Why do we work? For five or six days of every week, most of us spend at least half of our waking hours doing a job. We take time away from our families and away from worldly pleasures to pursue an occupation. It’s simply what humans do. But why?
Some say we work so that we don’t have to work. Bestselling books teach us how to “escape the 9 to 5,” to get rich fast and set ourselves up for decades of work-free vacation at the end of our lives. We work as much as possible now so that we can work as little as possible in retirement. Others say that work is merely for provision. Work simply pays the bills and puts food on the table. In this view, work has little value apart from its financial reward.
These reasons for work aren’t entirely wrong. It is wise to work now to prepare for years ahead when we will not be able to work. It is good, as we will see, to work hard to provide for our families and others in our community. However these reasons alone are insufficient. When we look at God’s design for us and our work, we see that we work because we were made to work.
In this series, we have been exploring godly pursuits for Christian men. And my friend, if you are going to run to win, you must pursue your vocation.
God made you to work. Your creation and function are inextricably linked. At the very moment God announced his intention to create humanity, he described the function we would carry out in his world: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Genesis 1:26). You were created to carry out the important task of working in God’s world as God’s representative.
The work God gave to humanity was good and dignified. He gave the tasks of exploring his creation, of discovering and exploiting its resources, and of spreading across it. Humans were to form families and plant churches and found cities and build civilizations. They were to establish universities and begin businesses and invent technologies. They were to use their God-given creativity and ingenuity to exercise dominion. What had been created in an incomplete or unfinished state was to be brought to completion by mankind. Man was to bring order to chaos, to begin in that small garden and to widen its borders until the whole world was under dominion.
In a perfect world, work was easy and fulfilling. But the world would not remain perfect for long. Sin soon interfered, and now the work God had assigned in a sinless world would be carried out in one transformed by depravity. Because of sin, work became grueling instead of fulfilling. “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19). Work that had once been easy would now be difficult. Thorns and thistles would compete with the farmer’s crops, tired eyes and disobedient minds would compete with the teacher’s lessons, interruptions and fatigue would compete with the writer’s words. Work was still necessary and labor still dignified, but it would be backbreaking and exasperating.
In a perfect world, work would represent and glorify God. But soon after sin entered the world, work became a source of pride, envy, and hatred (Genesis 4:3-7). Instead of using work to serve others, humans began crushing others with work (Exodus 1:11). They idolized work, living in bondage to its reward (Matthew 6:24). Or they avoided work, choosing the comforts of idleness over thorns and thistles (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Yet the world’s sin did not nullify God’s design. Even in this sinful world, the dignity and necessity of labor remain. Even in this sinful world, work has three great and important purposes: obedience, provision, and service.
You obey through your work. The mandate God assigned humanity at creation remains in effect. You are still to exercise dominion over this earth, finding appropriate balance between exploiting its riches and caring for its beauties. Through every legitimate occupation, you obey God and carry out his mandate. As you faithfully pursue your vocation, you are acting as God’s representative throughout the earth, displaying his creative power and authority.
You provide through your work. Through work, you provide for your own needs and the needs of others. As a man, you are expected to care for yourself, your family, and your church. God calls you to provide by working hard and avoiding idleness. In Paul’s day, the congregation in Thessalonica was known for having a problem with people who were content to be idle. So Paul wrote to them: “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). The matter of provision is a very serious one. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul ramped up his rhetoric: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). When he wrote to Timothy, he said, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). As a Christian man, you bear the weighty responsibility of hard work. You are to make every effort to earn enough to provide for your own needs, for the needs of those who are dependent upon you, and even enough to share with those in need. This is a sacred calling from God himself.
You serve through your work. It is through vocation that God dispenses his gifts to the world. Through the farmer he provides food, through the doctor he provides medical care, through the teacher he provides knowledge. The word “vocation” signifies that God calls each of us to different work and that all work is equally dignified if it is done to his glory. God has not only given you skills so that you can provide for your family and the church. He has also given you skills so that you can bless others who need your service. This means that if you are in a job that provides some kind of service or good to others, you don’t have to leave your work in order to serve God. Run to win, and use every hour of your workweek to glorify God.
Do It Now
Here are a few tips on getting started in this.
- Get to work! You were made to work. You were made to represent God on earth, to provide for your family, and to serve others. The first step to pursuing your vocation is ensuring that you are avoiding idleness and obeying God through hard work. Of course, many men go through seasons of unemployment, sickness, or schooling that will prevent them from employment. But the biblical standard held before you is that you give yourself to hard work.
- Serve others in your work. Tim Keller gives helpful questions for discerning how to serve others in your work: What opportunities are there in my profession for serving individual people, for serving society at large, for serving my field of work, for modeling competence and excellence, and for witnessing to Christ? Jot down answers to these questions and resolve to approach work with a heart of service. If you are in a job that harms people rather than helps them, or a job that offers no good or service to people, you may want to reconsider your vocation.
- Avoid idleness. As we saw in “Redeem Your Time,” idleness is a plague today and a means through which Satan tempts you to sin. Learn the value of labor, learn to enjoy labor, and cut out any distractions that pull you into idleness. When we spend our working hours scrolling through social media instead of serving others, we are disobeying the mandate God has given us.
- Begin to plan life after your career. Many people work hard for the 40 or 50 years of their career but put little thought into what they will do when that work is done. Because God’s design for work is more than provision, your call to work remains even if all of your financial needs are met in retirement. In fact, in retirement you will have more time than ever to serve others and advance God’s kingdom. Begin to plan now how you will adapt your vocation and avoid idleness in the years following retirement.
Run to Win!
When we consider vocation and hard work, we cannot neglect to consider Jesus. When we think of him, we rightly consider the few years of his public ministry. But we should not forget that while he spent three years in the public eye, he spent 30 working in the family business. Before he was a preacher and teacher, he was a carpenter. When he finally emerged and began to teach, his perplexed neighbors asked, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?” (Mark 6:3). And when he began his public ministry, he carried it out perfectly despite agonizing hardships. He continued to labor until his Father was satisfied and his work was complete. He is our great example. If you are going to run to win, you, like Jesus, must pursue your vocation.