Loving Our Work
The work that we do has incredible meaning.
I want to fast forward to Revelation, and look at the last two chapters. Then we are going to backtrack to Isaiah 60. When we look at the very end of the story we're going to see this thing called the coming of the New Jerusalem and we'll see that there's another account of that coming of New Jerusalem found all the way back in the Old Testament in Isaiah. We're going to see the significance of these texts when it comes to how we set our expectations for work.
If you have your Bibles, turn to Revelation 21. I'm going to start there. But then the focus will actually be Isaiah 60. But for us to properly appreciate Isaiah 60 I want to start us off with Revelation 21.
Read Revelation 21:1-6, 9-11, 22-27
Now, this penultimate chapter of the Scriptures almost reads like a fictional tale. Our minds can't comprehend what is being written here. There's nothing for us to snap our experiences upon when we read something like this. It's something that should bring, in some sense, a sense of awe and a huge relief. In some ways our hearts are all yearning for this moment—this climax when Christ returns and there is a renewal of all things. The Christian hope is anchored in this coming reality.
This last picture of what the Bible communicates to us is another anchor point for us to understand the significance of our work. When you look at a text like this you see that New Jerusalem comes down as a bride, and at the very end you see that the kings of the earth with their splendor bring in their treasure. We begin to see a picture that becomes further elucidated in Isaiah 60. What's going to surprise us as we look at this text is what it is that we are moving toward. What is the work of Christ culminating in?
Now a lot of people think what happens at the end is really is just about people. So when people see the bride of Christ or when you think of this word the bride of Christ we almost always think of that in the context of the church, the people of God. When we think about the bride of Christ, it's appropriate for us to think about the church, because that's what Paul described the church as. But as we move forward in the New Testament we see at the very end there's this kind of twist—that the bride is not only the church, the people of God, but the bride is now expanded to be this city, the New Jerusalem. Commentators will share how this inclusion communicates that the bride is not only the people of God but also the works of their hands.
Another way of saying this: When you think about the work of Christ in redemption, does God care about Google? Does God care about Apple? Does God care about the things that you produce, that your companies produce? Does he care about clothing? Or at the end of the day is it just that he cares about people being there? I think for a lot of us, especially evangelicals, we really think that God really cares more about people in this sense.
You look at the hierarchy of professions in the Christian world, and a lot of people think at the very top of the hierarchy is the missionary to remote places in the world, people willing to risk their lives and their families to share the gospel and bring the Good News of the gospel to the far corners of the earth. They are the ones that are placed on the very top. Then below them are the pastors. They're the ones who give up everything in order to serve. Below them is what we would call service professionals. You're a doctor, you're a nurse, you help people, that's the other arm. It just keeps on going down. The bottom of that ladder is typically like bankers and lawyers. Because what really good things are you doing in our society? You just confuse our lives—and get a lot of money for doing that.
I saw this attitude come out during 2008. During the financial crash, Redeemer gathered all those who work in the financial industry together for a prayer time, because the whole financial industry was deeply shaken, and people working in these banks were deeply shaken. A lot of these bankers were actually questioning whether or not they should stay in the industry. They felt like God was punishing. Our sins had come back to us. They were questioning their sense of call. "David, should I stay in this industry when it's so clear now that it is kind of riddled with greed and corruption? Maybe this is God's wakeup call for me to leave." When they said that, it revealed the truth of what they really believed—that finance is not as important. I should do something that God would really care about. God would never let the medical industry collapse. No one questions, Am I doing a good thing if I'm a doctor? You might question being a doctor, but you don't question the goodness of what the profession at least is trying to do.
That betrays the reality that we do in our minds have a functional hierarchy of a job. The question is: Does God have that hierarchy? When he looks at all the things we do, one, does he actually care about what we do? And, secondly, is there a hierarchy? I think the text will surprise us when we start to realize that God does care about work.
When we look at this text in Isaiah 60, which is going to communicate a little bit more fully what Revelation 21 is talking about, something should really surprise you. Now just to give you a little bit of context in Isaiah 60 … This is a major prophet, and Israel has gone into exile, and Judah is now in exile. This last portion of Isaiah some people believe that the Israelites have returned back to Jerusalem and so this is post-exilic period. What Isaiah now is doing is prophesying about the hopeful future. So they have just experienced the worst thing that could ever happen to a nation. Your home being completely destroyed, and then being relocated, and now being brought back to your home. There is this utter devastation that God's people have and into this devastation comes Isaiah 60. So let me turn to Isaiah 60 now as we read this text in light of these questions that I've raised.
Read Isaiah 60:1-16
God cares about our work
Now this is a magnificent text here because it's communicating this richer portrayal to a people that have been utterly devastated. And as you're reading this you have to start to compare and contrast the Revelation account and the Isaiah account trying to bring a three-dimensional picture because of the kind of stereotypic vision now that we see. What we see in Isaiah should surprise you because there's a level of articulation here that's absent in the Revelation 21 account. Meaning Isaiah actually sees very concrete things entering into New Jerusalem in a way that Revelation 21 only kind of gives the big picture of.
The one thing I want to draw to your attention in particular is this idea of "the ships of Tarshish" entering in. Now if you do a word search on "the ships of Tarshish" in the Old Testament you realize that it only comes up a few times. The ships of Tarshish were not built by Israel. They were built by the people of Tarshish. If you look at a Bible dictionary they will show you that these ships were these large commercial boats, huge vessels built with certain kinds of specifications in order to basically move and transfer large amounts of wealth. For example, if you had a lot of gold you wanted to transfer and you know gold is heavy, you would only entrust that gold to the ships of Tarshish. You read in the Scriptures that Solomon in the golden age of Israel had a fleet of these ships. That communicates the kind of wealth that Solomon had. In other words, the ships of Tarshish were the ancient equivalent of our investment banks. So you can imagine when Israelites are hearing this glorious vision and in this vision of New Jerusalem you hear this: And behold—Goldman Sachs was in the city.
Does that connect with our understanding of heaven? When we think of New Jerusalem do we think of Goldman Sachs? Because that's there. At least the ancient equivalent of that. (Please give me some license here again. Don't tell people "Pastor David said Goldman Sachs is going to be in New Jerusalem." That's not what I'm saying. But I'm trying to give us an understanding of what they would have understood and heard when they heard Isaiah 60.)
What complicates things even further when you read other portions of Scripture, particularly Psalm 48:7; Isaiah 23:14, you see the ships of Tarshish are the objects of God's wrath, because they represent the pinnacle of human pride. You can see again the parallels in the investment and banking world. God says he's going to destroy the ships of Tarshish because of their pride. Again you have to ask: What in the world are the ships of Tarshish doing in this glorious, magnificent vision? We begin to see a picture that God cares about the products that we make and not just the people that make them.
When you look at this text, when you hear these words "The herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba … " These are the ancient equivalents of the iPods and the iPhones. These represented the pinnacle of technology, of sheep herding, the best flocks in the world are being included here. You would say, "Why does God care about this stuff? Didn't he care about the people more than he cares about the stuff?"
Let me share an illustration to help us bridge this mental gap. When I went home about four years ago I saw in the bathroom—and we pretty much grew up in the same house in the Philadelphia area for most of my childhood—a cup that I had made. It's one of those cups where you draw on a piece of paper you shove it in the cup and then you seal it and it's like a personalized cup. I made this cup when I was in the second grade. It had the artistry of a second grader, nothing fancy at all. I had this house with a Korean flag on it, and it's like what was going on in my mind. Maybe I was having an identity crisis or something. But I looked at it and I just marveled. It was in pristine condition. Which meant my mom had somehow saved this for literally thirty some years and decided for whatever reasons to finally display it. She kept it for three decades. Why would you do that? This thing is worth nothing. It's one thing if I was like a child prodigy—she could say, "Look, my child from the age of eight was this artistic genius." But it wasn't that. But every mother knows, every parent knows you would never divorce your child from what your child produces. She kept it because of her love for me. It's an expression of her love for me. She values that piece, that cup, that plastic cup that literally is worth pennies and it's priceless to her, because of the association and the love she has for me.
A lot of our attitudes as Christians when we think about work resemble when a child comes up to you and says, "Look, Dad! I drew this for you!" And let's say you took that and you just ripped it up right in front of them. Imagine what would happen. That's our attitude with God. If God will say, "Look at all the things that humanity is doing around the world, look at the production of the hands and the vines." Look at all the gifts that we have being created in his image. As if God would simply just burn that all up, tear it up, and say, "I don't care about that; I just care about you." Somehow we've made God, I think, inhumane.
Isaiah begins to help us understand this. That actually God cares about the things that human beings produce, and he's not saying it's just the Christian version—that God only cares about what Christians produce. No. You see these secular things that God says their treasures are going to enter into New Jerusalem. Theologians when they look at this concept they argue. When we think about New Jerusalem we can't think just in terms of people. That God's purposes in redemption, that there are multiple purposes. There are multiple divine purposes, and they're all wrapped up together. Somehow when we make the gospel focus just upon people it starts to diminish the ultimate purposes of God in salvation.
You might be saying, "Well, how is it that then in a broken world that these good things can be produced?" Well, I'm not going to get into it, but the doctrine is called common grace. The doctrine of common grace—where God allows humanity to continue to move forward to that ultimate end, in New Jerusalem, even in spite of our sin and brokenness, in spite of our broken motives. You see this beautifully in the ships of Tarshish which the Bible communicates as the expression of human pride. But God says, I'm not going to let your pride ruin this masterpiece that's created.
When you begin to understand this concept your motivations toward work begin to change. You actually begin to love your work, because you see that ultimately God loves it. Meaning when the child gives you their drawing and you love that drawing and you embrace it, and you stick it on the refrigerator for everyone to see, that child begins to love that drawing. Why? Again, because of the association that drawing now has because of the delight that it gave to you. And because of that, the work that we do can have incredible meaning.
Why we need to love our work
So, why is it that we need to love our work? Because God loves our work in a profound way. When you think about our response to our work, most of us would say that people's work does not corresponded with their deepest passion. That for a lot of us—and for most people in human history—it's not like they were excited to go to work and when they got to work it totally lined up. So the question is: What if I don't love my work? What if I just do my work because I have to?
When we look at the context of Isaiah 60 and the exilic world, God says something very strange to the Israelites. He says to them, to the nation that brought them into captivity, "I want you to seek the prosperity of this city. I want you to plant vineyards, build houses. For if it prospers so will you." You may have heard that verse, but I don't know if we understand how the people of God would have heard that. It's kind of like the Jews during World War II saying seek the prosperity of Berlin. Literally Hitler's Nazi regime would seem gentle compared to the Babylonians and the brutality of the Babylonian Empire. What they did to the empires that they took over was completely brutal. That background helps us understand how difficult it would have been for them to hear that verse "Seek the prosperity of this city." Again, God had some work in that city, "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it," and so there is a sense that God is calling his people to seek the good of the city because you don't know what I'm going to do through Babylon, too.
The exilic context really helps us, because for most of human history human beings will not be able to do work that resonates with the delight and the gifts that we have, and yet God is calling us to be faithful in all the work that we're called to—and to love our work. Even if you can't stand your boss, even if you think you're being grossly underpaid, he's calling you to love your work. Why? Because he ultimately loves the work. It's very broken, but the brokenness of the work will not stop God from redeeming it. For whatever reasons if you are called into your work, whether it's pragmatic reasons or X, Y, and Z, God is saying, I want you to start to change your heart and your attitude. I want you to think about this, to love your work not because you find that it's the expression of your greatest joys and greatest gifts, but because I love this.
This is the advice that I shared with the finance people. I said you have to stay here—especially now—because a lot of people will leave the industry by choice or by force. The people of God have to remain, because we believe that finance matters to God, that finance in many respects is the circulatory system of our society. We saw that—when the financial system collapsed it affected everything.
Why wouldn't God care about finance? Why wouldn't God care about Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs? These iconic banks that are corrupt, that are riddled with corruption and greed are still things that God cares about. That's why we advised them to stay because when things are rebuilt God wants his Nehemiahs and Daniels there to help rebuild it.
I remember as I shared this with some of our people the penny kind of dropped for one of them. He's an architect and he said, "You know, David, my ambition in this life was to design a building that everyone would know. You know one of those iconic buildings that everyone just knows who the architect is." He said, "That was my ambition." But he says once he began to understand the work of Christ and the fullness of the redemption, "My goal and my ambition is to have a building that actually makes it into New Jerusalem." He wasn't saying this like, "Oh, I want my name in heavenly lights." He's saying his heart he sees the greater purpose of his calling. That there is something that extends beyond the grave, that our work does echo into eternity, to quote Gladiator.
The next question people always ask me: "David, what gets in and what doesn't?" That's like asking me, "Who's going to be in heaven and who's not?" I don't know. That's up to God's sovereignty. This person looks really good. I think he'll make it. I don't know. I mean such-and-such a product looks great. Will that be in New Jerusalem? I don't know. It's part of the mystery of God's sovereignty. He says these things are too wonderful for you. But the Bible communicates that these artifacts, these things that are the production of human ingenuity and thought will be part of this larger work of redemption.
How does that strike you to think about that? Well, there is the chair that you're sitting on or these large commercial vessels or investment banks or the technology industry. These are parts of things that God cares enough to actually redeem and bring into New Jerusalem. Does that just change your entire worldview? It should.
Why we can't love our work
When you think about it, if God is calling us to be faithful where you are, why is it that it's so hard for us to love our work? The bottom line: we want our work to love us, and that's why we can't love our work. It's the same way that you can't truly love someone when you want them to love you. You're basically using them in order to get something from them. Right? So if I want something from someone, like, let's say my wife, she can tell the difference when I'm loving her for her versus loving her for me. You know the difference when you're being really nice to your spouse because you want her to do something for you? The same thing goes with our work.
Christians, hopefully, as we come to understand the gospel, begin to grasp the idea that our salvation is by grace alone. Meaning, it's not our merit, it's not how kind we are, it's not how loving we are, it's not how much money we give or how generous we are that brings us into favor with God. It's only through the grace of God by which we are accepted and loved by God. But our salvation by works creeps in through work. Meaning we know we can't ground our identity and our worth and how good we are as people, but the work sneak back through work. For most people our functional gospel is still our work. We want our work to give us a sense of identity, our sense of worth, our sense of calling. That's why we can never love our work, because we want our work to love us.
But I say for Americans your functional salvation is your work. I know your formal theology—if you've been going to this church for any amount of time—it is a gospel-preaching church, that you know the gospel formally. You understand that my identity is grounded in Christ and Christ is the source of my meaning. We just sang multiple songs about that. But functionally speaking that is not true. It is still your work. And literally we are justified by our work. That is why we can never love our work. We can never be like Brother Lawrence who was able to peel the potatoes with a certain joy and delight in his heart because he knows that God is present. We will always be fighting our bosses, our coworkers. We will be defending ourselves vigorously. We will be kind of backbiting and playing the games at work in order to advance, meanwhile forgetting the fact that God has called us to love our work.
It may mean unjustly being accused of certain things. It means not being promoted as quickly as we like or we think we should be promoted or even being overlooked. It's not getting the kind of applause and praise that we are all desperately seeking. Without the gospel really penetrating into our hearts, we are desperately insecure people. The things that we will gravitate towards as twenty-first century Americans will be our work. To that I say you've all heard "Faith without work is dead." The opposite is also true. Work without faith is dead. It's not work that we will love but it's work that we want to love us.
How God is redeeming us and our work
Where's the hope? "That's kind of depressing, David." In the movie The Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson there's a certain part in the film that is biblically anachronistic, meaning when Jesus is on the way in the Via Delarosa traveling with the cross on his back to Golgotha to be crucified, there's a point where he falls down, and there's a director's decision here to have Jesus look up. He sees his mother and he says something that is not recorded in the Gospel accounts. He says, "Behold, woman, I am making all things new."
Biblically speaking that happens in Revelation 21. But Mel Gibson decided to include that in this journey to the cross, because there is an artistic decision being made that as Jesus was traveling to the cross that he had in his mind his cross would not only pay for our sins, that the cross would not only redeem the people of God, but it would redeem all things. That the work of Christ on the cross would be comprehensive of this entire created order going back to Genesis 1, the original mandate that God had given to his people to be fruitful, to multiply, the fill the earth and subdue it, that Christ on the cross would redeem all things.
I think when we think of the gospel and we think of Christ on the cross, we have narrowed it. We somehow think it's just about me. It is in some perspective, but you are a lot bigger than just you. The gospel is a lot bigger than just you and all these individual people being saved so that we can all rejoice together in heaven. But the view of the gospel is that God is now through the work of Christ not only redeeming us in our hearts as individuals but he is redeeming the work that we do and the things that are being done in the world. The gospel, indeed, does change everything. It changes the way you see all of your life from Monday through Sunday, and it begins to help you understand how big the gospel is and the expanse of God's heart.
I was in China a few years ago for two months, and I had a very strange experience that was a powerful expression for me in enlarging my heart to see how big God's heart was. I was teaching, of all things, U.S. History to college students in China, as part of a Christian organization. As we were teaching these various places we had an official from the communist party follow us around and they just wanted to make sure we were "kosher." We came to this small village, a little bit north of Xian Zchen, an economic town, but one that was clearly going through some difficult economic times. I always introduced myself not as a pastor but as someone who works on a campus—in order to keep it vague. There was a group of us as five teachers, and they had set up for this Q&A, and there was a table with a bunch of microphones in front of us and we all began to introduce ourselves. I was sitting in the middle and my two colleagues introduced themselves, and then it was my turn. I stood up—and my usual introduction is "My name is David Kim. I teach at a university in America"—in that moment for whatever reason I sensed God saying to me, "David, tell them you're a pastor." If I really thought about it I probably would not have said it. But in that moment I said, "My name is David Kim. I'm a pastor." In that moment, about two hundred people, they all started to clap. Not like a polite clap but like a thunderous clap. And they hadn't clapped for my other two colleagues. I was just looking at them really bewildered and scared, and so I sat down knowing what just happened.
Then during the Q&A time this woman in the back right of the room stands up and she said, "Pastor David, the reason why we clapped when you said you were a pastor, our town has been going through some very difficult times and we thought God had abandoned us. And when we heard that you were a pastor, we were so excited to know that God had sent you here." In that moment as I saw the hearts of the people and tears are coming down my eyes when you hear something like that. God gave me a wonderful gift by showing me his heart and more or less saying, "Look, David, I want you to travel around the world because there is a group of people, a small village in China, that I want to make sure that they don't forget that I love them."
The gospel is like that. That that when you begin to see your work as part of what God loves about you and what God loves about this world, your heart begins to burn because you realize the expanse of God's love and the expanse of what Christ finished on the cross when he said, "It is finished." It's not just about you. It's so much bigger. The beautiful part of this, what elevates the beauty even further is that ultimately it's not about us. It's about God, because in Revelation 21 you see something. You see the Father giving his bride to his Son, and his New Jerusalem. He says, "My bride," the bride for my Son "will be beautifully adorned." It won't be this meager bride. It will be a bride that is full, and developed, and the wealth and the honor of the nations will enter into it.
Ultimately, I think there are theological reasons for it. That ultimately, this is about Christ. This is about Christ—who deserves not just a people in choir robes singing glory to him, but everything being restored, and saying, "this is my gift to you for what you have done." For parents who have given a child away in marriage—what brings you more delight than giving your child to someone who is fully prepared, fully ready?
One way of thinking about redemptive history is God making the bride ready to give to his Son, the Son whom he adores, the Son whom he loves, the Son who gave himself up in obedience and love to the Father. So this whole story of redemption is about this great love story that is found within the Godhead which we now experience because of God's glory and his delight and delighting in us and having that delight enter into us.
David H. Kim is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work and the Pastor of Faith and Work for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York