You know what I’m really thankful for? That there are people starting to write on the relationship between the gospel and work. This is a subject in which western Christians desperately need to grow in our understanding. Many of us, me included, really struggle to do our work in a Christ exalting fashion. Many of us grumble and complain, and generally struggle to be satisfied in what we’re doing or even see the value in our jobs.
Unless it’s just me who’s guilty of some of these?
Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert tackle this head-on in their new book, The Gospel at Work. Their goal in the book is simple: to help us see how working for Jesus gives meaning and purpose to all of our work, to recognize that “when glorifying Jesus is our primary motivation, our work — regardless of what that work is in its particulars — becomes an act of worship.”[1. Kindle edition, location 220]
Idols and idleness
Traeger and Gilbert approach the subject from a different angle than, say, Tim Keller does in his excellent Every Good Endeavor (reviewed here). While one could argue that this is a matter of semantics, the authors are less concerned about delivering a fleshed-out theology of work, as opposed to digging into the practical issues related to how we look at work. In doing so, they spend the bulk of their time examining the twin errors of idolatry and idleness in work.
Signs work is your idol
“Our jobs become idols when we overidentify with them,” they write. “Our work becomes the primary consumer of our time, our attention, and our passions, as well as the primary means for measuring our happiness and our dissatisfaction in life.”[2. Kindle location 339] The key word here is “primary.”
When we give our all to the company at the expense of our families, when our minds are consumed by thoughts of work consistently, when we’re always looking at how we can position ourselves, or even when we see our work as being all about making a difference in the world… This is dangerous stuff, friends.
When work is “primary,” everything else is secondary, and we’ll always be dissatisfied. There’s always a next step, always another rung on the ladder, always a new challenge to overcome… but it will never be enough.
Signs you’re idle in your work
But idolatry in work is only one problem. The other is idleness. This, I believe, is the fundamental problem of many in my own generation. Where our parents’ and grandparents’ generation idolized work, we tend to treat it as a necessary evil. We “work to live”—treating it as something we have to do in order to do the things we want to do (again, unless it’s just me). So we don’t care about quality, we’re unreasonably frustrated by it, we segregate our jobs from our faith… Again, this is dangerous ground. Traeger and Gilbert write:
Being idle does not necessarily mean inactivity — a lack of productivity. It can be an inactivity of the heart, an inability or unwillingness to see or embrace God’s purposes in the work he’s given you to do.[3. Kindle location 463]
My personal struggle with work
I said I believe my generation tends to lean towards idleness in work. This is true. But many of us—including me—tend to flip-flop between idolatry and idleness. I know there are many times when I’m entirely too consumed with the goings-on in my workplace. When I see things that bother me, they tend to weigh heavily… but my solution at times is to escape into idleness. To try and check out to escape my frustrations (whether they’re warranted ones or not is an entirely different matter).
What’s especially helpful for me is being reminding of this truth: “Ultimately you are in your job so you learn to love God and other people better. This is your new assignment.”[4. Kindle location 622] Honestly, I’m working out a lot of the implications of this right now, a couple weeks after reading the book. But what I find helpful about it is it forces me to constantly confront my attitude and behavior.
- Am I upset about the right things?
- Am I spending time thinking about things that I don’t need to?
- Am I phoning in my work, instead of giving my all—even on projects I don’t particularly enjoy?
- Am I more concerned about accolades from coworkers than being satisfied with Christ’s?
Clearly, The Gospel at Work gave me a great deal to consider on these matters. Not that I have a lot of answers, but I’m starting to work these things out.
Work as mission field
When we see what we do as an opportunity to learn to love the Lord and others with greater affection and Christlikeness, we can recognize that our workplaces are a mission field—even those of us who work in organizations operated by Christians. Those outside the bubble, have the opportunity to be respectfully bold witnesses for Christ among unbelieving colleagues, acting as people of integrity, building relationships, and (you knew this was coming) telling people about Jesus.
Those inside the bubble are not off the hook either. We still have to show our love for Christ in what we do, and going to work at a place where everyone professes to believe in Jesus doesn’t cover that. It actually raises the stakes. In that environment, it reveals far more about the state of your heart to people who (at least in theory) have the same expectations you do, who know that work is a good and God-honoring thing. That your coworkers are people with dignity and value because they’ve been saved by Jesus for His purposes. But it’s a place where idleness so easily sets in, and a compromised witness quickly follows.
Intensely theological and practical
The Gospel at Work may not be a theology of work proper, but make no mistake: it is as intensely theological as it is practical. Idleness and idolatry in work are theological problems and they’ve got serious practical implications. One makes work a burden, the other makes you work’s slave. But the gospel frees us from both idleness and idolatry. This book is a wonderful reminder of this, one I trust will be a great blessing to you as you read and apply it.
Title: The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs
Authors: Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)