Many who reflect on issues related to faith and work have become accustomed to describing God as a worker. We say that he’s the Great Architect who designed the world, the Great Artist who carefully crafted each leaf, and the Great Physician who heals our wounds. How often, though, have you heard him described as the Great Janitor?
Some of my friends tell me that comparing God to a janitor feels irreverent. But why? Could it be that our view of work is shaped more by our cultural idols than by the gospel of the Suffering Servant? Could it be that we lack respect for the work of janitors or the ability to see their good work as an act of image-bearing? Can a biblical vision of work reframe the way we view vocations that care for place, like janitors, maintenance staff, housekeepers, custodians, and others?
When I was in my early 20s, I worked as a janitor a few times. One time was for a Christian nonprofit, and I took the job as a way to move up the ranks—hoping to land in “ministry” eventually. Although I now lament the dualistic, discontented, and dismissive way that I approached my work, I am grateful that I met Len.
Len was also a janitor, and his life was a living sermon about a theology of work. He had a profound effect on my view of vocation long before I had the vocabulary to describe what I was seeing. Captured by the beauty of the gospel, he was a joyful steward of every inch of the facility. As I observed his life, I became convinced that janitorial work reflects the glory of God.
Here are just four of the main ways that janitors, and people with similar occupations, display the actions and attributes of God through their work.
1. Protecting Humanity Through Micro-Biological Warfare
Scripture speaks of God as our great protector (Ps. 91), and God uses janitors to shield us from many things that would otherwise harm us. In each room, especially places like bathrooms, there are viruses and bacteria that could greatly harm us, even kill us. When janitors pull the trigger on a spray bottle of bleach, they are embarking on chemical warfare against the germs that would make us sick and take our lives. By keeping us from getting sick, janitors contribute to the work of every industry, and the flourishing of all aspects of life.
A doctor cannot diagnose, a teacher cannot teach, and an architect cannot design when they curled up at home, under the attack of Salmonella or E.Coli.
2. Maintaining, Sustaining, and Serving in Humble Obscurity
Each day God sustains and maintains each aspect of the world (Heb. 1:3), and most of the time, we never even notice. He sweeps the streets through the wind and the rain, mops up our spills through the warmth of the sun, and fills the halls of the earth with air fresheners like Ponderosa Pines and Magnolias. As his janitorial staff, he employs plants, animals, chemicals, and image-bearing humans to each play a role in maintaining and sustaining the earth.
In the midst of all of this grace, God rarely gets noticed. Our every breath can be a “thank you” to God because we, the creation, have been served by our Creator. Even though our hearts are often ungrateful, and we don’t notice the faithful service of God, he continues to be the true and great janitor each day, for each of us.
When janitors pick up a mop and begin to serve the world in obscurity, they are imitating the Great Sustainer of all things. They are reflecting the image of God, and even if nobody notices, they are seen by their God as they reflect the true greatness of the kingdom of God (Matt. 20:25-28).
3. Stewardship of God’s Property
Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, politician, and journalist, once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Janitors are stewards of places created and owned by God. Every fabric in a carpet, tile on a counter, and light bulb above our heads belongs to Christ. Regardless of who owns the deed to the property that janitors are called to steward, they should know that the property ultimately belongs to Christ (Ps. 24:1). And regardless of the name of the person who cuts their paycheck, they ultimately work for the sovereign Lord (Col. 3:23). Our God cares about places, and each janitor who reverently, thoughtfully, and intentionally tends to a particular part of God’s world is reflecting God’s image.
4. Work of Restoration
The trash cans are full, the water cooler has dwindled down to the last few sips, the carpet is stained, and somehow people have handled the paper towels like a raccoon rummages through a trashcan, leaving strips of paper all around the bathroom. It’s 4:59 p.m. and our workday is finished, but the janitors’ work has just begun. Working in the night, they restore and renew the office, so that by the next morning, it looks as good as new.
This daily work of restoration is a sign, preview, and foretaste of the coming restoration when Christ will return and “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The restored facility is a foreshadow of the coming restoration of all things, and janitors reflect the image of God when they engage in this work of restoration.
Let Us Give Thanks
All of us who benefit from the work of janitors should be intentional about expressing gratitude for their good work. Let our imaginations about this occupation be shaped by the gospel, rather than the pattern of this world, which values status over service.
To those who work as janitors, or in a similar field, please be encouraged by these words from Martin Luther King Jr., who said,
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
We see your good work, and we give thanks for it. And even when it’s overlooked, your work is seen by Christ, the Lord over every clean counter and mopped tile.