(by John Terrill, Director, Center for Integrity in Business)
I recently came across a thoughtful poem on the subject of work by Ben Witherington, Ph.D., the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. The poem, “Opus Magnum,” (shared in its entirety at the end of this entry) is published in his book, The Living Legacy: The Soul in Paraphrase, the Heart in Pilgrimage (Wipf and Stock, 2008).
As Professor Witherington notes, work ought to be pursued as a calling, a ministry, a mission, and an act of gratitude and offering to God. It is a gift from our Creator that was bestowed upon humanity before sin entered the world. When we acknowledge God in our work, we join him in the creation and redemption story, mirroring God in thought and deed. Conversely, when we reduce work to a curse, or, more subtly, a mere act of “making a living,” we disconnect from the larger, grand narrative for which we are part.
To a certain extent, the gift of work is outwardly focused, bringing healing and restoration to a hurting world. But it has internal implications, too. Part of the goodness of work is that we are renovated through it and by it. God transforms us and summons our trust in him through the highs and lows of daily labor. In the grittiness and routine of our roles and responsibilities, we too often let go of this important perspective.
To illustrate, Witherington shares the story of a visit he took to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. While walking through the memorial garden and remembering the life of Ruth Bell Graham, Billy Graham’s wife, he was moved by the following words etched into her tombstone: “Construction Completed. Thanks for your patience.”
As we reach out to serve others through faithful, courageous work in the world — whatever our tasks or professional responsibilities might be — rest assured that the Spirit of God is moving inwardly and mysteriously in us, bringing healing and wholeness. The cornerstone has been laid; the construction process is underway. Dr. Witherington concludes in Opus Magnum:
…nothing's wasted in God’s hands
When we respond to his commands
Then we shall hear him say “well done”
To those who worked under the Son.
Opus Magnum, by Ben Witherington (2005)
Weary, worn, welts on hand
Work has whittled down the man
To the bare necessities
Of what he is, and what he’ll be
Was this then his destiny?
Defined, refined by what we do,
The toilsome tasks are never through
Thorn and thistle, dirt and dust
Sweeping clean, removing rust
All to earn his upper crust?
Sweat of brow, and carried weight
Rose too early, slept too late
Slaving, striving dawn to dusk
'Til the shell is barely husk
Staunch the stench with smell of musk?
But work is not the curse or cure
By which we’re healed, or will endure
It will not save us in the end,
It is no foe, but rather friend
But while it molds us will we mend?
Task Master making all things new
Who makes the most of what we do,
Let our work an offering be
A timely gift from those set free
From earning our eternity.
When work is mission on the move
By those whose efforts serve to prove
That nothing's wasted in God’s hands
When we respond to his commands
Then we shall hear him say “well done”
To those who worked under the Son.
Good and Dirty Work
On Discovery Channel's popular show, Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe, the star and narrator, travels the United States serving in some of the most back-breaking, grungiest jobs one could ever imagine - jobs few of us would ever consider taking, even for one week. Some of his assignments have included road kill cleaner; mosquito control operator; turkey inseminator; and sewer inspector.
Mike reminds us that our jobs can tire us, frustrate us, and even slime us. Yet, our work can also make us feel most alive: being creative, building, and serving. Some of my most gratifying life moments come through hard, focused work-like mowing my grass, then admiring the straight lines; clearing out my email inbox after hours of dedicated, thoughtful responses; or finishing a writing project that has required careful research and sustained attention.
Experiencing the ups and downs of our daily work is something all of us experience. Genesis 1:28 records God's blessing of work and his first command to Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and increase in number, to fill the earth and subdue it..." But, as we know, this Edenic state didn't last long. In response to Adam and Eve's disobedience, God altered the way we experience work. Still a good and vital part of God's creation, work now carries with it elements of pain, toil, "thorns and thistles," and sweat. (see note 1) We experience frustration, conflict, achy muscles, and a slew of other obstacles alongside the satisfaction and joy of our daily labor. We both delight in our tasks and responsibilities, and, as the apostle Paul reminds us, "groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling." (see note 2)
Work and the Ministry of Reconciliation
Despite this reality, we have reasons for unshakable hope. God promises to make all things new, to usher in a day of permanent justice and well being. As Colossians 1:20 describes, there is nothing in this world that escapes the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, "whether things on earth or things in heaven." Christ is reshaping all that has been disfigured by sin. The grungy, hard and painful places of work and life are being restored.
But to flourish today, as workers created in the image of God, we, too, must incarnate God's commitment to both creational and renewal work. When serving a world that longs for re-creation, scripture tells us that Christ grants us the ministry of reconciliation. (see note 3) God appoints us as ambassadors of healing, justice, and shalom-to bear Christ's image and represent his mission as special envoys in a hurting world. (see note 4) Our ambassadorship not only includes the work of evangelism, but also sharing and exercising the Good News of Jesus through the meeting of physical and emotional needs. When we incorporate this sense of mission into our daily vocations, everyday moments are enlivened with possibility and hope.
The Eternal Impact of Our Earthly Work
Understanding our jobs as mission critical is necessary if we're to flourish in daily work, yet there's another crucial dimension that has often been missing in the life of the church and the faith at work movement. If we're to fully grasp and harness the gift of work, we must envision its eternal impact. Don Flow, a highly-respected owner of award-winning car dealerships across North Carolina and Virginia, captures this idea well. "How we understand the future of the world, the final destiny of Christian life, and how such a future impacts our life now, has profound implications for how we invest our time in the world." (see note 5)
Our capacity to be "salt and light" to a hurting world is enlivened when we allow the grandeur of God's future to shape our understanding and actions in the present. And one of the surprising realities of the future is that our work not only makes a difference in the "here and now," but for all eternity. Our work and works in the world are building blocks for heaven, showing up in real, material ways in New Creation.
This may seem like an outrageous claim. When you imagine heaven, you probably don't envision work, but rather all the things that will be different from the gritty realities of life on earth. No more tears, sorrow, death, mourning, violence and weapons. But the New Creation is depicted as a place both different from and similar to the world we know and experience now. For example, it seems we will keep working in the New Creation. Isaiah 65:21 tells of the redeemed building houses, planting vineyards, and enjoying the fruit of their labor. Work is still undertaken, yet experienced as it was intended, a blessing free of toil, sweat and injustice.
Not only does work remain, but some of our works seem to remain. The things we create in this life have the capacity to show up materially in the life to come. Revelation 21-22 and Isaiah 60 are highly instructive on this point. Consider for a moment that the trajectory of God's plan for the world is a garden city, and cities by all measures are hubs of culture. In Scripture's heavenly city, we see the riches of the nations, kings and political systems, animals under human stewardship and care, modes of transportation, precious metals and other building materials, as well as commercial enterprise, to name just a few. Isaiah 60:4-9 depicts the "wealth of the seas" being brought to the heavenly city, the great trading Ships of Tarshish sailing in with silver and gold, and herds of camels covering the land.
There are counter-arguments to what I am proposing. A nihilist view of the future of the world is one such approach, often anchored in texts like 2 Peter 3:10: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." Within such a framework, a "lifeboat theology" often exists. Since the spiritual, non-tangible aspects of our lives are the only things with eternal value (everything else is destroyed by fire), our primary objective in this life is to rescue souls. As a result a larger view of redemption is often underemphasized.
A transformational view of the future of the world offers a more holistic approach-valuing both people and culture. Rather than all things being destroyed, everything will be tested, judged, and purified. As theologian and author, Richard Mouw, notes, "It is not the camels or the ships or the gold or the lumber that will be destroyed in the final conflict. Rather, it is the rebellious uses, the idolatrous functions, which seem under present conditions to be inextricably intertwined with these entities." (see note 6)
This makes sense. If all of creation was going to be destroyed, why then, as Romans 8:19-21 reminds us, would creation wait in eager anticipation for its final liberation? Rather than all things being burned, in the end, all things will be tested.
"If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved-even though only as one escaping through the flames." [1 Corinthians 3:12-15]
Guidance for Our Work-Related Decisions Today
This leads me to my final, and possibly, most controversial point. Some of the things we create might not have as high a probability as others of showing up in the New Creation. Their actual identity, either through the process of being created or in their final state, may be so at odds with God's character, that they will have to be transformed into something else for them to make it through the "refining fire." How we build and what we build matters!
Isaiah 2:4 offers an example. At the Mountain of the Lord the people of God "will beat their shields into plowshares and swords into pruning hooks. (see note 7) Weaponry utilized to kill and terrorize is so incongruent with God's character that it appears to have no tangible place in his restored kingdom. The building materials of the weapons survive, but are transformed from instruments of war into tools of agriculture.
Even if the products and services we create are functionally of the sort that we might expect to see in the New Creation, their eternal utility might be soiled by the spirit in which they were made or offered. The Tower of Babel serves as an example. Genesis 11 tells how the people of God constructed a tower and city that would both "reach to the heavens" and "create a name for them," rather than serve and honor their Creator. God was not impressed and frustrated their efforts by scattering the people across the earth and confusing their languages. Both city and tower, likely impressive structures with both aesthetic and functional value, were tainted by bad motives. It therefore seems improbable that remnants of the Tower would be taken up by God in the construction of the New Jerusalem.
Personalizing the ministry of reconciliation and embracing the eternal nature of our earthly work should shape our decisions. As we consider work and calling, we need to take continual stock of our motives, as well as assess carefully the industries we join and the kinds of products and services we create. Shoddy products have less temporal and eternal impact, as do products and services that don't enable people and communities to flourish. Alternatively, well-designed, high-quality products and services that honor God and serve people offer value here and now but also in the life to come.
Of course, there are many other factors to consider when making vocational choices, like personal interests, spiritual gifts, life experiences and learned skills. But recognition of the inherent goodness of work itself, a conscious awareness of our God-given ministry of reconciliation and the knowledge of the potential for our work and works to blossom in the New Creation, should guide our career decisions - and might just make the gritty, hard and painful places a bit easier to get through as well.
John Terrill is the Director for the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS: www.cardus.ca/comment.
1 See Genesis 3:17-19.
2 See 2 Corinthians 5:2.
3 See 2 Corinthians 5:19.
4 Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 45.
5 Don Flow, Bridging Sunday and Monday Conference, Seattle Pacific University, October 2007.
6 Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 32.
7 See also Micah 4:3.