This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Sunday through Saturday Connection". See series.
Undoubtedly you have heard the phrase, "TGIF-Thank God It's Friday." It's a broadly-shared sentiment, as we head home from work looking forward to the weekend. There's nothing wrong with the sentiment, but I wonder how often (if ever) you've said to yourself on the morning following the Lord's Day, "TGIM-Thank God It's Monday!" Obviously that is a far less common phrase. But today I'd like to consider together why for Christians, the phrase TGIM makes a lot of sense and should increasingly mark our own vocabulary. You see, as believers in Jesus, our worldview about work is different than that expressed by much of popular culture. Our understanding of work is, in fact, deeply counter-cultural.
Popular culture tends towards two extremes when it comes to work. On the one hand, work has become an idol for some. For some people, work is the center of their identity, and they are trying to draw their very life from their job or career and the successes and recognition therein. This, we know from the Word of God in Jeremiah 2:13, is nothing but drinking from broken cisterns instead of from the Living Water. As believers, we affirm the high dignity and value of work, but we know that it cannot bear the weight of our deepest hopes and longings. Work is good, but needs to remain in its proper place and not become an idol.
On the other hand, much of our popular culture disparages work: we are cynical about it, we view it merely as an unfortunate but necessary means of getting the bills paid, and we see it as full of pettiness, cynicism, backstabbing, and ultimate meaninglessness. Just consider the (admittedly hilarious) TV show The Office, or the comic strip Dilbert.
God is a worker
Here are a few quotes I found about how people think about work in America:
"Every day I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I'm not there, I go to work."
"The world is divided into people who do things—and people who get the credit."
"In any organization there will always be one person who knows what is going on. This person must be fired."
And not only are we cynical about our work and our workplaces, we're cynical about ourselves, as this quote reveals:
"If hard work is the key to success, most people would rather pick the lock."
Into this context steps the very different, biblical, understanding of work. We don't have time today for a comprehensive biblical theology of work, but consider these foundational points.
Work shows up in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. It is a "pre-Fall" phenomenon and that's important to remember. Work is part of God's normative, good intentions for how the world ought to be. In Genesis 3, as we all know, work becomes the fallen thing that we sometimes experience it to be now: hard, sweaty, frustrating. But work is a good thing, created by God.
As Andy Crouch has pointed out in his very insightful book, Culture Making, God made humans beings for work as well as for worship. In the Christian creation story, Crouch reminds us, humans are "given a cultural task, not just instructed to be dutiful worshipers (unlike in other creation myths of the time)." Think about that. God wants both our work and our worship.
God himself is a worker, and he dignifies all labor. The fact that God works is actually a shocking concept to adherents of many other religions, for whom a "working deity" would be an embarrassment. Other cosmologies do not believe God "lowers" himself to work. In contrast, the author of Genesis uses a very ordinary word in Genesis 2:2-3, when describing God's work over the first several chapters. It's the Hebrew word melakah and it's used for ordinary human labor. It is extraordinary to many other religions that the Christian God who is claimed as the Creator of heavens and earth should be described also as an ordinary worker.
So to sum up, in the Biblical worldview, God works, and work is very good, and our calling to work is a very high calling indeed. And all of that is quite countercultural.
The implication of this is that we as Christians will need to do some work to hang on to our unique understanding of work in the midst of the popular culture's misunderstandings of work. We need to recognize that we are in a struggle to think and feel rightly about our work. Work is one of those arenas where we have to engage, in a disciplined fashion, in what the Apostle Paul exhorts us to in Romans 12:1—that is, not conforming to the world around us but being transformed in our thinking by God's Word and God's Spirit.
One way we can work to transform our minds in regard to work is to reflect on how our daily work connects to the three general ways that God himself is at work in the world. I think that doing this helps us to find greater meaning in our day-to-day labors. It helps us to press against that cynical attitude that what we're doing is just so mundane or not important at all.
Now thinking about how our work connects to God's work in the world requires that we actually think about the work itself. Now that may seem obvious, but the truth is that most of the Christian thinking that has been done on this topic of "faith and work" has not really been about the work itself. Rather, it has been primarily about how we act as workers. That is, we have been taught that being a Christian banker, engineer, teacher, or a Christian architect is to be a kind banker; an honest engineer; a caring teacher, an ethical architect. And these matters of character are indeed a very important part of what it means to connect our faith and our work. But by itself this approach to thinking about faith-work integration is incomplete. It focuses only on the worker but not on the work itself. And the work itself actually matters.
Being good stewards of our vocations requires thinking wisely about the work itself-about the products being developed, about the way the company or organization is shaping its industrial sector, about the business model or principles being utilized. And this is where reflecting a bit on the ways that God is at work in the world is helpful.
Three ways that God works in the world
There are three broad ways that God is at work in the world:
Ongoing providence and provision
The first way that God is at work in the world is through his ongoing work of providence. He didn't just create the world and then abandon it to itself. He is present and engaged; he is actively sustaining and providing. For example, Psalm 104:10-15 says:
He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
Here we see God actively providing food and water and shelter for His creatures. Or consider Psalm 145:14-16:
The Lord upholds all who fall,
And raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look expectantly to You,
And You give them their food in due season.
You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
Everyone and everything ultimately looks to God for his provision.
But in God's design, we humans participate in his ongoing provision for the world through our own work. God is the source of all of our life. But the means through which he provides are typically means in which we participate. God is the source of all our food; God is the ultimate source of all our medicines; God is the ultimate source of the nonmaterial provisions we need. But in getting food, medicine, and nonmaterial goods like counseling to us, he uses human workers—farmers, truck drivers, chemists, pharmacists, and psychiatrists. This is all part of the cultural mandate from Genesis 2. God made us human beings to love and serve our neighbors through our daily work, work that participates in God's ongoing provision for his creation. Our work itself matters because through it we are imaging God to the world—we are reflecting him as Provider—and we are being used by him in the very practical tasks of getting his "providing work" done.
The Jewish Talmud contains a riddle: Why didn't God create a bread tree if he meant man to live on bread? Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch say in their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, write:
[God] prefers to offer us a grain and invites us to buy a field and plant the seed. He prefers that we till the soil while He sends the rain. He prefers that we harvest the crop while He sends sunshine … Why? Because He would rather we become partners with Him in creation. Of course, God could simply supply our every need and solve our every problem. But our God invites us into a creative partnership with Him. He supplies the earth, the air, the water, the sun and our strength and then asks us to work with Him.
Much of our work under this "provision" category is also about maintaining and preserving. It is about work that keeps chaos from breaking out. Bridge inspectors, for example, do their work to ensure that public infrastructure is holding together properly. Computer programmers take huge amounts of data and make it possible to sort that information and categorize it and interpret it. Janitors and garbage collectors promote public health through their sanitation work. Artists and musicians take raw materials of color and sound and rearrange them in ways to bring about beauty for the eyes and the ears, to sustain us by lifting our spirits. Lawnmower manufacturers make the products that help our yards from being completely overgrown and tangled with weeds. Refrigerator salesmen help provide us with appliances to preserve our food. Auto mechanics keep our cars running and construction companies make the houses we live in and roads we drive on.
In all these ways we participate in God's providing-and-sustaining-and-preserving work, and that work itself matters.
Secondly, God is at work actively restraining evil. Now, given all the horrors of suffering, abuse, and warfare that we see in our world today, that may be a hard truth to grasp. But the truth is that life here would be immeasurably worse if God in his kindness was not in fact holding back his wrath and setting boundaries on Satan's activities.
The restraint of evil is one purpose of what theologians refer to as God's "common grace." The reformed theologian John Calvin wrote of this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, saying:
Amidst the corruptions of nature there is some room for divine grace, not to purify it, but internally to restrain its operations. In His elect the Lord heals these maladies. In others He restrained them, only to prevent their ebullition (boiling over) so far as He sees to be necessary for the preservation of the Universe.
And here again, we humans also participate in God's restraining work through some of our own occupations. Consider for example, the work of police officers, judges, ombudsmen, investigative journalists, compliance officers, soldiers in a peacekeeping force, public officials, or high-level management executives who use their influence to sway their firms away from ethically dubious practices.
In all these ways we participate in God's restraining work, and that work itself matters.
Thirdly, God is active in the world doing his beautiful work of restoration. He is on a grand mission to renew all things. The great gospel story has four chapters: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. With the inauguration of Jesus, a measure of the coming, future kingdom of God has arrived. The kingdom is both now and not yet. Jesus brought foretastes of the coming kingdom into reality during his earthly ministry and he continues to do that work now. For example, he offered foretastes of the total wholeness we will enjoy in the new earth when he touched and healed the sick. As we sing during Advent, Jesus comes to make his blessings flow "far as the curse is found." He is active in the work of pushing the kingdom's shalom and justice into the world while pushing back the fallen world's corruption, evil, and suffering.
We humans get to participate in that restoring and renewing work through our human labors. Engineers discern how to take waste products and recycle them into usable goods. Doctors figure out how to restore sick bodies to health. Counselors help people move from mental anguish to greater psychological wholeness. Farmers transform wilderness into vegetable-producing gardens. Insurance agents help people recover from accidents and get things—houses and cars—put back together again. Real estate developers can go into an economically distressed neighborhood and breathe new economic life into it through strategic investments.
In all these ways we participate in God's restoring work, and that work itself matters.
How our work connects with God's work
So, that's the first exercise we can practice: reflecting carefully on how our work connects to God's work as provider, as the restrainer of evil, and as the renewer of all things.
The second exercise we can practice in order to live out a robust integration of our faith and work is to consider how, with intentionality, we can steward our work in ways that positively influence our workplace culture and the culture of our industrial sector. And I think the best way to talk about this is to focus less on definition and more on showing. So I want to tell some stories that I hope will give you a "3-D" picture of what I'm talking about here.
We've been talking about how the work itself matters. But the ways in which the work gets done also matters to God. Consider an ordinary carpet or rug. I believe that rugs matter to God. Rugs are good for human flourishing. They keep us off the floor so we're cleaner. Rugs can be very beautiful and can provide aesthetic pleasure as works of arts. Rugs make for softer floors which makes it easier for dads to wrestle with their kids without hurting them. If a clerk can stand on a rug or pad rather than on the concrete floor it helps their bodies—their feet and backs won't ache as much. So rugs are good and the act of making rugs is good. But God doesn't just care about the quality of the rugs or the fact that it's good for human society to have rugs. He also cares about how the rugs get made. And in some parts of Southeast Asia, rugs get made in a very bad way indeed—because they get made using child bonded labor. There is injustice in parts of the rug-making industry. So it is appropriate not only to think Christianly about rugs but also to think Christianly about how rugs get made.
In other words, another way to integrate our faith and work is to consider how we can contribute to the culture of our workplaces; how we can make them places of justice, peace, beauty, community, and human flourishing. Now part of that gets us back to the familiar area of Christian character that we spoke of earlier—remember that when we talked about being kind bankers and compassionate bankers. And obviously through our godly character we do indeed influence our workplace cultures. But I'm talking now about another dimension which we might refer as workplace practices or systems or policies. For example, what I'm saying is that as employees we should not only strive personally to be people of ethical character, being honest with our customers for example, or treating our co-workers well. We should also seek to intentionally contribute, as we are able—depending on the level of influence we have and the positions and roles within the organization that we inhabit—to see to it that the organization is ethical; that the organization treats its customers honestly; that the organization treats its workers well.
One believer who has practiced this is a man named Doug Wilson. Doug is an executive at a company in Indiana called Hillenbrand. Doug and his colleagues were concerned about ever-skyrocketing costs of healthcare. They also were concerned about the fact that they knew many employees weren't going to the doctor when they needed to, or getting their prescriptions filled due to cost and time factors. To make a long story short, they established a health and welfare center on site where employees can get prescriptions filled, X-rays done, and see a family physician. Employee health is improving and this has led to significant cost savings for the company—even with the expense of operating the Health and Wellness Center. Doug and his colleagues brought an innovation to the workplace that is a win-win for the employees and the company.
This story illuminates how it is possible for us in our work to positively influence our workplace cultures.
My next story is about a woman named Cheryl Broetje. Along with her husband she owns and operates a major apple orchard. In their industry, most orchard owners use migrant laborers to pick the produce. From the earliest days in their company's life, the Broetjes witnessed the hardships of the migrant workers' lives. They decided that their company would treat these workers differently. So they created full-time, year-round employment and built a preschool. They built quality housing, a daycare center, a library, and a computer lab. They actually listen to the concerns of their workers. For example, when they learned that families were suffering when the fathers were working early morning in the fields and the mothers were working the swing shift in the plant, they built a new packing facility that eliminated the need for early evening work.
Now, you might be thinking: "Fine Cheryl Broetje and Doug Wilson had leverage, but I'm just living in 'cubicle land' and I don't have any influence." Well, consider the story of "Bob." He was a brand-new college graduate, holding a degree in accounting, and he landed a job at one of the large national accounting firms. Several months into his job, all the company employees received an email asking for employees to volunteer to be on the committee that made decisions about the company's charitable division. Bob signed up, and much to his surprise at the first meeting Bob got elected committee chairman because he wanted it and nobody else did!
Although he was an entry-level employee, Bob was able to bring about changes in that committee's work. He motivated staff to participate in a volunteer community service initiative and then got the bosses to agree to let the employees take off for a day so they could volunteer with local nonprofits. He encouraged the start-up of an employee giving campaign. And of course he had his favorite Christian ministries in that city and he was able to promote the company's involvement with those groups. Bob changed the culture of that organization from indifference to real enthusiasm about actively contributing to their community.
Our work as worship
I hope these stories inspire you; I know they did me. We have amazing opportunities to steward our vocational power and influence for our neighbor's good and for God's glory. And as Bob's story shows us, we have those opportunities whether we possess a great deal of power and influence or only a modest amount. Moreover, all of us in our daily labors image God in the ways that he is at work in our world, as provider, sustainer, protector, and restorer.
Can work be a drag? Sure it can. In the reality of our post-Genesis 3 world, we have all experienced frustration, futility, and folly in our daily labors. But our God, himself, created work, and work is good—good for us and good for our neighbors.
At the outset I mentioned that Andy Crouch noted that the Christian creation account is unique because God calls his human creations both to worship and to work. What is interesting is that a main Hebrew word for "work," such as that used in Genesis 2:15 where Adam is put in the garden to "work it," is the word avodah. The word avodah is actually used throughout scripture to mean both work and worship. You see, as God has designed it, our work, properly understood and properly executed, can itself be worship.
So as you head off to work tomorrow morning, you can say "Thank God It's Monday." For tomorrow, and in every day, we all have the opportunity to worship our great God in and through our work—work that actually does matter to him, and work through which we advance his glorious work in the world.
Amy L. Sherman, Ph.D., directs the Sagamore Institute's Center on Faith in Communities and has authored six books, most recently Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good.