Chapter 9 - Work as Worship: Serving Our Ultimate Boss

Book / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Work as worship

As we’ve talked with numerous people over the years, it seems to us that, broadly speaking, there are three main ways Christians think about their work:

1. Work as a means to an end – “I work to live”

The most common attitude (particularly to paid work) is one that views it as a means to an end. We work in order to “live”. It sees the purpose of our work simply as being to provide for our needs.

This approach to what we do, betrays a very low view of work and it’s often fed by the dualism we have talked about in previous chapters.

For many people, at least some of their work is viewed as somewhat futile or meaningless, often expressed in such statements as:

  • “I can’t wait for the weekend.”
  • “When I earn enough cash, I’m out of here.”
  • “Those damn lawns need mowing again! I’m always having to do stuff around the house.”
  • “I do this job because it gives me the money to really live.”
  • “I work at the bank but it’s really just a means to an end – what I really love to do is serve God by being involved in the church band, or by doing street evangelism or whatever…”

A number of years ago, Alistair conducted an extensive survey of Christians and their attitude to work. (See the Epilogue for the context of the survey.) One of the questions he asked was “What is it that you struggle with most as a Christian in your work?”

The results were startling, even shocking. Many responded by noting not the challenging work environment or culture, nor that they were asked to do things that compromised their faith, but rather that they were deeply embarrassed and often annoyed by the behavior of other Christians in their place of employment.

The source of such difficulty was varied. For some it was the “super spiritual” and often insensitive utterances and behavior of excessively zealous believers, who often seemed to take their faith very seriously, but not their work.

For others it revolved around the “sub-Christian” behavior of some who publicly identified themselves as believers. Still others noted the poor ethics of certain “Christian” firms, who had a reputation within their industry for not paying bills on time, treating their employees poorly, and indulging in dubious competitive practices.

Alistair was also surprised by the number of employers who said they were quite wary of hiring staff who were Christians. Many felt that Christians often expected to get preferential treatment and special exemptions from Christian bosses. This gave rise to tensions with other staff. And for others the wariness revolved around the past experiences of some “Christian” employees being poor workers – who did not seem to take seriously their responsibility to work hard and well for their bosses.

Now, why would so many Christians be perceived as behaving so poorly in their employment? The simple answer is that if you carry a low view of your work and its place in God’s economy, these kinds of behavior will all too likely be the result.

If our work is largely seen as a means to an end, we’ll miss the connections between what we’re doing and what God is about. Our work will be separated from our worship. It will be trivialized and underrated. We’ll fail to take seriously what it means to be faithful to both God and our employer (or employees). Such a low attitude of work ultimately leads to becoming “idle” in our work – at least insofar as realizing the potential of our work to serve both God and others.

2. Work as all-consuming – “I live to work”

A second and also very common attitude to work is one that is so caught up in it that life revolves completely around what we do. We end up “living to work”.

When our work becomes all-consuming we really have embraced too high a view of our own work. We make work an object of worship – it becomes an idol.

We do this by giving our work more importance than it’s due. We separate our work and achievements from what God is doing and wants to do – basically pretending that we can re-arrange the universe by our own efforts. It’s then that we become compulsive in our work.

Our culture, of course, has a word for this – workaholism. It’s easy to become addicted to our work. When this happens, our identity and value become so closely intertwined with our work that we can’t separate them. I become defined by what I do and achieve. This is very dangerous.

One of the ways society does this is by causing us to significantly define who we are by the work we do. Notice when you meet a new person, that the question they ask fairly early in the conversation is – “What do you do?”

Now at one level this is a fairly innocent question so we don’t want to make more out of it than we should. However, when we contrast the importance our culture places on finding out what work a person does, compared with that of many non-Western cultures, it does suggest a tendency toward our work and our identity being fused.

Alternatively, in traditional New Zealand Maori culture, one’s identity is based more around people and place – who you are related to and where do you come from? This is a consistent feature of most indigenous cultures. And when each of us spent time in the Philippines we were intrigued how infrequently the question of what we did came up in an introductory conversation. People there wanted to know about our families. This indicated the relative value the Filipino culture also placed on family relationships rather than work.

It’s important to note that allowing our work to become all-consuming is not the same as treating our work seriously. Neither does it mean that we shouldn’t work hard. Nor that we shouldn’t be passionate about our work. A biblical view of our work understands that our work has dignity and value. And God has worthwhile work for all of us to do.

At its best, work should be energizing and deeply fulfilling. However, there’s a difference between loving our work and working hard at what we do, and being addicted to our work. For work is not meant to be the most important thing in our lives, nor should it be degraded. It shouldn’t lead us to idolize it, but neither should it lead us to be idle!

3. Work as Worship – “I work as an expression of my worship of Christ”

This balance is best found when our work becomes an act of worship – just like it did for Brother Lawrence. He’s the seventeenth century monk, most well known for his book, The Practice of the Presence of God. For fifteen years, Bro. Lawrence worked as a cook in the kitchen of his monastery and when his body was unable to continue in this role, he lived out the remainder of his life making sandals.

At first he was deeply frustrated with the apparent insignificance of his role. But Lawrence eventually came to develop a deep spirituality of the ordinary, viewing every menial task as an opportunity to perform “little acts of communion with God”. He developed practices that enabled him to experience God’s presence and use every task and conversation as an opportunity for service and worship. Lawrence wrote that...

The times of activity are not at all different from the hours of prayer … for I possess God as peacefully in the commotion of my kitchen, where often enough several people are asking me for different things at the same time, as I do when kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament.[1]

His attitude was: “We must never tire of doing little things for the love of God, who considers not the magnitude of the work, but the love.[2]

Brother Lawrence understood a very important point: our work is supposed to be intimately connected with our worship. In fact, our work often seems meaningless because we fail to work at finding ways of connecting our work with that of God’s work. But when undertaken in partnership with God and his work, our tasks find significance and they become an expression of our love for God.

This means that we can worship God by working with Him when we’re:

  • changing the diapers,
  • renovating a kitchen,
  • repairing a car,
  • looking after our grandchildren,
  • studying for an exam,
  • helping a customer find the right material,
  • fixing a computer etc.

In Colossians 3:23-24, Paul puts it well when he states:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. For it is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Whatever you do.

Work can – and should – be an act of worship.

You see, if worship only gets identified with what happens on Sunday, it is only a pale reflection of what God views as worship. For true worship is about the constant reorientation of our lives towards God and God’s purposes for us. It’s about the offering of all we are and all we do to God. In fact, the New Testament hardly ever uses the word worship to refer to what Christians do when they gather together.

Mostly, worship is used to talk about the way we are urged to offer the whole of our lives to God in his service. Think about, for example, Paul’s words to the Romans:

“Therefore, offer yourselves as a living sacrifice...” This is a pivotal point in Paul’s argument to the Romans. And he uses one of his favorite words – Therefore. It’s there to alert the hearer/reader that what Paul has said and what he is about to say are thoroughly linked. He's tying it all together: “Taking everything I’ve said up to now into account, here’s what I want you to do … here is what it means for living and working.”

We love the way Eugene Peterson captures this in his paraphrase of Romans 12:1-2:

So here’s what I want you to do. God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.

This is an act of worship for the home and the marketplace – not just inside the church building. When Paul so deliberately located worship in the physical business of living and working he would have shocked some of his Greek hearers who tended to despise the material aspects of life, thinking that God (and spirituality) was only concerned with ethereal, airy-fairy matters.

Paul disagrees. “Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture”. In other translations “not conforming to the present age” is used. It’s a phrase Paul uses to contrast with “the age to come”, where God’s priorities and values rule.

Paul is urging us not to let the present age – our surrounding culture – dictate terms. Not to presume that how it expects us to think and be motivated, to work and relate, to live and behave, is necessarily how God wants it to be.

In a sense we’re called to be counter-cultural. Which is not to say that absolutely everything will be different. But much will.

So rather than automatically accepting that we should work (among other activities) like everyone else in our culture, how about we ask ourselves some questions... We're aiming to follow Jesus, right? Could that mean we might work … differently?

Differently? How? For Paul, it is a changing “from the inside out”. The Greek verb he uses is metamorpho. Notice the resemblance to our English word metamorphosis – the radical change of an animal from one form to another – like the caterpillar turning into the beautiful butterfly.

Paul is suggesting that this is what God wants to do in our lives and in our work. However, our metamorphosis doesn’t just happen by autopilot. It requires careful and disciplined thought. That’s why most English translations use the phrase, “by the renewing of your minds”. We need to apply ourselves to the business of thinking Christianly about our work. Otherwise, our surrounding culture will simply “squeeze us into its mold”.[3]

As our whole thinking and belief systems are renewed, this works its way out in very tangible, visible changes regarding the way we live and work.

Up Close and Personal

1. Which tendency are you most vulnerable to? Is it worshipping work (workaholism) or treating it as a means to an end? Why?

2. In what ways do you think your faith community could better recognize and value all work, undertaken as an act of worship (not just certain tasks that seem more significant to God)?

3. Theologian Miroslav Volf says, “With regard to our work, we pray not so much for God to miraculously bring about a desired result but to make us willing, capable and effective instruments in God’s hand – which is what we were created to be in the first place.” Discuss this statement, with regard to what kind of help we can expect God to provide us in our work.

4. Is there anything that would help me to remember that when I work this coming week I can do so as an act of worship – knowing that I am serving Jesus?