Does Monday morning excite you? If so, good for you! But that’s not where many of us live.
Our jobs challenge and threaten to consume us. So what does devotion to Jesus Christ look like in competitive—and often cutthroat and insecure—workplace environments? How about in painfully mundane ones?
In their new book, The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Lives (Zondervan) [free study guide | website], Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger bring their pastoral and workplace experience to bear on a constellation of issues concerning the intersection of faith and work.
I spoke with Gilbert (pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville) and Traeger (entrepreneur in Washington, D.C.) about idolatry and idleness, working for the weekend, how pastors can encourage people in their jobs, and more.
If this book is “not a theology of work,” what are you aiming to accomplish in The Gospel at Work?
When we say the book isn’t a theology of work, we certainly don’t mean that it avoids theology! We aren’t trying to say everything that could be said about work, and we’re certainly not trying to give an opinion on every question people ask about work and its place in God’s plan. But the whole book is built on theology. After all, theology explains why our work can be so frustrating, theology tells us why we can become so consumed by it, and theology explains why there can be so much conflict in it. And, ultimately, theology helps us understand how we really ought to think about our work, be encouraged in it, and do it well.
We want to encourage Christians in the workplace, whatever that means in their particular situation, to view what they do in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and therefore do it with freedom and energy and joy. We want them to realize that whatever the particulars of their job right now, ultimately they are working for the King—and that perspective changes everything.
Many of us incline toward vocational idolatry—operating as if our jobs hold the key to ultimate satisfaction. What are some signs we might be succumbing to idolatry of work?
Making an idol of our work is extremely easy to do. Our jobs become the primary source of satisfaction, purpose, and meaning in our lives. Idolatry shows up not just in working too many hours, but in a heart that’s finding its sense of wellbeing in what we do. If work is going well and our professional stock is rising, we think life is good. We feel secure. But then when it’s not going well, our sense of wellbeing fades or even collapses.
If you look carefully at your own heart, you can see this kind of idolatry showing up in lots of different ways in how you think about work. Maybe it’s thinking of work primarily as a way to make a name for yourself or as a way to provide unfailing security. That’s not to say it’s categorically wrong to want to succeed or to make money to have influence; it’s just to say that if any one of those things becomes the controlling definition of your work and why you do it, you ought to check your heart and make sure you haven’t allowed work to become an idol.
But here’s the thing: When you realize that you actually and ultimately work for King Jesus—at his command, according to his plan, and for his glory—that realization cuts the root of idolatry. Because of Jesus’ work for us, we already have all we need. Identity, love, belonging, acceptance, forgiveness, meaning, and reward—it’s all ours already because of Jesus! And that means we no longer have to pursue those things in something that could never provide them in the first place—our jobs. Instead, we realize our jobs are an arena in which God will work in us and through us to make us more like Jesus and to glorify himself.
Others of us incline toward vocational idleness—operating as if God doesn’t care about our jobs. What are some signs we might be succumbing to idleness in work?
Idleness in work is the other major problem Christians tend to have when it comes to their work. At its most extreme, “idleness” means not doing the job. It’s wasting time, slacking off, and generally being unproductive. That’s a problem. But just because you’re “getting it done” doesn’t mean you’re avoiding idleness. That’s because the deepest problem is not so much idleness of the hands as it is idleness of the heart. In other words, many go through the motions—and even do the mechanics of their work with efficiency and productivity—but they’ve lost sight of God’s purposes for them in it. When Paul says we’re to do our work “with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord . . . as working for the Lord” (Col. 3:22-23), he means our work itself ought to be an act of worship to our King.
So how do you know if your heart is tending toward idleness? Some have come to see their jobs as merely a means to an end. “I work so I can play,” or “I work so I can provide,” or even “I work so I can give to my church.” What’s wrong with that way of thinking? It ignores the fact that God has purposes for us in our work itself. Our jobs are more than just means to an end. They are one of the key ways God matures us as Christians and brings glory to himself.
What’s wrong with working for the weekend?
It depends on what you mean. If you mean that one of your primary motivations is to work to provide for your family, to support your church, to give to those in need, and to limit your time at work so you can spend time with family, then there’s nothing wrong with it. God gives us the freedom to have multiple motivations for our jobs. And it’s fine if the day-to-day mechanics of your job aren’t the most satisfying—you can still glorify God by working as unto him by doing work that is good, serves your boss and customers, and provides for the needs of others.
However, if by “working for the weekend” you mean I slog through the week or don’t really care about my job, that it’s simply a means to doing “the really important things,” then we’d like to challenge you to consider the purposes God has for you in your 9-to-5. One of the key themes of The Gospel at Work is that “who you work for is more important than what you do.” God isn’t compartmentalizing your life into the drudgery of 9-to-5 on the one hand and the “important stuff” of the weekends on the other.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once remarked, “To me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most gracious calling to which anyone can ever be called.” Was Lloyd-Jones mistaken to elevate one calling above the others?
Preaching is an awesome and wonderful calling. We pray and hope many will preach full-time, and for that matter become missionaries and seminary professors. I’ve heard others express this same thought, and I don’t think they’re making theological statements so much as personal ones. For example, for Lloyd-Jones I think preaching was the highest and greatest and most gracious calling he could possibly pursue. Anything else would’ve been “lower” for him. But is this true for everyone? No, it can’t be.
The idea espoused in this quote is one I’ve wrestled with over the years, so we wrote a chapter in The Gospel at Work specifically addressing the question: “Is full-time ministry more valuable than my job?” How do we come down on that question? By recognizing the King deploys (calls) different people to different roles.
We shouldn’t all be pastors, and we shouldn’t all be police officers, either. So how does it all get determined? The King deploys us as he wills. He puts us where we’ll serve his purposes best. Some he deploys as pastors and missionaries; others he deploys as teachers and businesspeople.
Ultimately, it’s up to him. It comes down to personally trusting the King with your life and working with others and through opportunities to discern where he’s assigning you to labor faithfully for him.
How can pastors better empathize with and encourage their people in regard to their work?
I’ve had many conversations with people in the workplace who feel discouraged. Of course, not all discouragement can be solved by a pastor. The point of The Gospel at Work is to help people start with their own hearts, goals, and expectations.
But just because a pastor can’t do everything doesn’t mean he can’t do some things. I wrote a longer article on how pastors can encourage their congregations, but I’ll just mention three ideas here:
- Encourage those in the workplace by caring about their daily lives. Do this by praying for them publicly, hearing them share how they’re applying the gospel to some of the challenges they’re facing, and by intentionally encouraging them—especially on Mondays!
- Give those in the workplace a vision for “vine work” in their families, in their workplaces, and in the church. This vision primarily means applying the gospel and the whole counsel of God to their whole lives. Work hard at application and show how the gospel seeps into every area of their lives.
- Take advantage of the “trellis-building powers” of those in the workplace. Most people I know in the workplace would love to use their skills, creativity, expertise, and experience to serve the church. Yet most are frustrated that they’re rarely asked. One way to encourage folks, then, is to invite them to help you and the church.