How We Should Do Our Work
I once had a rather odd conversation with a young man fresh out of college and headed to seminary. During the course of our talk, he asked, with considerable frustration, “How do I get an invitation to speak at a leadership conference in Africa?” I couldn’t believe my ears. Since I didn’t want to be a jerk, I didn’t say what I was thinking, which was that he needed to learn something before he tried teaching anything. What I’ve discovered is that if you go to grad school for a million years; learn Hebrew and Greek; study theology; write lots of papers; prepare and deliver about 3,000 sermons, lectures, and Bible studies; stay with two churches for 25 years through good times and bad times; and work really hard everyday, then occasionally someone will invite you to say something. What I think this young man was missing is that our work life takes some, well, work. And there is a right and wise way to go about working.
The New Testament calls us to live out our vocations in this world, to make it a better place while we share the good news that Christ came to save this world. While there are many New Testament passages about work—some of which are listed in the sidebar at left—I’m going to focus on one and summarize it (with help from other passages) in four points.
MORE NEW TESTAMENT READINGS ON WORK
First Corinthians 7:17-24
We don't have to be in full-time ministry to be good Christians! God loves on the world and sees the gospel spread through men and women doing their best work right where they are in the vocations he has given them.
Colossians mirrors Ephesians 6:5-8. Even household servants bring glory to God!
Second Thessalonians 3:10-13
Some Christians were standing around waiting for Jesus' return. Paul tells them that they've got it all wrong. When Jesus comes back, he should find us hard at work "as unto the Lord."
Titus 2:9-10 & Titus 3:14
The Bible promotes compassion; however, it also teaches that compassion must be coupled with responsibility. We should not help people in such a way that we promote laziness.
First Timothy 5:3-8
Those who do not provide for their families are worse than pagans.
Ephesians 6:5-8 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, this passage and parallel passages have been used to give guidance to anyone who has an “earthly master.” (It does not condone slavery! That is a horrible misreading that fails to take into account the cultural context.) Paul’s words here are an admonition to anyone who works under the authority of someone else. I like the phrase “earthly masters” because it reminds us that our boss is not really our boss—he is only our “earthly” boss. We have a heavenly master, and he is the one we are ultimately working for! So the call in Ephesians 6:5-8 is to obey your earthly boss “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart.” In other words, do it for real.
We should do our work respectfully with a sincere heart.
Now I know this is easier to do when you have a direct report that you really respect—someone who does his work with passion, excellence, and humility. But we are not called to respect the boss because he is worthy of respect; we are called to respect him because of his position. My dad used to say, “If you can’t respect the person, respect the position.” That’s valuable advice. I say it a bit differently these days to make sure I’m clear, “Respect the person because of their position and because they are working under the authority of Christ.” However, inevitably, someone will ask, “What if my boss is a jerk?” I’ve been there. I’ve had bosses I couldn’t stand. Turns out, there’s a verse for that.
“Since a king's word is supreme, who can say to him, "What are you doing?" Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a man's misery weighs heavily upon him.”
- Ecclesiastes 8:4-6
The guy in charge is in charge. Get that through your noggin. If you spend all your time resisting him, you are only going to make things worse for yourself. Obey him and life will be better for you. Wise people know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Wise people know how to make adjustments. Wise people know when and how to approach their boss when they are not happy. Fools don’t.
Our former elder chair had 3 or 4 questions he asked me every single month when we met for accountability. Since we didn’t have the same priorities, some of the things he asked me about were things I wasn’t that interested in keeping track of. I didn’t get up in the morning thinking about the youth pastor’s expense report, but he thought about things like employee expense accounts and line-items in key budget categories. He wanted to be sure that those things were tracked. Obviously, we could have argued every month over why we needed to spend time on stuff I didn’t think was important, which would have resulted in longer meetings and two frustrated guys. Instead, I had monthly expense reports generated for his perusal. We were both happier for it.
We should do our work reverently to please the Audience of One.
You know the guy who does his best and hardest work when the boss is around? Don’t be that guy. Don’t make it your aim to curry your boss’ favor by trying to look good in front of him. Don’t be the person who only works hard when the boss is around. God calls you to be like “slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” In other words, it is God that you must be trying to please first. He is always watching, and he sees absolutely everything you do.
For hundreds of years, the church used a Latin expression to describe living life in the presence of God. Coram Deo, which literally means “face of God,” is the idea that everything Christians do we do to please the Audience of One. So whether you are swinging a hammer, preparing a lecture, managing a department, cleaning a house, creating music, drawing plans, caring for a client, writing a report, generating financials, or painting a house, do your work with a desire to please God first and your direct report next. Because, as Os Guinness wrote in The Call, “Living before the Audience of One transforms all our endeavors.”
We should do our work diligently to serve God and others well.
Imagine how our work would be transformed if we did every little thing with all our might as if we were serving the Lord. Working passionately means that we do our work with diligence and with excellence. I love Dorothy Sayers’ words on this topic:
“The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confided to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly during his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”
- Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?”
Let me remind all of us that it takes a great deal of effort to learn how to make good tables. Actually, learning any trade, craft, skill, or profession requires effort, especially if we want to become really good at it. No one becomes a journeyman carpenter overnight. No one wakes up one morning as an Olympic champion. No one learns how to become an effective leader, or manager, or CEO just by instinct. Talent must be developed.
Sometimes we hear about an overnight sensation, but if you listen to their story carefully, you’ll notice it’s only overnight to the rest of the world. That person has usually spent years and years learning their trade or honing their talent before they were “discovered.” Even the rare childhood prodigy almost always has years of demanding voice lessons or sports competitions or acting experience in his or her back pocket.
No matter what you aspire to do or be—a vet, a painter, a musician, a manager, a builder, an athlete, an actor, a wedding planner, a millworker, a professor, or a writer—you have to have God-given talent, you have to get the best possible training or education, and you have to get experience. And getting experience often means being willing to do anything and working really hard at it.
When people do their work, even the small and seemingly inconsequential things, with excellence, the world is a better place. Shoddy work, bad service, and half-hearted effort does not glorify God and does not serve others well.
We should do our work expectantly; we will be rewarded.
Maybe you are underappreciated and underpaid, a category many people place themselves in, well here is your encouragement. Work in faith with the confidence that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he or she does. If you do your work respectfully, to please God not man, and with passion knowing that he is watching, he promises to reward you. It may not be in this Friday’s paycheck, and it may not be right away, but you can count on God.
J. R. R. Tolkien was 10 years into his work on the now famous novel, The Lord of the Rings, when he began to despair that he would ever finish. He put his pen down in discouragement. God provided encouraged through his friend C. S. Lewis and also through an unusual dream. Tolkien committed the dream to paper in the form of a short story titled “Leaf by Niggle.” Niggle was a painter, and he had a grand plan for a great work of art, but Niggle was better at painting leaves than grand works of art. He sometimes got caught up in the details.
Niggle also was often distracted by people who wanted help—people who really had little appreciation for painting. They wanted Niggle’s help with more practical things. He worked away at his art, but he died before he finished his great work. To Niggle’s surprise, when he came into the new world, there before him was his life’s work. It was complete, it was real, and it was more beautiful than he could ever imagine it. Not only the leaves, but the tree, and the forests and rivers and the sky behind the tree. And he exclaimed, “It is a reward.”
What God said to Tolkien through his dream was this: work hard at your art and even if you only finish one leaf, you will be rewarded. Ironically, this promise of reward motivated Tolkien to finish his masterpiece, one of the best-selling novels in all of English literature. Indeed, we all can expect rewards for efforts done “as unto the Lord” to please Him and serve others well.
“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.’”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.