Book Review: Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, by Tom Nelson
Work. For many this word brings to mind frustration, weariness, disillusionment, and the like. But as Tom Nelson explains in his book Work Matters, “work” does not have to be a “four-letter word.” Rather, God’s design for vocation enables us to see the significance of work in the Christian life and also allows us to receive work as a good gift.
Nelson expresses concern that many Christians live compartmentalized lives in which they simply do not know how to connect “Sunday worship to Monday work.” The chief burden of Work Matters is to show that “work has intrinsic value in itself and is to be an act of worship” (60) and that “the doctrine of vocation properly understood weaves together a seamless life of true Christian discipleship in all facets of life” (189).
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF WORK
The first four chapters of the book explore the theme of work across the major divisions of the redemptive storyline of Scripture: creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Chapter 1 explores the notion of work in God’s original created order, especially in relation to our being made in God’s image. As image-bearers of God we are designed to image a working God. Nelson reminds his readers that being a “do-nothing couch potato…is actually repulsive and dehumanizing” (20). The reason, of course, is that the God whose image we bear is a creator, “a worker…not some cosmic do-nothing deity” (22).
In chapter 2, Nelson looks at “work in a sin-ravaged world.” Arguing principally from the Genesis 3 narrative, Nelson asserts that due to the fall our work has become painfully difficult, disillusioning, and distorted. These distortions include the workaholism which makes work an idol, slothfulness which considers work unimportant, and dualism which sees so-called “secular” vocations as a second-class occupation for Christians.
Chapters 3 and 4 explore work in the already and not yet of redemption. Nelson demonstrates that the solution to the distortion and disillusionment created by the fall is the gospel. “As new creations in Christ, transformed from the inside out, we are able to again do the work we were created for” (58). Further, when it comes to eternity, Nelson argues that Christians need to “say good-bye to lifeboat theology,” which posits that our well-meaning work in this life ultimately amounts “to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” (74). Rather, a robust theology of the new creation demonstrates that there will be continuity between the future world and our present work. Work has eternal, new creation significance.
WORKING FOR GOD’S GLORY: A LABOR OF LOVE
The remaining chapters unpack the theological and practical significance of the Bible’s story of work. Chapter 5 and 6 analyze the inherent worth of work and show that our vocation is one of the primary contexts where we live out the great commandments—and is also one of God’s primary means for our spiritual growth and transformation. “Work is where perseverance, proven character, and hope are deeply forged” (115). Chapter 7 examines the relationship between work and the common good. Our vocations are for more than just financial remuneration; they are an opportunity to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Chapter 8 shows that “work is a gift from God, but we are also gifted by God for our work” (144) and includes Nelson’s suggestions for discerning vocational calling. Chapter 9 helpfully warns about potential dangers, particularly moral ones, Christians will encounter in the workplace. Finally, Chapter 10 briefly explores the relationship between vocation, the local church, and the gospel mission.
PASTORALLY SENSIBLE REFLECTION ON VOCATION
One of the strongest features of Work Matters is Nelson’s pastoral burden and desire to see Christians integrate what it means to be a disciple of Jesus with what it means to be a butcher, a baker, or a candle-stick maker. For that reason, Work Matters is a lay-level introduction to the theology of vocation. Pastors interested in parsing out weighty theological issues on the relationship between the mission of the church, vocation, and the kingdom of God will find little help in Nelson’s work. Instead Work Matters is sprinkled with personal illustrations, stories, reflection questions, and model prayers for the workers who fill the pews of every Christian congregation.
Nelson’s pastoral sensitivity and shepherd’s heart are evident throughout the book, whether he is discussing biblical theology or how to best love our neighbor in the workplace. Nowhere does his wisdom more helpfully overflow than in chapter nine’s exploration of challenges in the workplace. This chapter is brimming with sage advice for Christians (and for the pastors who lead them) on maintaining integrity in matters of business, avoiding sexual temptation in the workplace, and handling unemployment faithfully.
One feature of the book that is particularly useful is the inclusion of short testimonies from Christians on how grasping the biblical portrait of work has shaped their efforts to please God in their vocation. These vignettes, included at the end of each chapter, come from a variety of occupations: Dave the CEO, Mike the educational administrator, Peggy the student, Jay the attorney, Debbie the stay-at-home mom, and others. Readers will likely have their imaginations sparked by these vignettes and will be helped to recognize how to apply the principles and truths of Work Matters to their own vocations.
A FEW MINOR QUIBBLES
Work Matters is a robustly biblical treatment of vocation. I do, however, wish Nelson would have tied his arguments more closely to the biblical texts he quotes or alludes to. While Nelson’s systematic and biblical theological categories are generally correct, thoughtful readers who do not share his theological convictions may struggle to see exactly how Nelson arrives at his conclusions. I also would have appreciated more discussion about the notion that work is worship. According to Nelson the statement, “on Sunday we go to worship and on Monday we go to work” reveals “foggy theological thinking” (27). However, Work Matters does not help readers clear the fog entirely. If Sunday morning is worship and Monday work is worship then is there any difference between the two, or are they essentially the same thing?
ENJOY AND PROFIT
Work Matters is a helpful introduction to the subject of vocation in Christian theology. Nelson’s style is accessible and suits readers of varying theological maturity. Similarly, pastors will enjoy Nelson’s pastoral approach and can profit from his counsel on shepherding with a view toward Monday morning.