My interest in developing a “theology of work” goes back to the early 1980s when I served on the Advisory Board of InterVarsity’s Marketplace Ministry. After our book, Why Work? Careers and Employment in Biblical Perspective (1986) co-authored with Simon Steer, I wrote a monthly newsletter, “Reflections on Faith & Work,” and a number of these essays are included here.
The Significance of Our Work: The Bible has an amazing number of references to work. There are fifteen Hebrew words which are translated “work” in the King James Version of the Bible and one of those words is used more than 150 times! The Greek word ergon, meaning “work,” is also used frequently in the New Testament. The God of the Bible was not silent on this subject.
Our Work and Our Calling: When we were children, how many times did interested (or nosey!) relatives or acquaintances ask us: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The same question pursued us through junior high school and high school; in college, the question persisted, except then we were asking ourselves: “What should I do with my life? What kind of job do I want?” In mid-life, the question is still there, but with another wrinkle: “Is it time for a job change? Am I going to do this work for the rest of my life?” And then, much to our surprise, we tum fifty and the very question we started with comes around again: “What am I going to do when I grow up?”
Work as Ministry: I like the word “laity.” Not many people use this word today; in fact, most young people are completely unfamiliar with the term. “Laity” is derived from the Greek word laos and is used in the Bible to refer to “the people of God.” It is an inclusive word, a word that encompasses everyone from prestigious leaders to the most powerless.
Finding a Purpose for Our Work: Let me tell you a story. My story. I have shared this narrative with others and it seemed to help them in their own struggle with issues related to their careers in the marketplace, so let me try it out on you.
Expanding our Vision about Our Work: One of the most significant books written in the 1980s was entitled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. The team of authors, led by Robert Bellah, focused on the fundamental question of how to preserve or create a morally coherent life. Their research resulted in one of the most insightful studies of life in the United States that I have ever read. I used to tell my students in the American Studies Program that this was one of those “must read” books — in fact, if you graduate from college without reading it, your diploma should be withheld until you read the book!
Naming the Idol: For many of us, reading the Bible can sometimes make us very uncomfortable. The passages where Jesus is described as “casting out demons” do not connect with our modern world. What is a demon? What can this healing of a demonic man possibly be all about? These are the passages we often read through quickly and move on.
Meaningful Work in an Entertainment Culture: One of the most insightful analyses of American culture I have ever read is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In his book, Postman focuses his attention on television and how it has conditioned us to “tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time.” But his reflections go far beyond just evaluating the impact of television — they hit much more deeply into the spirit of our times. Although the book was published in 1985, its message is still relevant today, perhaps even more so.
Gratitude, Grace and Corporate Success: The experiences of the people of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament, offer important insights about the struggles of life that we face, even though our social and economic context have changed dramatically. Despite the intervening centuries, some aspects of human existence and the human personality have not changed at all, so that lessons from the Bible are still directly relevant today.