard the rest. In fact, most
people who hold forth on issues of faith and work do exactly this, either tacitly or explicitly. But if you
keep the propositions the way they are, claiming that each is a way to serve God through work, then the
different statements are ultimately complementary. Second, as we have already noted, these factors can
assume very different forms and levels of importance depending on your particular vocation, culture, and
historical moment. When we keep these two principles in mind, we can move forward looking at the
various streams, statements, and truths as a kind of tool kit to be used to build a model for the integration
of faith and work in your field, time, and place.
Just as important as making these ideas clearer, we aim to make them more vivid, real, and practical.
Our goal is to feed your imagination and stir your action with the richness of what the Christian faith says
(directly and indirectly) about this inexhaustible subject. The Bible teems with wisdom, resources, and
hope for anyone who is learning to work, looking for work, trying to work, or going to work. And when
we say that the Christian Scriptures “give us hope” for work, we at once acknowledge both how deeply
frustrating and difficult work can be and how profound the spiritual hope must be if we are going to face
the challenge of pursuing vocation in this world. I know of no more provocative witness to this hope than
the overlooked little story by J.R.R. Tolkien “Leaf by Niggle.”
There Really Is a Tree
When J.R.R. Tolkien had been working on writing The Lord of the Rings for some time, he came to an
impasse.9 He had a vision of a tale of a sort that the world had never seen. As a leading scholar in Old
English and other ancient Northern European languages, he knew that most ancient British myths about the
inhabitants of “Faerie”—elves, dwarves, giants, and sorcerers—had been lost (unlike the myths of the
Greeks and Romans or even of the Scandinavians). He had always dreamed of re-creating and reimagining what an ancient English mythology would look like. The Lord of the Rings was rooted in this
lost world. The project required creating at least the rudiments of several imaginary languages and
cultures as well as thousands of years of various national histories—all in order to give the narrative the
necessary depth and realism that Tolkien believed was crucial for the tale to be compelling.
As he worked on the manuscript, he came to the place where the narrative had divided into a number
of subplots. Major characters were traveling to various parts of his imaginary world, facing different
perils, and experiencing several complicated chains of events. It was an enormous challenge to unfold all
these subnarratives clearly and then give each a satisfactory resolution. Not only that, but World War II
had begun, and though the fifty-year-old Tolkien was not called into the military, the shadow of war fell
heavily on him. He had experienced firsthand the horror of World War I and had never forgotten it. Britain
was now in a precarious position, with invasion imminent. Who knew if he’d survive the war even as a
civilian?
He began to despair of ever completing the work of his life. It was not just a labor of a few years at
that point. When he began The Lord of the Rings, he had already been working on the languages, histories,
and stories behind the story for decades. The thought of not finishing it was “a dreadful and numbing
thought.”10 There was in those days a tree in the road near Tolkien’s house, and one day he arose to find
that it had been lopped and mutilated by a neighbor. He began to think of his mythology as his “internal
Tree” that might suffer the same fate. He had run out of “mental energy and invention.”11 One morning he
woke up with a short story in his mind and wrote it down. When The Dublin Review called for a piece, he
sent it in with the title “Leaf by Niggle.” It was about a painter.
In the first lines of the story we are told two things about this painter. First, his name was Niggle. The
Oxford English Dictionary, to which Tolkien was a contributor, defines “niggle” as “to work . . . in a
fiddling or ineffective way . . . to spend time unnecessarily on petty details.”12 Niggle was of course
Tolkien himself, who knew very well this was one of his own flaws. He was a perfectionist, always
unhappy with what he had produced, often distracted from more important issues by fussing over less
important details, prone to worry and procrastination. Niggle was the same.
We are also told that Niggle “had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole
idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it.” Niggle continually put the journey off, but he
knew it was inevitable. Tom Shippey, who also taught Old English literature at Oxford, explains that in
Anglo-Saxon literature the “necessary long journey” was death.13
Niggle had one picture in particular that he was trying to paint. He had gotten in his mind the picture
of a leaf, and then that of a whole tree. And then in his imagination, behind the tree “a country began to
open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with
snow.” Niggle lost interest in all his other pictures, and in order to accommodate his vision, he laid out a
canvas so large he needed a ladder. Niggle knew he had to die, but he told himself, “At any rate, I shall
get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey.”
So he worked on his canvas, “putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there,” but he never got
much done. There were two reasons for this. First, it was because he was the “sort of painter who can
paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, . . .” trying to get the shading
and the sheen and the dewdrops on it just right. So no matter how hard he worked, very little actually
showed up on the canvas itself. The second reason was his “kind heart.” Niggle was constantly distracted
by doing things his neighbors asked him to do for them. In particular, his neighbor Parish, who did not
appreciate Niggle’s painting at all, asked him to do many things for him.
One night when Niggle senses, rightly, that his time is almost up, Parish insists that he go out into the
wet and cold to fetch a doctor for his sick wife. As a result he comes down with a chill and fever, and
while working desperately on his unfinished picture, the Driver comes to take Niggle on the journey he
has put off. When he realizes he must go, he bursts into tears. “‘Oh, dear!’ said poor Niggle, beginning to
weep, ‘And it’s not even finished!’” Sometime after his death the people who acquired his house noticed
that on his crumbling canvas his only “one beautiful leaf” had remained intact. It was put in the Town
Museum, “and for a long while ‘Leaf: by Niggle’ hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes.”
But the story does not end there. After death Niggle is put on a train toward the mountains of the
heavenly afterlife. At one point on his trip he hears two Voices. One seems to be Justice, the severe voice,
which says that Niggle wasted so much time and accomplished so little in life. But the other, gentler voice
(“though it was not soft”), which seems to be Mercy, counters that Niggle has chosen to sacrifice for
others, knowing what he was doing. As a reward, when Niggle gets to the outskirts of the heavenly
country, something catches his eye. He runs to it—and there it is: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree,
finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or
guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and
opened them wide. ‘It is a gift!’ he said.”14
The world before death—his old country—had forgotten Niggle almost completely, and there his
work had ended unfinished and helpful to only a very few. But in his new country, the permanently real
world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him.
No, it was indeed part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.15
I’ve recounted this story many times to people of various professions—particularly artists and other
creatives—and regardless of their beliefs about God and the afterlife, they are often deeply moved.
Tolkien had a very Christian understanding of art and, indeed, of all work.16 He believed that God gives
us talents and gifts so we can do for one another what he wants to do for us and through us. As a writer,
for example, he could fill people’s lives with meaning through the telling of stories that convey the nature
of reality.17 Niggle was assured that the tree he had “felt and guessed” was “a true part of creation”18 and
that even the small bit of it he had unveiled to people on earth had been a vision of the True. Tolkien was
very comforted by his own story. It helped “exorcise some of Tolkien’s fear, and to get him to work
again,” though it was also the friendship and loving prodding of C.S. Lewis that helped get him back to
the writing.19
Artists and entrepreneurs can identify very readily with Niggle. They work from visions, often very
big ones, of a world they can uniquely imagine. Few realize even a significant percentage of their vision,
and even fewer claim to have come close. Those of us who tend to be overly perfectionistic and
methodical, like Tolkien himself, can also identify strongly with the character of Niggle.
But really—everyone is Niggle. Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds him- or
herself largely incapable of producing them. Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten, and
everyone wants to make a difference in life. But that is beyond the control of any of us. If this life is all
there is, then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun and no one will even be around to
remember anything that has ever happened. Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any
difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught.
Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this
one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in
response to God’s calling, can matter forever. That is what the Christian faith promises. “In the Lord, your
labor is not in vain,” writes Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 58. He was
speaking of Christian ministry, but Tolkien’s story shows how this can ultimately be true of all work.
Tolkien had readied himself, through Christian truth, for very modest accomplishment in the eyes of this
world. (The irony is that he produced something so many people consider a work of genius that it is one
of the bestselling books in the history of the world.)
What about you? Let’s say that you go into city planning as a young person. Why? You are excited
about cities, and you have a vision about how a real city ought to be. You are likely to be discouraged
because throughout your life you probably will not get more than a leaf or a branch done. But there really
is a New Jerusalem, a heavenly city, which will come down to earth like a bride dressed for her husband
(Revelation 21–22).
Or let’s say you are a lawyer, and you go into law because you have a vision for justice and a vision
for a flourishing society ruled by equity and peace. In ten years you will be deeply disillusioned because
you will find that as much as you are trying to work on important things, so much of what you do is
minutiae. Once or twice in your life you may feel like you have finally “gotten a leaf out.”
Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your
work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—
it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is
showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing
that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek—the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy,
and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get
only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by
success or devastated by setbacks.
I just said, “If you know all this.” In order to work in this way—to get the consolation and freedom
that Tolkien received from his Christian faith for his work—you need to know the Bible’s answers to
three questions: Why do you want to work? (That is, why do we need to work in order to lead a fulfilled
life?) Why is it so hard to work? (That is, why is it so often fruitless, pointless, and difficult?) How can
we overcome the difficulties and find satisfaction in our work through the gospel? The rest of this book
will seek to answer those three questions in its three sections, respectively.
P ART ONE
God’s Plan for Work
ONE
The Design of Work
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. . . . The Lord God took the man and put
him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
Genesis 2:1–3, 15 (ESV)
In the Beginning, There Was Work
The Bible begins talking about work as soon as it begins talking about anything—that is how important
and basic it is. The author of the book of Genesis describes God’s creation of the world as work.20 In fact,
he depicts the magnificent project of cosmos invention within a regular workweek of seven days.21 And
then he shows us human beings working in paradise. This view of work—connected with divine, orderly
creation and human purpose—is distinct among the great faiths and belief systems of the world.
The creation narrative in the book of Genesis is unique among ancient accounts of origins. Many
cultures had stories that depicted the beginning of the world and human history as the result of a struggle
between warring cosmic forces. In the Babylonian creation story the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk
overcomes the goddess Tiamat and forges the world out of her remains. In this and similar accounts, the
visible universe was an uneasy balance of powers in tension with one another.22 In the Bible, however,
creation is not the result of a conflict, for God has no rivals. Indeed, all the powers and beings of heaven
and earth are created by him and dependent on him.23 Creation, then, is not the aftermath of a battle but the
plan of a craftsman. God made the world not as a warrior digs a trench but as an artist makes a
masterpiece.
The Greeks’ account of creation includes the idea of successive “ages of mankind” beginning with a
golden age. During this age human beings and gods lived on the earth together in harmony. This sounds at
first vaguely like the story of the garden of Eden, but one dissimilarity is very telling. The poet Hesiod
tells us that neither humans nor gods in the golden age had to do any work. In that original paradise the
earth simply provided food in abundance.24 The book of Genesis could not have been more different.
Repeatedly the first chapters of the book of Genesis describe God at “work,” using the Hebrew mlkh, the
word for ordinary human work. As one scholar put it, it is wholly “unexpected that the extraordinary
divine activity involved in creating heaven and earth should be so described.”25
In the beginning, then, God worked. Work was not a necessary evil that came into the picture later, or
something human beings were created to do but that was beneath the great God himself. No, God worked
for the sheer joy of it. Work could not have a more exalted inauguration.
The Forms of God’s Work
It is remarkable that in Chapter 1 of the book of Genesis, God not only works but finds delight in it. “God
saw all that he had made, and it was very good . . . the heavens and the earth were completed in all their
vast array” (Genesis 1:31; 2:1). God finds what he has done beautiful. He stands back, takes in “all that
he has made,” and says, in effect, “That’s good!” Like all good and satisfying work, the worker sees
himself in it. “The harmony and perfection of the completed heavens and earth express more adequately
the character of their creator than any of the separate components can.”26
The second chapter of Genesis goes on to show that God works not only to create but also to care for
his creation. This is what theologians call the work of “providence.” God creates human beings and then
works for them as their Provider. He forms a man (Genesis 2:7), plants a garden for him and waters it
(Genesis 2:6, 8), and fashions a wife for him (Genesis 2:21–22). The rest of the Bible tells us that God
continues this work as Provider, caring for the world by watering and cultivating the ground (Psalm
104:10–22), giving food to all he has made, giving help to all who suffer, and caring for the needs of
every living thing (Psalm 145:14–16).
Finally, we see God not only working, but commissioning workers to carry on his work. In Genesis
chapter 1, verse 28 he tells human beings to “fill the earth and subdue it.” The word “subdue” indicates
that, though all God had made was good, it was still to a great degree undeveloped. God left creation with
deep untapped potential for cultivation that people were to unlock through their labor.27 In Genesis
chapter 2, verse 15 (ESV) he puts human beings into the garden to “work it and keep it.” The implication
is that, while God works for us as our Provider, we also work for him. Indeed, he works through us.
Psalm 127, verse 1—“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain”—indicates that God is
building the house (providing for us) through the builders. As Martin Luther argued, Psalm 145 says that
God feeds every living thing, meaning he is feeding us through the labor of farmers and others.28
The Goodness of Our Work
The book of Genesis leaves us with a striking truth—work was part of paradise. One biblical scholar
summed it up: “It is perfectly clear that God’s good plan always included human beings working, or, more
specifically, living in the constant cycle of work and rest.”29 Again, the contrast with other religions and
cultures could not be sharper. Work did not come in after a golden age of leisure. It was part of God’s
perfect design for human life, because we were made in God’s image, and part of his glory and happiness
is that he works, as does the Son of God, who said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and
I too am working” (John 5:17).
The fact that God put work in paradise is startling to us because we so often think of work as a
necessary evil or even punishment. Yet we do not see work brought into our human story after the fall of
Adam, as part of the resulting brokenness and curse; it is part of the blessedness of the garden of God.
Work is as much a basic human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not
simply medicine but food for our soul. Without meaningful work we sense significant inner loss and
emptiness. People who are cut off from work because of physical or other reasons quickly discover how
much they need work to thrive emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Our friends Jay and Barbara Belding, entrepreneurs in suburban Philadelphia, recognized this need
even among developmentally disabled adults. While working as a special education teacher, Jay was
disconcerted by the vocational prospects of his students once they completed school. Traditional
vocational training and employment programs often had insufficient work and therefore extensive
downtime with no wages. In 1977 Jay and Barbara established Associated Production Services, an
enterprise providing quality training and employment for this population. Today the company trains 480
people who are engaged in a variety of labor-intensive packaging and assembly work for a number of
consumer products companies at four facilities. Jay focuses on providing tools and systems that ensure
quality and increase efficiencies and output; this helps create a culture of success for the company and the
people they serve. The Beldings are thrilled and grateful to have found a practical, sustainable way to
meet their employees’ intrinsic need to be productive: “Our people want to participate in the ‘work-aday’ world; to feel positive about themselves; and to help pay their own way.” Their employees are
finally able to respond fully to a vital aspect of their design as workers and creators.
Work is so foundational to our makeup, in fact, that it is one of the few things we can take in
significant doses without harm. Indeed, the Bible does not say we should work one day and rest six, or
that work and rest should be balanced evenly—but directs us to the opposite ratio. Leisure and pleasure
are great goods, but we can take only so much of them. If you ask people in nursing homes or hospitals
how they are doing, you will often hear that their main regret is that they wish they had something to do,
some way to be useful to others. They feel they have too much leisure and not enough work. The loss of
work is deeply disturbing because we were designed for it. This realization injects a deeper and far more
positive meaning into the common view that people work in order to survive. According to the Bible, we
don’t merely need the money from work to survive; we need the work itself to survive and live fully
human lives.
The reasons for this are developed more fully in later chapters, but they include the fact that work is
one of the ways we make ourselves useful to others, rather than just living a life for ourselves. Also, work
is also one of the ways we discover who we are, because it is through work that we come to understand
our distinct abilities and gifts, a major component in our identities.30 So author Dorothy Sayers could
write, “What is the Christian understanding of work?. . . [It] is that work is not, primarily, a thing one
does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s
faculties . . . the medium in which he offers himself to God.”31
The Freedom of Our Work
To see work in our “DNA,” our design, is part of what it means to grasp the distinct Christian
understanding of freedom. Modern people like to see freedom as the complete absence of any constraints.
But think of a fish. Because a fish absorbs oxygen from water, not air, it is free only if it is restricted to
water. If a fish is “freed” from the river and put out on the grass to explore, its freedom to move and soon
even to live is destroyed. The fish is not more free, but less free, if it cannot honor the reality of its nature.
The same is true with airplanes and birds. If they violate the laws of aerodynamics, they will crash into
the ground. But if they follow them, they will ascend and soar. The same is true in many areas of life:
Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, those that fit with the realities
of our own nature and those of the world.32
So the commandments of God in the Bible are a means of liberation, because through them God calls
us to be what he built us to be. Cars work well when you follow the owner’s manual and honor the design
of the car. If you fail to change the oil, no one will fine you or take you to jail; your car will simply break
down because you violated its nature. You suffer a natural consequence. In the same way, human life
works properly only when it is conducted in line with the “owner’s manual,” the commandments of God.
If you disobey the commands, not only do you grieve and dishonor God, you are actually acting against
your own nature as God designed you. When God speaks to disobedient Israel in Isaiah chapter 48, he
says, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you
should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your
well-being like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:17–18).
And so it is with work, which (in rhythm with rest) is one of the Ten Commandments. “Six days you
shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9). In the beginning God created us to work, and now he
calls us and directs us unambiguously to live out that part of our design. This is not a burdensome
command; it is an invitation to freedom.
The Limits of All Work
Nevertheless, it is meaningful that God himself rested after work (Genesis 2:2). Many people make the
mistake of thinking that work is a curse and that something else (leisure, family, or even “spiritual”
pursuits) is the only way to find meaning in life. The Bible, as we have seen and will see, exposes the lie
of this idea. But it also keeps us from falling into the opposite mistake, namely, that work is the only
important human activity and that rest is a necessary evil—something we do strictly to “recharge our
batteries” in order to continue to work. We look to what we know about God to make this case. He did not
need any restoration of his strength—and yet he rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1–3). As beings
made in his image, then we can assume that rest, and the things you do as you rest, are good and lifegiving in and of themselves. Work is not all there is to life. You will not have a meaningful life without
work, but you cannot say that your work is the meaning of your life. If you make any work the purpose of
your life—even if that work is church ministry—you create an idol that rivals God. Your relationship with
God is the most important foundation for your life, and indeed it keeps all the other factors—work,
friendships and family, leisure and pleasure—from becoming so important to you that they become
addicting and distorted.
Josef Pieper, a twentieth-century German Catholic philosopher, wrote a famous essay called “Leisure,
the Basis of Culture.” Pieper argues that leisure is not the mere absence of work, but an attitude of mind
or soul in which you are able to contemplate and enjoy things as they are in themselves, without regard to
their value or their immediate utility. The work-obsessed mind—as in our Western culture—tends to look
at everything in terms of efficiency, value, and speed. But there must also be an ability to enjoy the most
simple and ordinary aspects of life, even ones that are not strictly useful, but just delightful. Surprisingly,
even the reputedly dour Reformer John Calvin agrees. In his treatment of the Christian life, he warns
against valuing things only for their utility:
Did God create food only to provide for necessity [nutrition] and not also for delight and good
cheer? So too the purpose of clothing apart from necessity [protection] was comeliness and
decency. In grasses, trees, and fruits, apart from their various uses, there is beauty of
appearance and pleasantness of fragrance. . . . Did he not, in short, render many things attractive
to us, apart from their necessary use?33
In other words, we are to look at everything and say something like:
All things bright and beautiful; all creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful—the Lord God made them all.34
Unless we regularly stop work and take time to worship (which Pieper considers one of the chief
activities within “leisure”) and simply contemplate and enjoy the world—including the fruit of our labor
—we cannot truly experience meaning in our lives. Pieper writes:
Leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit. . . . Leisure lives on
affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity. . . . It is rather like the stillness in the
conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness. . . . And as it is written in the Scriptures,
God saw, when “he rested from all the works that He had made” that everything was good, very
good (Genesis 1:31), just so the leisure of man includes within itself a celebratory, approving,
lingering gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation.35
In short, work—and lots of it—is an indispensable component in a meaningful human life. It is a
supreme gift from God and one of the main things that gives our lives purpose. But it must play its proper
role, subservient to God. It must regularly give way not just to work stoppage for bodily repair but also to
joyful reception of the world and of ordinary life.
This may seem obvious to us. We say, “Of course work is important, and of course it isn’t the only
thing in life.” But it is crucial to grasp these truths well. For in a fallen world, work is frustrating and
exhausting; one can easily jump to the conclusion that work is to be avoided or simply endured. And
because our disordered hearts crave affirmation and validation, it is just as tempting to be thrust in the
opposite direction—making life all about career accomplishment and very little else. In fact, overwork is
often a grim attempt to get our lifetime’s worth of work out of the way early, so we can put work behind
us. These attitudes will only make work more stultifying and unsatisfying in the end.
When we think, “I hate work!” we should remember that, despite the fact that work can be a
particularly potent reminder (and even amplifier) of the curse of sin on all things, it is not itself a curse.
We were built for it and freed by it. But when we feel that our lives are completely absorbed by work,
remember that we must also honor work’s limits. There is no better starting point for a meaningful work
life than a firm grasp of this balanced work and rest theology.
TWO
The Dignity of Work
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may
rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild
animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and
female he created them.
Genesis 1:26–27
Work as a Demeaning Necessity
Ayn Rand is one of the most widely read twentieth-century philosophers on the subject of work. In her
two most famous novels, she creates characters who push against the trends of socialism and
collectivism. Howard Roark, the architect in The Fountainhead, stirs the soul with his passion for
creating buildings that creatively use the resources of the natural environment, tastefully complement their
natural surroundings, and efficiently serve the needs of their intended occupants. Rand portrays him as
fully human, in comparison to other architects who do their work for money or prestige. In Atlas
Shrugged we have a very different hero, John Galt, who leads a strike by the society’s most productive
people, who refuse to be exploited any longer. He hopes to demonstrate that a world in which persons are
not free to create is doomed. To Rand, creative, productive work is essential to human dignity but is
typically demeaned by bureaucracy and commonness. One of her characters in Atlas Shrugged states,
“Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same
source: . . . the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made
before.”36
Rand has glimpsed one of the core aspects of man’s dignity, as we come to understand it from reading
Genesis 1. Unfortunately, she also was one of the twentieth century’s most vocal critics of Christianity,
rejecting the God of the Bible who made man in his own image. Still, we see that work is a major
component of human dignity—it resonates today even with the most secular thinkers. That was not always
so.
The ancient Greeks, who also thought that the gods made human beings for work, saw this as no
blessing. Work was demeaning. As Italian philosopher Adriano Tilgher put it, “To the Greeks, work was
a curse and nothing else.”37 In fact, Aristotle said that unemployment—by which he meant the ability to
live without having to work—was a primary qualification for a genuinely worthwhile life.38 What led the
Greeks to this view of work?
Plato in his dialogue Phaedo argues that being in the body distorts and hampers the soul in its quest
for truth. In this life, the person who develops spiritual insight and purity must do so by ignoring the body
as much as possible. Death is therefore a form of liberation and even a friend of the soul.39 “The Greek
philosophers largely thought of the gods as perfect minds—solitary, self-sufficient, uninvolved in the stuff
of the world or the hubbub of human affairs. Human beings were to become like the gods by withdrawing
from active life and devoting themselves to contemplation.”40 Contemplation helped you realize that the
material world is temporary and even illusory, and that being overinvolved or emotionally attached to it
pulls you down into a kind of animal existence of fear, anger, and anxiety. Instead, the way to true peace
and happiness was to learn how to achieve a “non-attachment” to the things of this world. Epictetus taught
his disciples that “the good life is a life stripped of both hopes and fears. In other words, a life reconciled
to what is the case, a life which accepts the world as it is.”41 To be most human was to be the least
involved, and the least invested, in the material world.
Work, then, was a barrier to the highest kind of life. Work made it impossible to rise above the
earthbound humdrum of life into the realm of philosophy, the domain of the gods. The Greeks understood
that life in the world required work, but they believed that not all work was created equal. Work that used
the mind rather than the body was nobler, less beastly. The highest form of work was the most cognitive
and the least manual. “The whole Greek social structure helped to support such an outlook, for it rested on
the premise that slaves and [craftsmen] did the work, enabling the elite to devote themselves to the
exercise of the mind in art, philosophy, and politics.”42 Aristotle very famously said in his Politics I.V.8
that some people are born to be slaves. He meant that some people are not as capable of higher rational
thought and therefore should do the work that frees the more talented and brilliant to pursue a life of honor
and culture.
Modern people bristle with outrage at such a statement, but while we do not today hold with the idea
of literal slavery, the attitudes behind Aristotle’s statement are alive and well. Christian philosopher Lee
Hardy and many others have argued that this “Greek attitude toward work and its place in human life was
largely preserved in both the thought and practice of the Christian church” through the centuries, and still
holds a great deal of influence today in our culture.43 What has come down to us is a set of pervasive
ideas.
One is that work is a necessary evil. The only good work, in this view, is work that helps make us
money so that we can support our families and pay others to do menial work. Second, we believe that
lower-status or lower-paying work is an assault on our dignity. One result of this belief is that many
people take jobs that they are not suited for at all, choosing to aim for careers that do not fit their gifts but
promise higher wages and prestige. Western societies are increasingly divided between the highly
remunerated “knowledge classes” and the more poorly remunerated “service sector,” and most of us
accept and perpetuate the value judgments that attach to these categories. Another result is that many
people will choose to be unemployed rather than do work that they feel is beneath them, and most service
and manual labor falls into this category. Often people who have made it into the knowledge classes show
great disdain for the concierges, handymen, dry cleaners, cooks, gardeners, and others who hold service
jobs.
Work as a Mark of Human Dignity
The biblical view of these matters is utterly different. Work of all kinds, whether with the hands or the
mind, evidences our dignity as human beings—because it reflects the image of God the Creator in us.
Biblical scholar Derek Kidner notices something profound in the creation of animals and human beings in
Genesis chapter 1: Only man is set apart and given a job description, “an office (1:26b, 28b; 2:19; cf.
Ps.8:4–8; James 3:7) . . .”44 In other words, while the plants and animals are called to simply “teem” and
“reproduce,” only humans are explicitly given a job. They are called to “subdue” and “have dominion,”
or rule the earth.
We are given specific work to do because we are made in God’s image. What does this mean? “The
rulers of the ancient Near East set up images and statues of themselves in places where they exercised or
claimed to exercise authority. The images represented the ruler himself as symbols of his presence and
authority . . .”45 The close connection of Genesis chapter 1, verse 26 with the mandate to “rule” shows
that this act of ruling is a defining aspect of what it means to be made in God’s image. We are called to
stand in for God here in the world, exercising stewardship over the rest of creation in his place as his
vice-regents. We share in doing the things that God has done in creation—bringing order out of chaos,
creatively building a civilization out of the material of physical and human nature, caring for all that God
has made. This is a major part of what we were created to be.
While the Greek thinkers saw ordinary work, especially manual labor, as relegating human beings to
the animal level, the Bible sees all work as distinguishing human beings from animals and elevating them
to a place of dignity. Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton notes that in surrounding cultures such as
Egypt and Mesopotamia, the king or others of royal blood might be called the “image of God”; but, he
notes, that rarefied term “was not applied to the canal digger or to the mason who worked on the
ziggurat. . . . [But Genesis chapter 1 uses] royal language to describe simply ‘man.’ In God’s eyes all of
mankind is royal. The Bible democratizes the royalistic and exclusivistic concepts of the nations that
surrounded Israel.”46
Work has dignity because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his
representatives. We learn not only that work has dignity in itself, but also that all kinds of work have
dignity. God’s own work in Genesis 1 and 2 is “manual” labor, as he shapes us out of the dust of the earth,
deliberately putting a spirit in a physical body, and as he plants a garden (Genesis 2:8). It is hard for us
today to realize how revolutionary this idea has been in the history of human thinking. Minister and author
Phillip Jensen puts it this way: “If God came into the world, what would he be like? For the ancient
Greeks, he might have been a philosopher-king. The ancient Romans might have looked for a just and
noble statesman. But how does the God of the Hebrews come into the world? As a carpenter.”47
The current economic era has given us fresh impulses and new ways to stigmatize work such as
farming and caring for children—jobs that supposedly are not “knowledge” jobs and therefore do not pay
very well. But in Genesis we see God as a gardener, and in the New Testament we see him as a carpenter.
No task is too small a vessel to hold the immense dignity of work given by God. Simple physical labor is
God’s work no less than the formulation of theological truth. Think of the supposedly menial work of
housecleaning. Consider that if you do not do it—or hire someone else to do it—you will eventually get
sick and die from the germs, viruses, and infections that will breed in your home. The material creation
was made by God to be developed, cultivated, and cared for in an endless number of ways through human
labor. But even the simplest of these ways is important. Without them all, human life cannot flourish.
Mike, a friend of Katherine’s, is a doorman in New York City. He is one of fifteen doormen serving a
large Manhattan co-op; his apartment building is home to about one hundred families. Now in his early
sixties, Mike emigrated to the U.S. from Croatia as a young man and worked in many kinds of jobs, from
the restaurant business to manual labor. He has been a doorman in the building for twenty years and is
clearly distinctive in his attitude toward his work. To Mike it’s far from just a job. He cares about the
people in the building and takes pride in helping with loading, finding parking spaces, and welcoming
guests. He sets the standard for keeping the lobby and front of the building clean and attractive.
When asked what makes him drop what he’s doing to get to the curb in time to help unload a resident’s
car after a weekend away he responds, “That’s my job” or “They needed help.” Why does he remember
the name of every child? “Because they live here.” At one point, to the question, “But why do you work so
hard at every part of this job?” he replied, “I don’t know . . . it’s just what I need to be able to look at
myself in the mirror in the morning. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try my best every day.” He
appears to work out of gratefulness for the job and for his life. He is glad to be in this country and for the
opportunities it has given him.
Most of the people Mike serves are professionals or businesspeople who are probably glad not to be
doormen. Some might even find the work of a doorman demeaning if they had to do it themselves. But
Mike’s attitude shows that he recognizes the inherent dignity of the work he is doing; and in this, he brings
out its goodness and worth.
The Material World Matters
All work has dignity because it reflects God’s image in us, and also because the material creation we are
called to care for is good. The Greeks saw death as a friend, because it liberated us from the prison of
physical life. The Bible sees death not as a friend, but as an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), because the
created world is a brilliant and beautiful good (Genesis 1:31), destined to exist forever (Revelation
22:1–5). Indeed, the biblical doctrine of creation harmonizes with the doctrine of the incarnation (in
which God takes upon himself a human body) and of the resurrection (in which God redeems not just the
soul but the body) to show how deeply “pro-physical” Christianity is. For Christians, even our ultimate
future is a physical one. Some views of reality see the spiritual as more real and true than the physical;
other, more naturalistic views see the spiritual as illusory and the physical as the only thing real; but
neither is true of the Bible.
We acknowledge that the world is good. It is not the temporary theater for our individual salvation
stories, after which we go to live disembodied lives in a different dimension. 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). 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.
As we have seen, this means that Christians cannot look down on labor involving more intimate
contact with the material world. Caring for and cultivating this material world has worth, even if it means
cutting the grass. This also means that “secular” work has no less dignity and nobility than the “sacred”
work of ministry. We are both body and soul, and the biblical ideal of shalom includes both physical
thriving as well as spiritual. “Food that nourishes, roofs that hold out the rain, shade that protects from the
heat of the sun. . . . the satisfaction of the material needs and desires of men and women . . . when
businesses produce material things that enhance the welfare of the community, they are engaged in work
that matters to God.”48
In Psalm 65, verses 9–10 and Psalm 104, verse 30 we find God cultivating the ground by watering it
through rain showers, and, through his Holy Spirit, “renewing the face of the ground.” However, in John
16, verses 8–11, the Holy Spirit is said to convict and convince people of sin and God’s judgment—
which is something a preacher does. So here we have God’s Spirit both gardening and preaching the
gospel. Both are God’s work. How can we say one kind of work is high and noble and the other low and
debasing?
We have an excellent foundation if we understand the goodness of creation and the dignity of work.
We work in a wondrous world that is designed at least partly for our pleasure. The author of Genesis tells
us we should experience awe as we stand before the richness of the creation, for it teems with life. God
seems to delight in diversity and creativity. Other places in the Bible speak of God’s creative activity as
being motivated by the sheer delight of creating (see Proverbs 8:27–31). This, too, is part of God’s plan
for what our work should be about, and what it would still be about if we had not experienced the fall,
which marred everything including our labor.
We were built for work and the dignity it gives us as human beings, regardless of its status or pay. The
practical implications of this principle are far-reaching. We have the freedom to seek work that suits our
gifts and passions. We can be open to greater opportunities for work when the economy is weak and jobs
are less plentiful. We no longer have any basis for condescension or superiority; nor is there any basis for
envy or feelings of infidelity. And every Christian should be able to identify, with conviction and
satisfaction, the ways in which his or her work participates with God in his creativity and cultivation. To
help us do that, we turn to the biblical understanding of culture.
THREE
Work as Cultivation
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and
subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature
that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:28
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he
had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were
pleasing to the eye and good for food. . . . The Lord God took the man and put him in the
Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You
are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” The Lord God
said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the
Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He
brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each
living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the
sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God
caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s
ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib
he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
Genesis 2:8–9, 15–22
Filling and Subduing the Earth
Work is our design and our dignity; it is also a way to serve God through creativity, particularly in the
creation of culture.
God put human beings into a garden. Hebrew scholar Derek Kidner argues that work was prominent
among the full range of delights there: “The earthly paradise . . . is a model of parental care. The fledgling
is sheltered but not smothered: on all sides discoveries and encounters await him to draw out his powers
of discernment and choice, and there is ample nourishment for his aesthetic, physical and spiritual
appetites; further, there is a man’s work before him for body and mind (v. 15, 19).”49 For our spiritual
growth there was a divine Word to obey (verses 16–17). For our cultural and creative development there
was the physical work of the tending of the garden (verse 15) and the mental stretching and understanding
involved in the naming of the animals (verse 19). Finally, in the creation of Eve and of marriage, there
was the provision for growing the human race into a full society (verses 19–24). All these endeavors
were given as an elaboration on the overarching job description of Genesis 1, verse 28—to “fill the earth
and subdue it.” This command has been called the “cultural mandate.” What does it mean?
First, we are called to “fill the earth”—to increase in number. While God usually says of plants and
animals “let them” multiply (verses 11, 20a, 20b, 22, and 24), human beings are not only given a
command to do so actively (verse 28a) but then receive a detailed job description (verses 28b–29). In
other words, only humans are given multiplication as a task to fulfill with intention. But why would this
be a job—isn’t it just a natural process? Not exactly. Human beings “filling the earth” means something
far than plants and animals filling the earth. It means civilization, not just procreation. We get the sense
that God does not want merely more individuals of the human species; he also wants the world to be
filled with a human society. He could have just spoken the word and created millions of people in
thousands of human settlements, but he didn’t. He made it our job to develop and build this society.
Second, we are called to “rule” the rest of creation and even to “subdue” it. What does that mean?
The word “subdue” might be read to imply that the forces of nature were adversarial and needed to be
conquered in some way. Some have complained that this text gives human beings a license to exploit
nature. But that is not what it is talking about.50 Remember that this mandate is given before the fall,
before nature becomes subject to decay (Romans 8:17–27) and brings up thorns along with fruit (Genesis
3:17–19). There is still a primeval harmony within creation that no longer exists in the same way after the
fall. So there is no violent intent to “subduing” the earth. Instead, “ruling” the world as God’s image
bearers should be seen as stewardship or trusteeship. God owns the world, but he has put it under our
care to cultivate it. It is definitely not a mandate to treat the world and its resources as if they are ours to
use, exploit, and discard as we wish.
Nevertheless, the word translated as “subdue” is a strong word that means real assertion of will. That
is God’s stance toward creation; when he first creates the material world, he does not have it spring into
being all ready-made. Rather, it is “formless” and “empty” (1:2). God then addresses these conditions
progressively during Genesis 1—through his work. He gives the world form. Where it is unshaped and
undifferentiated, he distinguishes and elaborates. He takes the general and separates it into particulars, for
example, “separating” sky from sea (1:7) and light from darkness (1:4). We even see this love of diversity
in God’s creation of Eve. God could easily have created humanity in only one form but instead created us
in two genders, different and complementary, yet equal. The creation of Adam and Eve as gendered
beings leads to biological procreation, another way in which we are, as beings in his image, carrying on
the work he began at the beginning. And where things are empty, God fills them. On the first three days he
creates realms (heavens, sky and waters, earth), and on the second three days he fills each realm with
inhabitants (sun, moon and stars, birds and fish, animals and humans).
So the word “subdue” indicates that even in its original, unfallen form, God made the world to need
work. He made it such that even he had to work for it to become what he designed it to be, to bring forth
all its riches and potential. It is no coincidence that in Genesis 1, verse 28 God tells us to follow him in
doing the same things that he has been doing—filling and subduing.
Culture Making with God
Philosopher Al Wolters writes:
The earth had been completely unformed and empty; in the six-day process of development God
had formed it and filled it—but not completely. People must now carry on the work of
development: by being fruitful they fill it even more; by subduing it they must form it even
more . . . as God’s representatives, [we] carry on where God left off. But this is now to be a
human development of the earth. The human race will fill the earth with its own kind, and it
will form the earth for its own kind. From now on the development of the created earth will be
societal and cultural in nature.51
If we are to be God’s image-bearers with regard to creation, then we will carry on his pattern of
work. His world is not hostile, so that it needs to be beaten down like an enemy. Rather, its potential is
undeveloped, so it needs to be cultivated like a garden. So we are not to relate to the world as park
rangers, whose job is not to change their space, but to preserve things as they are. Nor are we to “pave
over the garden” of the created world to make a parking lot. No, we are to be gardeners who take an
active stance toward their charge. They do not leave the land as it is. They rearrange it in order to make it
most fruitful, to draw the potentialities for growth and development out of the soil. They dig up the ground
and rearrange it with a goal in mind: to rearrange the raw material of the garden so that it produces food,
flowers, and beauty. And that is the pattern for all work. It is creative and assertive. It is rearranging the
raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular,
thrive and flourish.
This pattern is found in all kinds of work. Farming takes the physical material of soil and seed and
produces food. Music takes the physics of sound and rearranges it into something beautiful and thrilling
that brings meaning to life. When we take fabric and make a piece of clothing, when we push a broom and
clean up a room, when we use technology to harness the forces of electricity, when we take an unformed,
naïve human mind and teach it a subject, when we teach a couple how to resolve their relational disputes,
when we take simple materials and turn them into a poignant work of art—we are continuing God’s work
of forming, filling, and subduing. Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative
potential, whenever we elaborate and “unfold” creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are
following God’s pattern of creative cultural development. In fact, our word “culture” comes from this
idea of cultivation. Just as he subdued the earth in his work of creation, so he calls us now to labor as his
representatives in a continuation and extension of that work of subduing.
At Redeemer we try to encourage our entrepreneurs—those who seek to create value out of the
resources at their disposal to develop something new and innovative. One of those is James Tufenkian,
who spoke at our annual forum for entrepreneurs in 2008. After developing several other businesses,
James started making and distributing artisanal jams in 2005. He had been working in Armenia and was
frustrated by the poverty and waste in that country. Vast areas of the country produced wonderful fruit,
which were marketed and enjoyed in season, but large quantities were lost because of poor shipping and
storage. He and a partner decided to launch a fruit preserve business and turn a seasonal rural business
into a year-round venture. Harvest Song fruit preserves now win international awards for excellence and
are sold around the world, because of the climate in which they’re grown and the method through which
they’re preserved. According to James, one of his lifelong and faith-derived values is “making beautiful
things of enduring value.”52 In fact, after studying God’s work of forming and filling the earth and then
looking back on it and saying “It was good,” James had an epiphany. With delight he exclaimed, “God
doesn’t make junk. I don’t make junk!” A biblical understanding of work energizes our desire to create
value from the resources available to us. Recognizing the God who supplies our resources, and who gives
us the privilege of joining in as cocultivators, helps us enter into our work with a relentless spirit of
creativity.
Mark Noll writes in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,
Who, after all, made the world of nature, and then made possible the development of sciences
through which we find out more about nature? Who formed the universe of human interactions,
and so provided the raw material for politics, economics, sociology, and history? Who is the
source of harmony, form, and narrative pattern, and so lies behind all artistic and literary
possibilities? Who created the human mind in such a way that it could grasp the endless
realities of nature, of human interactions, of beauty, and so make possible the theories of such
matters by philosophers and psychologists? Who moment by moment sustains the natural world,
the world of human interactions, and the harmonies of existence? Who maintains moment by
moment the connections between what is in our minds and what is in the world beyond our
minds? The answer in every case is the same—God did it. And God does it.53
The naming of the animals in chapter 2, verses 19–20 is an invitation to enter into his creativity. Why
didn’t God just name the animals himself? After all, in Genesis 1, God names things, “calling” the light
“Day” and the darkness “Night”—so he was clearly capable of naming the animals as well. Yet he invites
us to continue his work of developing creation, to develop all the capacities of human and physical nature
to build a civilization that glorifies him. Through our work we bring order out of chaos, create new
entities, exploit the patterns of creation, and interweave the human community. So whether splicing a gene
or doing brain surgery or collecting the rubbish or painting a picture, our work further develops,
maintains, or repairs the fabric of the world. In this way, we connect our work to God’s work.
All Work Is Culture Making
Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw once addressed a number of bankers in New York City. He
pointed them to Genesis and showed that God was a creator/investor who made the world as a home for
all kinds of creativity. Mouw urged his audience to think of God as an investment banker. He leveraged
his resources to create a whole world of new life. In the same way, what if you see a human need not
being met, you see a talent or resource that can meet that need, and you then invest your resources—at
your risk and cost—so that the need is met and the result is new jobs, new products, and better quality of
life? What you are doing, Mouw concluded, is actually God-like.
After the address, many in the audience said, “Could you talk to my minister about this? He thinks that
all I care about is making money.” Indeed, not all business initiatives serve the common good.54 But so
many ministers assume that investors and entrepreneurs are solely out to make money without regard for
advancing the common good. If ministers don’t yet see business as a way of making culture and of
cultivating creation, they will fail to support, appreciate, and properly lead many members of their
congregation.
This aspect of the biblical understanding of work gives vision and meaning not only to ambitious
endeavors, but even to the most commonplace ones; for it is equally necessary to cultivate creation in
everyday ways. In his seminal and accessible book Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling,
Andy Crouch reminds us that our work is important on any scale, whether grand or modest. Andy
describes the impact made by his wife, Catherine, a professor of physics:
In her work as a professor of physics, Catherine can do much to shape the culture of her courses
and her research lab. In the somewhat sterile and technological environment of a laboratory, she
can play classical music to create an atmosphere of creativity and beauty. She can shape the
way her students respond to exciting and disappointing results, and can model both hard work
and good rest rather than frantic work and fitful procrastination. By bringing her children with
her to work occasionally she can create a culture where family is not an interruption from work,
and where research and teaching are natural parts of a mother’s life; by inviting her students
into our home she can show that she values them as persons, not just as units of research
productivity. At the small scale of her laboratory and classroom, she has real ability to reshape
the world.55
No everyday work lacks the dignity of being patterned after God’s own work, yet no business
megadeal or public policy initiative is so lofty that it can transcend God’s patterns and limitations for
work. What’s more God has not left us alone to discover how or why we are to cultivate his creation;
instead, he gives us a clear purpose for our work and faithfully calls us into it.
FOUR
Work as Service
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
Called and Assigned
Mike Ullman, former CEO of JCPenney, tells of a conversation he had with Starbucks founder Howard
Schultz when he was first offered the JCPenney position. Mike had retired from a long and successful
career in retail management a few years before and was reluctant to get back into the business. But
Schultz said to Ullman, “This opportunity is made for you. They need to put service back into the mission
of that company, and you’re the guy to do it.” He didn’t need the money or the recognition, but he agreed
to take the role because he saw an opportunity to reorient twenty-five thousand retail employees to seeing
that their work matters and that serving their customers is an honorable career. In short, he believed that
God called him to a particular position of service.
We have been looking at the book of Genesis to understand the design, dignity, and pattern of work,
but it is in the New Testament and particularly in the writings of Paul that we gain more insight into how
God provides purpose for our work by calling us to serve the world.
Let’s look at the biblical use of the term often translated as “calling.” In the letters of the New
Testament the Greek word for “to call” (kaleo) usually describes God’s summons to men and women into
saving faith and union with his Son (Romans 8:30; 1 Corinthians 1:9). It is also a call to serve him by
reaching the world with his message (1 Peter 2:9–10). God’s calling has not only an individual aspect but
also a communal one. It brings you into a relationship not only with him, but also with a body of believers
(1 Corinthians 1:9; Ephesians 1:1–4; Colossians 3:15). Indeed, the very Greek word for church—
ekklesia—literally means the “ones called out.”
In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul counsels readers that when they become Christians it is unnecessary
to change what they are currently doing in life—their marital state, job, or social station—in order to live
their lives before God in a way that pleases him. In verse 17, Paul directs, “Only let each person lead the
life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the
churches.”57
Here Paul uses two religiously freighted words to describe ordinary work. Elsewhere, Paul has
spoken of God calling people into a saving relationship with him, and assigning them spiritual gifts to do
ministry and build up the Christian community (Romans 12:3 and 2 Corinthians 10:13). Paul uses these
same two words here when he says that every Christian should remain in the work God has “assigned to
him, and to which God has called him.” Yet Paul is not referring in this case to church ministries, but to
common social and economic tasks—“secular jobs,” we might say—and naming them God’s callings and
assignments.57 The implication is clear: Just as God equips Christians for building up the Body of Christ,
so he also equips all people with talents and gifts for various kinds of work, for the purpose of building
up the human community.58 Biblical scholar Anthony Thiselton writes about this passage: “This Pauline
concept of call and service varies greatly from that of secular modernity, which gives a privileged place
to ‘autonomy,’ and from that of secular postmodernity, which gives privilege to self-fulfillment and to
power interests. . . . [It] gives this section [of Paul’s writing] fresh relevance to the present.”59
Thiselton’s insight recalls the quote by Robert Bellah cited in our introduction. Bellah called us to
recover the idea that work is a “vocation” or calling, “a contribution to the good of all and not merely . . .
a means to one’s own advancement,” to one’s self-fulfillment and power.60 Remember that something can
be a vocation or calling only if some other party calls you to do it, and you do it for their sake rather than
for your own. 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.
At our church we have many high-achieving young people who are recruited out of college or
business school to work in the financial services industry. Lured by the recruiting process, signing
bonuses, and compensation packages that far exceed those of other professions or industries, many of
these young people barely consider other vocational alternatives. For decades these jobs have offered
status and financial security beyond compare. In the face of this kind of opportunity, how is a committed
Christian supposed to think objectively about his or her “calling”?
Certainly some do sense that their job in financial sales, trading, private equity, public finance, or a
related area is a way for them to offer their unique capabilities in service to God and others. Some,
however, after a few years on Wall Street, determine that their strengths and passions are more suited to
another vocation. Jill Lamar, for example, worked several years at Merrill Lynch before deciding she
needed to make a change. A lover of books and a good writer herself, she decided to switch to publishing,
starting again at the very bottom in pay and position. She wrestled with the fact that the opportunity to
make a lot of money didn’t necessarily mean that banking was the vocation she should continue to pursue.
She tried to think about how she could best use her gifts and passion to serve instead. Her decision
created quite a flurry, even in the church!
Christians should be aware of this revolutionary understanding of the purpose of their work in the
world. 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?”
Jill took this last question very seriously. In her subsequent years in publishing, she found that she was
good at editing and at discovering new writers. She grew in her passion for giving the world good stories
to read. Sometimes the stories reflected her biblical way of thinking about the world, but sometimes they
did not. She was looking for excellence. Eventually she directed a wonderful program for Barnes &
Noble called Discover Great New Writers. Through this initiative she was able to give worthy new
authors a chance to find a broader audience of readers.
Notice something counterintuitive about the two questions on the previous page: It is the latter that
will lead us to a more sustainable motivation for discipline and excellence at work. If the point of work is
to serve and exalt ourselves, then our work inevitably becomes less about the work and more about us.
Our aggressiveness will eventually become abuse, our drive will become burnout, and our self-
sufficiency will become self-loathing. But if the purpose of work is to serve and exalt something beyond
ourselves, then we actually have a better reason to deploy our talent, ambition, and entrepreneurial vigor
—and we are more likely to be successful in the long run, even by the world’s definition.
Vocation and the “Masks of God”
No one took hold of the teaching of the first book of Corinthians, chapter 7 more powerfully than Martin
Luther. Luther translated the word “calling” in these verses as Beruf in German, the word for
“occupation,” and mounted a polemic against the view of vocation prevalent in the medieval church.61
The church at that time understood itself as the entirety of God’s kingdom on earth,62 and therefore only
work in and for the church could qualify as God’s work. This meant that the only way to be called by God
into service was as a monk, priest, or nun. They were called “the spiritual estate,” everyone else’s work
was worldly, and secular labor was seen as akin to the demeaning necessity that the Greeks saw in
manual labor.63 Luther attacked this idea forcefully in his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the
German Nation:
It is pure invention [fiction] that Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual
estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the “temporal estate.” This is
indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this
reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them
except that of office. . . . We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “You are
a royal priesthood and a priestly realm” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Apocalypse says: “Thou hast made us
to be kings and priests by thy blood” (Rev. 5:9–10).64
Luther is arguing here that God calls every Christian equally to their work. In his exposition of Psalm
147, Luther lays out his basic idea of vocation, explaining why this is so. He looks at verse 13, which
assures a city that “God strengthens the bars of your gates.”65 Luther asks how God can strengthen the bars
—provide for the security and safety—of a city. He answers, “By the word ‘bars’ we must understand not
only the iron bar that a smith can make, but . . . everything else that helps to protect us, such as good
government, good city ordinances, good order . . . and wise rulers. . . . this is a gift of God.”66 How does
God give a city security? Isn’t it through lawmakers, police officers, and those working in government and
politics? So God cares for our civic needs through the work of others, whom he calls to that work.
In Luther’s Large Catechism, when he addresses the petition in the Lord’s Prayer asking God to give
us our “daily bread,” Luther says that “when you pray for ‘daily bread’ you are praying for everything that
contributes to your having and enjoying your daily bread. . . . You must open up and expand your thinking,
so that it reaches not only as far as the flour bin and baking oven but also out over the broad fields, the
farmlands, and the entire country that produces, processes, and conveys to us our daily bread and all kinds
of nourishment.”67 So how does God “feed every living thing” (Psalm 145:16) today? Isn’t it through the
farmer, the baker, the retailer, the website programmer, the truck driver, and all who contribute to bring us
food? Luther writes: “God could easily give you grain and fruit without your plowing and planting, but he
does not want to do so.”68
Then he gives an analogy to show us why God works this way. Parents want to give their children
everything they need, but they also want them to become diligent, conscientious, and responsible people.
So they give their children chores. They could obviously do the chores better themselves, but that would
not help their children grow in maturity. So parents give their children what they need—character—
through the diligence required for the chores they assign them. Luther concludes that God works through
our work for the same reason:
What else is all our work to God—whether in the fields, in the garden, in the city, in the house,
in war, or in government—but just such a child’s performance, by which He wants to give His
gifts in the fields, at home, and everywhere else? These are the…
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