According to a popular (and probably apocryphal) story, a man once came to Martin Luther and asked the great reformer what he could do to serve God. Luther asked him what he was currently doing for work, and he replied that he was a cobbler. Luther surprised him by saying, “Then make good shoes and sell them at a fair price.”
We might expect a minister of the gospel to urge such a man to become an evangelist or a pastor, but a person can serve God in any kind of employment, as long as he works for love of God and neighbor. If that story does go back to Luther, one can be sure his advice was based on the fact that making good shoes and selling them at a fair price is a way to love one’s neighbor.
Whether or not the story originated with Luther, its point is relevant to our situation: what a person does for employment is important to God, to neighbor and to one’s self. People partition life into segments. God does not. He intends human life to be much more holistic.
We live grapefruit lives. There’s a section for everything: work, leisure, education, spiritual development, social life and more. The people we think of as “religious” are the ones who devote more than one section – sometimes two or three – to church, personal piety and public service.
But this is to distort the way God made people. He is not satisfied with one or two or even three sections of a person’s life; he wants the person. He wants the person to love him and to love his or her neighbor in every part of life. He does not want people to be divided and conflicted, but whole and intact, whether they are in the nave of a church, the bow of a boat or the machine shop of a factory.
God wants our nine-to-five. He wants to be invited into the workplace, but not in a showy or pushy way, and certainly not in a way that compromises the worker’s productivity (like those people who try to evangelize when they ought to be working.) People of faith invite God into the workplace not as a topic of conversation (or at least not primarily as a topic of conversation) but as a boss. As the boss.
This is consonant with biblical teaching. The worker recognizes the employer’s authority and, if at all possible, does what he or she says. But the Christian worker remains cognizant of the fact that he or she is responsible to a higher authority. Even in the office or the factory, he or she knows “It is the Lord Christ [they] are serving.”
Going to work with the intention of serving Christ can change the atmosphere of an office or shop. After urging Christians to do their work “as to the Lord,” St. Paul adds: “because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do.” Sometimes people get the idea that God only rewards people for the religious exercises (prayer, charitable giving, Bible reading) they do, but the apostle clearly states that God rewards people for whatever good they do, and in the context he’s talking about their work on the job site.
Working for Christ can free a person from slavery to the heartless tyrant money. The people who do their job only for money are almost always miserable at work. Doing a job for Christ makes people happier, better employees, and more cheerful coworkers.
But it is not just workers who needs to invite Christ into the workplace; the boss needs to do so too. Christian teaching sees bosses as both in and under authority. Just as their employees must answer to them, they must answer to Christ. Philipps paraphrases this way: “Remember, then, you employers, that your responsibility is to be fair and just towards those whom you employ, never forgetting that you yourselves have a heavenly employer.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/14/2016
This is the problem to which I have devoted my life. Even when we Christians acknowledge that God wants to be actively involved in our secular activities, it’s hard for us to come up with a detailed account of what that would look like, much less to do it. It’s partly a lack of imagination, and partly a lack of experience. We lack the imagination to envision what God might be trying to do in our workplace (other than evangelize our coworkers); this failure of vision prevents us from praying creatively, and that in turn keeps us from having vivid personal experience of God working through us on the job. It’s an important problem, and well worth thinking about in more depth.
Ronald R Johnson (author of What Does God Do from 9 to 5?)
Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment, Ronald. I’ll check out What Doe God Do from 9 to 5.
Best to you,