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What Makes Work “Christian”? | 9Marks
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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

What Makes Work “Christian”?

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When someone thinks about their work being “Christian,” all kinds of disturbing images come to mind:

  • Opening a beauty salon called “A Cut Above” or a coffee shop called “He Brews.” 
  • Working awkward evangelism moments into sales calls.
  • Defiantly saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” in the checkout line or sneaking a “Have a blessed day” into a salutation.
  • Putting up posters about Bible study options at lunch or sending out group emails about sightings of the Virgin Mary in Ecuador.

Perhaps you remember the 2004 incident of an American Airlines pilot who, in his pre-flight announcements, asked all the Christians on board the plane to raise their hands. He then suggested that during the flight the other passengers talk to those people about their faith. He also told passengers he’d also be happy to talk to anyone who had questions. Understandably, it freaked a lot of people out: the pilot of your airplane talking to you about whether or not you’re ready to meet Jesus?[1] While they might admire the guy’s zeal, many Christian businesspeople think, “I just don’t think I could do that and keep my job.”

Many Christians think that you just can’t serve the kingdom of God at work, and that kingdom work happens “after hours”—volunteering at the church nursery, attending small group, going on a mission trip, serving at the soup kitchen. Our work is a necessity that must be endured to put bread on the table. God’s interest in the fruit of our labors is primarily that we tithe off of it.

The Bible offers quite a different perspective. Scripture teaches us how to serve God through our work, not just after work. The Bible speaks clear and radical words to people in the workplace, showing us that even the most menial of jobs has an essential role in the mission of God.

In fact, it is surely not coincidental that most of the parables that Jesus told had a workplace context, and that of the forty miracles recorded in the book of Acts, thirty-nine of them occurred outside of a church setting. The God of the Bible seems as concerned with displaying his power outside the walls of the church as he does within it.

I want to suggest five qualities that make work “Christian.” By “Christian” in this context I mean “done through faith in Jesus Christ.” Therefore, work that is Christian will have five qualities: (1) creation-fulfilling, (2) excellence-pursuing, (3) holiness-reflecting, (4) redemption-displaying, and (5) mission-advancing.

CHRISTIAN WORK IS CREATION-FULFILLING

When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, he didn’t just tell him to keep away from certain bad apples. God placed Adam in the garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Remember that God said this before the curse, indicating that work wasn’t a punishment inflicted on Adam for his sin, but was a part of God’s original design. The first purpose God had in mind for Adam wasn’t to read a Bible or pray, but to be a good gardener.

The Hebrew word ‘abad, translated “work,” shows just what God means: it has the connotation of preparing and developing. Adam was placed in the garden to develop its raw materials, to cultivate a garden. Christians can fulfill the created purpose of God in the same way, by taking the raw materials of the world and developing them. This is happening all the time by both believers and non-believers. Contractors take sand and cement and use them to create buildings. Artists take color or music and arrange them into art. Lawyers take principles of justice and codify them into laws that benefit society.

This is God’s plan. Martin Luther, the famous German reformer, put it this way: “When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ And he does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, the person who prepared our meal.”

What this means is that a Christian’s secular vocation helps to mediate God’s active care in the world. God is active through a person’s work to ensure that families are fed, that homes are built, that justice is carried out. Too many Christians begrudge their work when they ought to revel in the fact that God is using them, in whatever small part, to fulfill his purposes.

Another great example of this comes from the classic movie Chariots of Fire. The movie follows a Christian track athlete, Eric Liddell, in his preparation for the 1924 Olympics. At one point in the film Liddell is confronted with the objection to his career that there are more pressing matters in life for a Christian than merely running. Liddell responds, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” At some point or another, while working at something we love or are good at, many of us have had a similar feeling. It is as if we feel inside of us, quite literally, “This is what I was made for.”

CHRISTIAN WORK IS EXCELLENCE-PURSUING

If our work is done “unto God,” it should be done according to the highest standards of excellence. Paul says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). That should be true whether we receive any reward for our work or not, or whether anyone ever notices.

Let’s be honest: it is demoralizing to work for someone who does not give us credit for what we have done, or worse, someone who only responds by offering critical feedback. A bad boss can make otherwise satisfying work an absolute terror. In a situation like that, most people lose the motivation to work with excellence. “After all,” they may think, “what is the point of working hard? No one will notice either way, and even if they do, I certainly won’t get the credit for it.” That may be a reasonable response, but it is not a Christian one.

Christians ought to pursue excellence in their work not because they want to impress their boss, or because working hard leads to better pay, but because they work first for Christ. C. S. Lewis once noted how valleys undiscovered by human eyes are still filled with beautiful flowers. Who did God create that beauty for, if no human eyes would ever see it? Lewis’ answer was that God does some things only for his own pleasure. He sees even when no one else does.

This perspective adds new significance to every task believers perform, even if they know they will never be recognized. They no longer require the approval of others in their work, because they no longer work primarily for others. They work first for Christ, and he deserves their best.

In reality, however, very few jobs go unnoticed, especially if done poorly. A Christian with a poor work ethic or sloppy academic performance gives the world a terrible testimony of Christ. He may say with his mouth that “Jesus is Lord,” but when he doesn’t care to turn in assignments on time or respect his boss, he is saying even louder, “I myself am lord.” In working with excellence, Christians not only serve God, but also display an attitude of service to the world.

CHRISTIAN WORK IS HOLINESS-REFLECTING

If Christians work for God, that should inherently make them work with excellence. But knowing that God sees everything we do should also make us work with integrity. Work that is “Christian” will conform to the highest standards of ethics.

Paul goes on in Colossians to explain that everything we do is done with respect for our watching Master in heaven to whom we will give an account (Col. 3:23-25). That means, Paul says, even when our boss is a jerk (and many of the people to whom Paul is writing were literally owned by their boss!), Christians do their work unto God. Our work ought to make it obvious that we serve a God of justice and kindness. This means that Christian bosses ought to be less concerned with what they can get away with and more concerned with the fact that they are accountable to a heavenly Master. Christian employees ought not to cut corners or lie about how much work they have been putting in. Business ethics really matter because in them we mirror the character of God. God says that “unjust balances”—cut corners, fudged balance sheets, skimped time cards, and so on—are an “abomination” to him (cf. Prov. 11:1). Poor business ethics are no trifling matter.

CHRISTIAN WORK IS REDEMPTION-DISPLAYING

If Christians were to act in their jobs with equity and fairness, that alone would set them apart. But those who have been touched by the gospel do not merely attempt to hold to high ethical standards: they live lives with a radically altered perspective of gratitude. What Christ has done by redeeming us to the Father produces a natural response of grace towards others.

I recently heard a story about a young college graduate who landed a job on Madison Avenue in one of the advertising world’s most prestigious firms. Shortly after she got there, she made a mistake that cost the company nearly $25,000. Madison Avenue is not a world defined by grace, and she expected to be fired by the end of the day. Her boss, however, went before his board of directors and convinced them to allow the blame for her mistake to fall on him instead. When this young woman heard what her boss had done, she came to him in tears. She asked him why, in that cutthroat atmosphere, he would choose to cut his own throat for her. He answered by sharing how Jesus had done a very similar thing for him, stepping in the way of the wrath that he deserved. Because of the great grace that Jesus had shown him, he wanted to display a similar mercy to others when he could.

This means approaching our work with adjusted “bottom-lines.” We no longer merely angle for increased position or to maximize personal profit. If truly touched by grace, Christians in business begin to leverage their resources to bless those in need.

Some Christians may object to a perspective like this. Grace is something that applies in the spiritual realm, they may say, but not in business: “I worked for what I have—I earned it!” they might say. A person may certainly feel like she has earned everything that she has, but where did she get her tough-minded work ethic? Her intelligence? These were the grace of God. By whose decree did she grow up in the United States instead of in a Brazilian favela? Certainly not by her own—this also was the grace of God. The very air she breathed and food she ate were provided to her as gifts of grace. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are “poor in spirit”—those who recognize that all they have is a gift of grace. The “middle class in spirit,” who believe they are merely reaping the fruit of their labors, will know nothing of the kingdom of God, because they have no concept of the magnitude of the grace of God in their lives. When someone understands how much they are indebted to grace, they will begin to see every situation they are in, whether in business or the church, as a place not to be served, but to serve.

The call to leverage our lives for the kingdom of God is not the special assignment of a sacred few. All disciples of Jesus are called to see their lives as seeds to be planted for God’s kingdom. Jesus said that if our life were a party, it should be thrown for those who can’t pay us back. Sometimes I think we’ve invented this whole language of “calling to ministry” to mask the fact that the majority of people in our churches are not living as disciples of Jesus.

CHRISTIAN WORK IS MISSION-ADVANCING

Work done by disciples of Jesus should be done with a view toward the Great Commission. In Acts we see that God used non-vocational ministers (perhaps businesspeople, doctors, servants, who knows!) to get the gospel around the world to places that the Apostles never went. Luke notes that the first time the church “went everywhere preaching the word,” the Apostles were not engaged (Acts 8:1). He also notes that when Paul finally arrives in Rome to preach Christ there, he is greeted by hospitable “brothers,” who seem to have been there for quite some time (Acts 28:7). As Steven Neill notes in his classic History of Christian Missions, of the three great church planting centers in the ancient world (Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome), not one was founded by an Apostle.

In the same way, Christians in the marketplace today are able to gain access more easily to strategic, unreached places. Globalization, revolutions in technology, and urbanization have given the business community nearly universal access.

Secular skills are needed to give Christians access to countries that would otherwise swiftly reject their presence. The countries most in need of a gospel presence—those in the so-called “10-40 window”—are devastated by poverty and joblessness. These places need both the words of the gospel and the tangible reflection of God’s love that businesses can provide. Millions in this region are without work and without the knowledge of Christ.

One example, though dozens could be provided, is the nation of Iran. Iran is an unreached area in desperate need of the gospel. As of today, there are 10 million seeking employment in Iran, a number that could eclipse 20 million within the next 15 years. How are places like this to be reached? Iran can be reached through the efforts of average Christian businesspeople taking their skills and expertise overseas. This may not be the path for every Christian, but perhaps God is challenging you to consider leveraging your work for his mission-advancing purposes.

Not every Christian, of course, will be led to perform their business in an unreached people group. But disciples of Jesus should always do their work with a view toward the Great Commission. A “missional vision” for Christian work is to do it well, and to do it, if at all possible, somewhere strategic. Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” Believers who do their work well can be greatly used in the work of the Great Commission. Their excellence in business can give them audiences with the “kings” and influencers of the most unreached peoples in the world.

God is interested in how Christians do their work, and he wants to be involved in it. Your work can make an eternal difference in the lives of those you work with, those you work for, and those you serve through your job. Allow the transformation of the gospel to change the way you look at and do your work. You were redeemed by grace—now live out that grace in the context of your job. You may never look at work the same way again.

J.D. Greear is the lead pastor of the Summit Churches in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina and is the author, most recently, of Stop Asking Jesus Into Your heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (B&H).

[1] http://www.travelkb.com/Uwe/Forum.aspx/air/2002/American-Airlines-Preaching-Pilot  Found in John Dickson, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission (Zondervan, 2010), 172-173.

Click here to see the editor's note for the March/April 9Marks Journal. 

February 2013
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