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Work Is Sacred Space

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Work is sacred space for the believer.

Please forgive me, but I'm going to whine a little here. People in the church need to think more accurately about work. There is no such thing as first-class and second-class work, where first-class work is the work of full-time Christian ministry and second-class is work done in the mainstream culture. For Christ-followers, all work is sacred, and all work is ministry. I think God is just as excited about secular jobs as he is about "sacred" church services or ministry outreaches. In fact, I'm convinced that, for the believer, there should be no distinction between secular and sacred. Scripture repeatedly asserts, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" (Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 10:26). For the believer, it's all sacred. I frequently tell church folks that I believe we have the greatest chance at reaching the most people for Christ if more of us would stay out of full-time ministry and in the general work force.

Yes, your church attendance, financial giving, volunteerism, and other participation may be critical to the life of the church, but I don't think they are the greatest assets a Christian brings to the world. I believe the greatest virtue you can bring to the world is you—living well, loving well, and working well:

  • you raising your kids in an atmosphere of unconditional love and consistent discipline (which takes lots of work with lots of talks and going to lots of games and recitals).
  • you fighting to stay in love with the same woman or man for your whole adult life as you work through the changes and bumps life throws at you (along with the "bumps" you throw at each other).
  • you laboring in the workplace in a way that glorifies God.

I'm convinced that these things are as important as pastors preaching on Sunday morning or churches broadcasting on TV, conducting outreaches to the community, or building church buildings. I'm saying that you matter. Your daily life matters; your work life matters—or at least God wants these things to matter.

Okay. I feel better now.

When you see your work as vocational—a chosen occupation rather than some life-sucking, sweat-producing, money-chasing responsibility to dread—it helps you realize that work is a calling. And since it's a calling, it follows that you have been created with all you need (desires, interests, abilities, talents, and capacities) to make a career choice that will both enrich and fulfill you. And I don't think it's just one choice.

When our boys were small, they used to like playing with the Erector Sets that came with hundreds of metal parts—wheels, ball bearings, nuts and bolts, and a motor—along with instructions for making dozens of model designs. The stuff in the box gave you all you needed to go in at least twenty directions in your building.

What if God put as much stuff in you as toymakers pack in each Erector Set? What if he designed you with a bunch of shiny parts to give you tons of career choices? This would mean there isn't just one thing God wills for you to do; it would mean God has filled you with scads of potential and possibility, affording you the privilege of choice. A lack of specific career direction from heaven shouldn't overwhelm or disorient you. See it as God's gift. Your task is to get to know yourself better so you can find out what you're made of in order to choose an appropriate career path. The good news is there are many personality and vocational tests, along with career counselors to help you take an expedition to unpack what came in the "box of stuff" God placed within you. Just start digging and exploring, and don't be afraid to throw a few pieces together without the directions just to get started.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle used the Greek word ergon to describe a kind of human sweet spot, which we hit when we do the things we were meant to do—the things we were designed to do. A hammer experiences ergon when it strikes nails, a saw when it's cutting wood. A musician hits ergon as he or she creates or plays music. Everyone has a place of ergon, and when we find it, we feel alive. The problem is, too many of us don't believe we even came with one, much less ever discover it. This is why so many live diminished lives with less joy than tedium. People seldom find their ergon by chance. It's your duty to find yours.

Go on a hunt to discover your God-given sweet spot. Your sweet spot will be more about things you like to do (work with people, solve problems, work with numbers, perform tasks, work with your hands, etc.) than it is a specific career at a specific place. Stay flexible and experiment—you now know you have at least as many parts as come in an Erector Set.

And forget about your age. It doesn't matter how young or old you are; just start looking. A person who doesn't find his ergon till he's seventy years old will be a happier seventy-year-old than one who hasn't. Get a posse and go hunting; you need to get your "erg" on.

When we realize that work is a calling, we start looking for God as we work. And when God is in something, it's good because God is good. That means work—all work that benefits others—is good. It's shalom building. When we believe in the goodness of labor, even the most pedestrian task can take on meaning and bring fulfillment.

Tony Campolo wrote of a visit he made with his wife to a shipyard while visiting Scotland that captures this idea of goodness in all labor. His wife's grandfather had worked in the shipyard before immigrating to America. In search of that yard, Tony and his wife asked for directions from a middle-aged woman who said she was headed there for work herself and invited them to walk along. Campolo wrote:

On our way we passed numerous shipbuilders who had just finished their work on the daytime shift. Each of them bid an enthusiastic greeting to our new friend. Everybody we passed knew her by name and she, likewise, knew everyone we encountered. There was a fun-loving quality about her personality, and her whole demeanor communicated that she was enjoying life.

"What's your job at the shipyard?" I asked. She stopped in her tracks, took my arm, and then spoke to me in such a way that I was sure she was about to tell me something of enormous importance.

"What do I do?" she asked rhetorically. "What do I do?" she asked a second time, as if I had not caught the question the first time. "I'm the one who cleans the ships." And then, obviously impressed with the importance of her task, she added, "And you know, nary a ship goes to sea until I say it's clean enough. It's my job to see to it that every bit of dirt is polished away. That's what I do." (i)

Work doesn't have to be a debilitating, soul-destroying, rat race. Your work can be meaningful; you just have to dare to search for its meaning. And if the meaning isn't immediately clear, don't give up. If you were saving the whales or finding a cure for cancer, it might be easier to do what I'm suggesting, but dare to take time to think about your job. Find its meaning. Discover the ways you help others by doing what you do. Determine to look past the ugly parts of your job. The marketplace is filled with greed and manipulation, but you can also find things of value there—your work is helping people in some way. When you focus on how that's true, you'll smile more—and so will those around you.

When you approach your work vocationally, you pull it out of the land of dread. Then you can work with your best attitude and effort. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart said: "Whether you are flying the Atlantic, selling sausages, building a skyscraper, driving a truck, or painting a picture, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing well. And a thing well done usually works out to the benefit of others as well as yourself." (ii)

You're representing the Master. Work well.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • What about your current work do you find enriching or fulfilling? What are some of your favorite, most rewarding daily tasks?
  • How does your work benefit others? How does your work glorify God?
  • For more reflections on this topic, read Dave Williamson's article about working for the Lord or our interview with Will Messenger about the theology of work.

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Campolo, Anthony. Who Switched the Price Tags? (Waco: Word Books), 1986, p. 88.

[ii] Earhart, Amelia. Flying the AtlanticAnd Selling Sausages Have a Lot of Things in Common, American Magazine, (Aug. 1932).

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