We're in a series called (re)new and we're looking at how the gospel makes everything new again. How does the gospel change the way I look at the place where I live, or how does the gospel change the way I examine my heart? How does the gospel redefine and reshape how I do community and what it means? The goal of this series is to integrate the gospel into every facet of our lives, to have it permeate our beings so that we can live as God created us to live, intends for us to live, and desires for us to live.
The goal is for us to understand and know and experience this truth: Grace changes everything. Today we're going to talk about how the gospel renews our work. I know what some of you are thinking: A sermon on work … that's like a double shot of boring. Hopefully, it won't be as uninteresting as it sounds, but I know it'll be awfully relevant, as work is a huge part of our lives.
In fact, work and rest show up all the way back in Genesis 1 and 2, all the way back in creation, at the very beginning of things, which tells us that this rhythm of work and rest is at the very heart of what it means to be human. So we're going to look at the gospel and our work under three headings: the gift of work, the curse of work, and the redemption of work.
The gift of work
The Bible opens with: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," and the next stream of verses are a beautiful song of creation with a repeating refrain: "God said, 'Let there be …,' and it was so … and it was good. God said, 'Let there be …,' and it was so … and it was good." This song culminates in chapter 2 verse 2, where God says, "By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done."
The very first picture you have of God in the Bible is this snapshot of God engaged in this joyful, exuberant activity the Bible calls work. One commentator on Genesis says, "Do you realize how intellectually radical this statement was at the time it was written?" No one back then had the incredibly positive view of work that the Bible has.
Many ancient cultures had their ancient texts and beliefs. If you look at the Eastern accounts of creation, like the Enuma Elish (a famous Babylonian account of creation), work is toil. Work is a grind. Work is drudgery. It's the activity of slaves. Some of you feel that same way. In the Enuma Elish, there is this great battle of the gods, and Marduk, the king of the victorious group of gods, creates the world by slitting open the body of a god he destroys. Then he invites the other gods to come live in this new world. The other gods say to Marduk, "Uh, I don't think so, because do you realize how much maintenance it would take to run this place? We're afraid if we live there, we're going to have to work." To which Marduk replies, "I will produce a lowly, primitive creature. Man shall be his name, and to him shall be charged the work, so that the gods may have rest." You see here in the Enuma Elish work is bad. The gods don't work. Human beings work so the gods can rest. That's completely different from what the Bible says about work.
We also have the ancient Western accounts of creation from the Greeks and Romans. One of the most famous accounts is the myth of Pandora's Box. Zeus gives Pandora a jar and says to her, "Don't open it." And what does she do? Of course, she opens it! What comes out? All the bad things—everything that's wrong with the world: death, disease, decay, cats (just kidding), and work. Work is in Pandora's box. It comes out along with death and disease and decay.
Here in Genesis, we find something that flies in the face of what everyone else seemed to believe about work: Work is something God does. Work is good, and work is something God enjoys. In fact, after God says, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness …," he puts them in a garden he planted to work it and care for it. He gives them work. You know what that means? It means that work is in paradise. Work is in the Garden of Eden, in perfection, where everything is as it should be. In the Garden of Eden, there is beauty (God gave them beautiful things to look at), there is spirituality (God walks with them in the cool of the day), there is sexuality, friendship, and work.
The Bible has this incredibly positive view of all work. Genesis 2:7 says, "The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." This is an incredible, almost unbelievable, picture of God with his hands in the soil doing manual labor. It's what Tim Keller calls "God with dirt under his fingernails." Just think about that: The all-powerful Creator God of the universe with dirt under his fingernails from doing manual labor. The Bible is not just lifting up work but all work, even what we call "menial" work, and dignifying it. The Bible says that all work has dignity because it reflects God.
All work, whether you're a student or an architect or a sales clerk or a doctor, all work reflects the work of God and creation. After all, what did God do in creation? He brought order out of chaos for the purpose of his glory and human flourishing. Genesis 1:2 says that the Spirit hovers over the empty matter and brings order out of chaos; the Spirit takes the raw material of creation and brings newness out of it, and our work is a reflection of that.
So if you're a musician, what are you doing? You're taking the raw material of sound, and you're rearranging it, and you're creating something new and beautiful. If you're an entrepreneur, you're taking the raw material of ideas and concepts and human resources, and you're creating a business or a product that wasn't there before. If you're a teacher or a parent, you're bringing forth lessons and learnings, and you're drawing out your children's potential. In all these cases, you're doing exactly what the Spirit did.
Every human being was created to reflect that work of the Spirit, which means that work is not merely what you do for a paycheck. According to Dorothy Sayers, "Work is the gracious expression of creative energy in the service of others." That means we can all do this—whether you're in between jobs or you're retired or you're a volunteer; whether you're a neurosurgeon or a gardener; whether you're a venture capitalist or a stay-at-home parent. All work is a calling from God. All work reflects the Creator God. All work satisfies something God put inside of us, and all work has dignity. All work is a gift.
Now let's be honest: that probably isn't our Monday through Friday experience, right? Some of you might be thinking, That is so utopian. It's unrealistic. It's naïve. I hate my work. My work has been a place of incredible frustration and anxiety and hurt. I would do anything to get out of the job I'm in. But the Bible is completely realistic, because it says that something happened to work.
The curse of work
When we rebelled against God, when sin entered the world, something happened to the gift of work. Work came under a curse. It came under a burden and became distorted. In Genesis 3, God says to Adam, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
From the fall came thorns and thistles, frustration and toil, broken copiers, annoying memos, unending emails, the guy with coffee breath who works right next to you. More than that, sin distorted our relationship to our work, so that work was no longer about the gracious expression of creative energy and the service of others. Work was no longer just about the work. With the curse work became something else.
When arguing that there is no God, Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould said this:
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures. We are here because a comet struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs and gave mammals a chance. We are here because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age, because a small and tenuous species arising in Africa a quarter of million years ago has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a "higher" answer, but none exists. We may yearn for the meaning of life, but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating. We have to construct, therefore, any meaning, ourselves.
Stephen Jay Gould is absolutely right. He's saying that if there is no God, or if we don't have a relationship with God, how could we mean anything? How would we have any worth? How would we know if there is any meaning in life? If there is no God, we have to construct our own meaning. And we would do that through our work. That's why in Chariots of Fire, when someone asks Harold Abrahams why he runs, he replies, "I run because I have 10 seconds to justify the meaning of my existence."
If you want a more contemporary example, Madonna says in Vogue magazine, "This is what my music is about … every time I accomplish something great, I feel like a special human being, but after a little while, I feel mediocre and uninteresting again, and I find I have to get past this again and again. My drive in life is from the horrible fear of being mediocre, and I have to prove to myself and to others that I am somebody." She's saying when we look to our work to give us something only God can give us, work is no longer just about work; it's about us. It's about self-promotion, self-provision, self-fulfillment, or self-justification.
That drive is making our work a mess, because if work is just about self-provision, if work is just a paycheck to you, there is no dignity. There is no meaning. There is no joy. And if work is about self-justification, if it's about creating meaning and building an identity for yourself, you're going to overwork. You're going to be stressed. You're going to be anxious. You're going to be afraid.
Do you see what a heavy burden this is? And it doesn't just happen to Olympic runners and singers. It happens to pastors, too. When I was first asked to preach, I was like, "No, are you crazy?" I didn't want to do it, because it's scary. I was afraid.
Why was I so afraid? I want to say the reason why I was so concerned about doing a good job preaching was for your souls, because I love you and I want your good. I want to say that, but the reason why I worked so hard and was so driven and so anxious is because I have an idolatrous heart. That's right. One of your teaching pastors is an idolater. I start getting caught up in thoughts like, What are they going to think about my sermon? Are people going to like my stuff? Is it going to be funny and engaging enough? And when I get caught up in all of that, I lose sight of the fact that work exists as a way to help others and worship God. So preaching this sermon is great for me. It's been really convicting.
Throughout the process of writing this sermon, I prayed, "God, I want to put me aside, and I want to be helpful to those who will hear this. I want to be changed on the inside, and I want to worship you."
The redemption of work
Are you unhappy with your work? Are you burdened? Are you anxious? Are you frustrated? Is there no dignity? Is there no joy? Is your heart a mess because of your work? If so, you need the redemption of your work that comes from Sabbath rest. Sabbath rest isn't just physical rest. It isn't just knocking off on Sunday. It's finding rest in redemption.
Way back in chapter 2 of Genesis, God cried out with joy, "It is finished!" He had finished the work of creation. Centuries later, Jesus Christ cried out, "It is finished!" as he hung on the cross. After God first said "It is finished," he got rest because he was finished creating. When Jesus Christ cried out "It is finished!" on the cross, he did it so that we could get rest.
The writer of Hebrews 4:9 puts it like this: "And therefore, we who have believed enter that Sabbath rest now, and there remains a rest, then, for the people of God. Anyone who enters God's rest through faith in Christ rests from his own work just as God did from his." In other words, if you believe the gospel, if you believe Jesus Christ died on the cross for you, and in him you are loved, you are accepted, and you are holy, you will be free. You will be free from the work that's underneath your work, the work that's pulling you down, the work that's drudgery. You will be free from the burden of needing to prove yourself in your work, from the burden of creating meaning for yourself through the work, from the burden of using your work as a basis for your identity.
This applies to students as well. I see all these kids preparing for college who are so stressed out and saying things like, "If I don't get into this school or this thing, then I won't measure up." The gospel frees you from all of that, because if you know deep down in your heart that you already have the approval of the only One who matters, if you know in your heart that you are somebody, you are significant in the eyes of the only One who matters, and your security is rooted in love and acceptance of the God of the universe who calls you his child—if you know this, you're going to have rest in your souls, and you can finally just work.
When work is just about work, and it's not about you, it takes a completely different shape. Grace literally changes work from being a place of drudgery and toil, a place of burden, a place where you're doing something just for a paycheck or an identity or a sense of significance, and it turns it into something life-giving, because now work is a place of mission, work is a place of spiritual transformation, and work is a place of worship. There is a redemptive outward component, inward component, and upward component.
Our work as mission
Work is mission. The gospel helps you to realize you don't have a job; you don't have a career; rather, you have a calling. There is a divine calling on each and every one of your lives. Right now, no matter what you're doing, God has placed you there for a purpose, because there are things only you can do, places where only you can go, people only you can reach. God has placed you there for the purpose of serving others. Think about that. What happens when someone starts to view their work as mission? Well, you get cupcakes and the glory of God.
Back in Cambodia, I met a woman named Ruth Larwill. Ruth is a soccer mom from Brisbane, Australia. She's a typical, suburban, working mom. Her life consists of going to work, hanging out with the family, and taking nice vacations. She also has a passion for cake decoration, so in her free time, she makes cupcakes.
One day, this thought popped into her head: Go to Cambodia, and teach people how to make cupcakes. She couldn't believe it. She had never been to Cambodia before, she doesn't know anybody in Cambodia, and Cambodia is not the first place she would vacation. But she couldn't shake that voice, so she told her husband. She expected her husband to affirm the nonsense of that voice, but instead, he said to her, "Well, if it's God, you better pay attention." And he added, "If you want to check out if this is a God thing or not, you have to raise the funds." She didn't find his response terribly helpful.
The next day Ruth went to work, and her boss said to her, "Ruth, this is really, really embarrassing. I don't know how this happened, but our accounting department told us that we have been underpaying you. Here is a check for the difference." And guess what? It was the exact amount for the airfare from Brisbane to Cambodia. She took it as a sign.
So Ruth went to Cambodia, and through a series of meetings, she found out that there's a huge market in Cambodia for decorative cakes. She also found that through her business there's a way for girls who are rescued out of trafficking to find dignity and healing and hope and a future. As she was discovering all this, she met a girl named Tia. Tia was 11 years old and she had just been rescued out of trafficking. Someone told Tia a long time ago that there was a God out there who loved her, but Tia could not believe it. I don't blame her.
Tia told this story to Ruth and said, "Every night I would pray, 'God, if you're there, and if you're so big, and if you're so loving, then why am I here? Why am I here?'" As Tia was sharing this with Ruth, something just clicked in Ruth's heart, and Ruth told her, "Well, Tia, I just want to let you know that God heard your prayers, and he whispered in the heart of a mother on the other side of the world."
How Ruth's business, Café Bloom, got funding is another God story. I get email updates from Café Bloom, and the one I got this week said,
Bloom now has 23 graduates fully employed in the café and bakery. That's 23 girls who were rescued; 23 girls with a hope and a future. Our cakes have made their way to the Royal Palace and are regularly ordered by the prime minister's family and have made it on the front page of the Cambodian Daily.
We were blessed with a personal visit from the Australian ambassador who somehow heard about Bloom and wanted to drop by. It was all very exciting because when he arrived, he arrived with an entourage of black limos and cars and securities, and the girls thought he was the king of Australia or something. The most amazing thing is the girls are now smiling, and they're able to envision a future in which they have liberty. They are honored, and they are loved, and they are taught to believe in their own self-worth, and when they graduate, they get a certificate. They get an album full of pictures of their cakes, and they get a bracelet with the verse, "Her worth is far above rubies or gold," from Proverbs. This is what Bloom is about … restoring dignity and honor to God's daughters from whom they were wrongfully stolen.
All of this from a soccer mom who had a passion and a gift and who saw her work as mission. There's no telling what could happen when you start to go about your work as mission.
Our work as spiritual formation
The gospel doesn't just transform our work as mission. It transforms our work into a place of spiritual formation. Dallas Willard said the primary place of spiritual formation isn't in church; it's not in your small groups; and it's not in your 15-minute morning devotionals.
The primary places of spiritual formation are in your relationships and in your work or school. Where do you learn patience? Not from a book. You learn it from broken copiers and annoying memos and unending emails and the guy with coffee breath, right? Where do you learn perseverance? Not from a sermon, but from changing diapers and doing your homework well and dealing with crying babies.
In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Willard says,
One who does not know this way of job discipleship by experience cannot begin to imagine what release and help and joy there is in it. And to repeat a crucial point, if we restrict our discipleship to special religious times, the majority of our waking hours will be isolated from the manifest presence of the kingdom in our lives. To not find your job to be the primary place of discipleship is to automatically exclude a major part, if not the most, of your waking hours from life with him. The gospel turns your work into a spiritual formation training center.
Our work as an avenue of worship
Finally, the gospel turns your work into an avenue of worship. Paul talks in Colossians 3:23 in response to the great news of God's love for us. He says this: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord … since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
I remember my first job. I worked at my parents' motel, and I hated it! We had to start early every day, around 7:00 in the morning, and we had to clean around 20 rooms. My mom would go in and scrub the toilets and the bathtub, my job was to vacuum, and my sisters took care of the trash. I remember being so resentful about having to work with my mom, because none of my other friends had to work, and I wanted to be hanging out with them.
The last thing I wanted was to clean up someone else's mess with my mom, and my mom knew this, so whenever she could, she let me off the hook, and she would do the extra work. But there were times when she needed help, and she would ask me, and I would come with an attitude. I'd come begrudgingly, and I let her know I wasn't happy. This went on throughout high school and into college. But in college, something changed.
My mom thought I needed a car, and so she saved up some money to buy me one. We shopped around and found this awesome used '89 black Acura Integra. It was stick shift and a hatchback. It had plastic, chrome rims, and it was all for a cool $3,300. I knew our financial situation. I knew this was an incredible sacrifice on my mom's part, and so I was thankful. I was psyched about the car.
I sat there beaming in the seat, thinking, Man, I got my ride. And as we were finalizing the sale at that used car dealership and the salesman left to go get some paperwork, my mom reached over and grabbed my hand. She had tears in her eyes, and she said to me, "I'm sorry I couldn't buy you a nicer car."
As a kid, you always know your parents love you, but you just don't realize how much love and sacrifice there is behind the scenes, and I got a glimpse of it that day. I never looked at my work the same way again; it changed my perspective. From that point on, I looked for ways to help out at the motel. I'd ask my mom what I could do for her, because it wasn't just a job anymore. The work wasn't just a job; it was a way for me to express my love and gratitude in response to my mom's sacrificial love to me.
If you understand the gospel, if you get a glimpse of the sacrificial love of Christ, it will change and transform your job, because it won't just be a job or a paycheck or a ladder. It will be a way for you to express your love and gratitude to a God who loves you enough to die for you. It will be an avenue of worship. Your place of work, whether you're working as a student or at a job, will be a place of worship.
It's kind of funny. You know, Jesus was a king, but he didn't come into the world as a king. He came as a carpenter and as a fisherman. And he worked as a teacher and a doctor, healing people. He was a social engineer of a new city, and he was an architect of a new temple. He was an advocate and a judge. He was a military general who, incidentally, didn't call on his army of angels at the moment of his greatest need and weakness. He was a caretaker of children, and he was a writer. We don't know what he wrote in the sand, but I'm sure it was awesome, and he worked as a storyteller and a bellhop because he was always taking people's baggage. He would invite them, "Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." But his greatest work was as a prisoner and a convict. They convicted him. They imprisoned him. They flogged him and crucified him. He literally worked to his death to give us rest.
Because of Jesus' work, you can do your work with joy and creativity and meaning and purpose. Whatever your job is, you're called to it by him. You're becoming like him, and you're worshiping him. Your greatest reward for your work won't be a huge paycheck or that college acceptance letter or a fat 401(k). It won't be some title or position. Your greatest reward for your work is for you to stand before your Savior and your King and to hear him say to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done." You see, grace changes everything.
Kevin Kim is a teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, and campus minister at Menlo's San Mateo site.