Working Out My Theology of Work: A Five-Ten Year Vision

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Much of this was written over four months ago, in late October 2016, right before my wife and I headed to Dallas, TX, to attend the Faith@Work Summit, sponsored by the LeTourneau Center for Faith and Work.  I have been sitting on it a while, waiting for the right time to wrap it up and post it.  I am not 100% sure that now is the time, but here goes.

I had spent part of the day prior to leaving for the event in reflection and prayer.  I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in this conference with 398 other Christian leaders to listen, learn, and participate in discussions.  I looked forward to being challenged in my thinking about this topic that is so near and dear to my heart. I had high expectations.  I anticipated making a few connections with other subject-matter experts who are as passionate about this subject as I am.  This ended up being a milestone event in my life.  Since then, I continue to find myself eager to seek God’s face and find out what God would have me to do in the next five to ten years with all of this knowledge.

The theology of work has grabbed my heart like no other topic.  I have become somewhat obsessed with developing my understanding of this doctrine so I can teach and encourage others who like me struggle to integrate their Christian faith on the job.  I read eight books in the last year on this subject.  I have written and posted 32 articles here since September 2015, seven of which were republished on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and LeTourneau Center for Faith and Work websites.  I created a Facebook page in January of last year where I have posted close to 200 book reviews, articles, memes, videos, and all of my blog posts.  I think and talk about it all the time.  I am slowly making progress writing a book that I hope to get published by my 60th birthday in the summer of 2018.

I have had an unshakable desire to teach on this subject to college students and adult workers since the spring of 2014, almost a year before I started my seminary independent study on this subject in January 2015.  However, I have not seen this come to fruition.  I gave my two-hour presentation entitled “Immanuel Labor” to a very small group at a Baptist Student Union on two successive Monday evenings.  (I posted ten clips from this seminar on YouTube.)  It was attended by two students the first week, but only one returned the second week.  I had leads on a couple of other possible presentations, but they never materialized.  I also gave a short version to our Tuesday lunch Bible Study at work, and presented it to my adult Sunday School class.  Last fall, I had the opportunity to give it one more time to another adult Sunday School class.

I think it’s important for my readers to know why I feel compelled to pursue this.  Perhaps it is due to the intensity of my research two years ago which has given me such a deep understanding of this topic.  I know that a lot of Christians do not understand and may never have considered how their “secular” work fits in to God’s plan.  Men and women spend the majority of their waking hours at work, and yet these life-changing principles are generally not being taught in church.  I think that many believers feel guilty for not being able to do more for the kingdom like I did until I read the book Your Work Matters to God.  Perhaps I want to get involved in this movement of the Spirit.  There are many Christian organizations working hard to get this message out.  I want to join the conversation.  I sense that God has given me an original perspective due to my unique career path of math, ministry, and military over the past 40 years to prepare me for such a time as this.  It is a subject I kept coming back to over and over again since I first taught it at Fort Lewis, Washington in 1990.  Perhaps this is a way to put my seminary degree to good use.  I do not know how much time I have left on this earth.  I desperately want to make the most of it for His glory, using the talents and gifts He has given me.  This is my calling.

I can definitely relate to what Elihu, a friend of Job, said to him after he had patiently waited for just the right timing to speak his mind: “I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know.  For I am full of wordsand the spirit within me compels meinside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.  I must speak and find relief; I must open my lips and reply” (Job 32:17-20; emphasis mine).

So, where do I feel that God might be leading me now and in the future?  Despite my lack of experience to date, I would still really like to teach and present this seminar on the doctrine of work at a variety of venues at some point: at churches, Christian campus groups, weekend retreats, Christian college or university chapels, conferences, etc.  I can even see the possibility of sharing these biblical principles on a radio broadcast someday.

I do not know if any part of this dream could ever come to fruition; I have an active imagination.  I do not think I could afford to do this full-time.  I know I have to work another ten years or so at my current pay grade before I can even consider retiring from my government position.  But I am ready, willing, and able to travel a few times a year to teach this to a hungry audience if the opportunity arises.

I do not know what the future holds; but I do know Who holds the future.  I know that God promises to lead His people (Ps. 32:8).  By His amazing grace, He has led me safe thus far, so many times throughout my entire Christian life, whenever I’ve had a glimpse of how and where He could use me to minister to others.  Here is a promise with respect to our deepest longings, which has always been a source of great encouragement to me: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps. 37:4).  I am also reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:58: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not share a video from a song by the group Downhere. On that day of preparation, it really spoke to me.  My eyes were wet with tears and my body wracked with intense sobbing as I heard these lyrics in a fresh, personal way: “Somehow my story is a part of your plan.”  I am amazed at God’s grace that has saved and is using a wretch like me.  Please watch it, and make it your own prayer, “Here I am; Lord, send me!”

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More Biblical Connections Between God’s Presence and our Work

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Over the last two years I have been conducting extensive personal research, focusing deeply on the topic of faith and work.  I have been developing a biblical theology of work that is in line with historical and orthodox views espoused by Martin Luther and many others.  This practical doctrine is found throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and fits into all of the major aspects of systematic theology, including the doctrines of God, man, salvation, the church, and eschatology.

One of the biblical principles I discovered is the repeated connections, found in both Old and New Testaments, between God’s divine presence and human work.  I call this Immanuel Labor.  I explained this concept in an article I wrote a year and a half ago, where I highlighted examples such as Adam, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Solomon, Mary, Paul, and others. Since then, as I have continued to read, learn, and grow in my understanding, I keep seeing this idea over and over in a variety of places.

This week, as I was reading a good book at lunchtime, Mastering Monday: A Guide to Integrating Faith and Work, by John D. Beckett, I saw this same pattern in two Old Testament saints and with respect to Jesus Himself, which I had not noticed before.

Daniel, who I can relate to because he was a government administrator as I am now, illustrates Immanuel Labor quite well.  When Daniel “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine”, it says in Daniel 1:9 that “God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel”.  In verse 17, we see that God gave him and his three fiery furnace friends “knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.” In addition, Daniel had the unique ability to interpret dreams, which he clearly attributed to God (2:23, 28).  He was put in a position of authority based on his “exceptional qualities” (6:3).  Beckett specifically mentions God’s presence as it was demonstrated in the lion’s den (6:22); “even there, God was with him”.  He adds, “I love the evidence of God’s initiative in Daniel’s life, indicated by the powerful verbs in the Scriptures cited above.  God ’caused.’ God ‘gave.’  God ‘sent.’  God was clearly active with him providing and showing favor” (p. 72).

Nehemiah was the next one that Beckett discusses.  In the near future, I plan to write a detailed exposition of how God’s presence and hand of protection enabled Nehemiah and his team of wall-rebuilders to complete the job in record time.  For now, let me just share one statement he makes about this great leader.  Beckett observes, “When the final stone was set in place a remarkable reaction occurred: ‘When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God‘ (6:16)” (emphasis mine).

At lunchtime today, as I read about Jesus’ work as a carpenter, it really grabbed me.  This is literally a great example of Immanuel Labor.  Here is what Beckett wrote:

“For over a decade, Jesus ran a small woodworking shop.  Just as we do in our larger business, he had to plan ahead, purchase materials, maintain his tools and inventory, manage the work of others, tend to product quality, please his customers, and pay taxes.  He was making real products – tables and chairs, cabinets, oxen yokes for farming.  He was meeting real needs.”  He ponders, “Can you imagine the immense satisfaction Jesus found in his work, laboring not just to please himself but his Father in heaven? . . . He was actively modeling and extending the kingdom of God right where he was, amid wood chips and sawdust, rising to the challenges and receiving the rewards of his daily activities” (p. 88).

Wow!  What a comprehensive job description!

So, how does this concept impact us at our own jobs?  For me, when I choose to focus on the fact that God, in the person of Jesus Christ who is Immanuel (God with us), is present with His children, and that His presence affects the manner in which I do my work in every way, I am able to fulfill His purposes in my life.  As we practice His presence daily, as Brother Lawrence did, we can see God meeting people’s needs through us as His co-workers.

Viewing our Identity in Light of Career

I recently got some feedback from my eldest son which got me to thinking about an aspect of work that I had not thought much about before.  This wasn’t something I recall seeing in over a dozen books I had read on work.  It was not a subject I had written on, either.

This is what he said, in part: “An angle I’d be interested in you considering is our tendency as broken individuals to seek kingdom building solely on what we do and mistakenly viewing our core identity in light of career. . . In many ways I was building my own little empire and starting to only see my identity in terms of what I did at work.  The consequences of that idolatry slowly started to bear fruit – some bad fruit! . . .  I think men in particular have a larger tendency to be idolatrous with their careers. I definitely was. . .  When in that process our hearts make job or career an ultimate thing and make us desperate for validation, control, power, or comfort we ought to repent and restore God’s ultimate identity over us.”  Wow!  This young man’s theology runs deep.

My son is legitimately concerned about this issue.  His job required him to spend an unreasonable amount of time doing the impossible for the ungrateful.  He felt that his identity as a high school teacher had become primary, overshadowing his identity in Christ.  Because for months at a time it consumed every waking moment trying to put on a quality production, he felt like it had become an idol.  Because his life was so out of balance with no end in sight, he decided to leave teaching.

I think this is a fairly common struggle for a lot of young adults who are just getting established in their careers.  It is easy to feel guilty when you are trying desperately to meet the very real and at times unrelenting and unrealistic demands of the job when so many other important things are being neglected.

What I think in part he may be alluding to is what my generation understood as workaholism.  This was clearly a nod to the term alcoholism, which is an addiction to alcohol.  Workaholics were those who were addicted to their work.  And yes, because back then it was mostly a male-dominated world, it was something that a lot of men dealt with.  Their job was what they lived for.  It was all-consuming, taking all of their time and energy.   In a Theology of Work Project Bible study, Calling and Work, they state that workaholism “plays out when we devote ourselves to the issues of our workplace at the expense of other responsibilities, such as friendship, marriage, and parenthood” (p. 9).

I know in my own life, many of the jobs I have had have taken so much mental and physical energy from giving 110% during the day, I hardly have any leftover when I go home.  This is a common occurrence, and I imagine, is also true for many others.

Here is something I found in a section on the second of ten commandments (Exodus 20:4) from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary (vol. 1) that should help.  “In the world of work, it is common to speak of money, fame, and power as potential idols, and rightly so. They are not idolatrous, per se, and in fact may be necessary for us to accomplish our roles in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world.  Yet when we imagine that we have ultimate control over them, or that by achieving them our safety and prosperity will be secured, we have begun to fall into idolatry. . . As God’s people, we must recognize when we begin to idolize them.  By God’s grace, we can overcome the temptation to worship these good things in their own right” (p. 96).

Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor, discusses how idolatry impacts the workplace.  He asks, “What does it mean to have other gods?”  He replies, “It means imagining and trusting anything to deliver the control, security, significance, satisfaction, and beauty that only the real God can give.  It means turning a good thing into an ultimate thing” (pp. 131-132).  He mentions Martin Luther’s definition: “looking to some created things to give you what only God can give you” (p. 132).

On the other hand, there are no easy answers to the question, “How much work is too much?”  I do think we need to make a distinction between the amount of time normally required for certain jobs and whether or not we are obsessed by it.  Dr. Grant Howard, a former seminary professor of mine, in his insightful book Balancing Life’s Demands, reminds us: “Time is not synonymous with importance” (p. 102).  Those who are farmers, young mothers, doctors, and many, many other professionals cannot just put in a 40-hour work week.  That is just the nature of the beast.  Furthermore, their work does define who they are, because that is what they spend most of their waking hours doing.

Can a Christian be a farmer?  A young mother?  A doctor?  Of course they can!  And, I would not accuse any of them of being a workaholic merely due to the hours they have to put in to meet their God-given responsibilities that come with those callings.  However, I would counsel them to find a way to regularly keep the Sabbath.  Not as a legalistic requirement, but as a pattern for living a healthy lifestyle, enabling them to rest, worship, and recreate so they can pace themselves to survive and thrive over the long-haul.

The promise I made to my son is that I would do some research and address this issue.  I feel that I have only begun to scratch the surface on this complex topic.

Let me return briefly to his concern about the issue of identity and then close.  I know that Paul addressed his own identity often in his letters.  In Philippians 3:4-6, he lays out his pedigree.  Despite all the things he could have been proud of, he considered it all as a loss for the sake of Christ (3:7).  Who he was and the great things he did could not compare with “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” (3:8).  Who he was in Christ was what mattered to him most.

However, Paul clearly recognized and embraced God’s calling on his life.  God called him to be something, not merely do something.  Paul identifies himself in Rom. 1:1 as “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle of God.”  (Emphasis mine.)  He says the same thing in other epistles (see 1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, Gal. 1:1, etc.)  It is who he was.  This divine role that he did not seek but God gave him was Paul’s focus and motivation.  For him it was all-consuming.  Fulfilling his mission came at great cost to his health and well-being, but his work was never seen by him as becoming an idol.  He did not worship his workHis work flowed out of his worship.

In my own life, I understand that God has called me to be several things.  I learned from Dr. Howard that I am called to fulfill various roles that have inherent biblical responsibilities associated with those roles.  I am a son, a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, and a grandfather.  I was a Soldier for 20 years, and I was proud to be one.  That job title described who I was and what I did for a living.  But most importantly, in addition to my job title, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.  That is who I really am.  It is that role that impacts how I fulfill all other God-given callings in my life.

I have observed that what we do for a living does in part define us, but it is not the only thing that gives us purpose.  We are more than what we do.  Who we are – our character – is way more important than our job titles.  It is important to apply the principles that the Apostle Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 12 where he compares spiritual gifts/abilities with body parts.  All are necessary; none are more or less important than the other parts.  We cannot take pride in what we are called to do, looking down on others who have different callings.  All in Christ have equal value.

Perhaps one of the keys to avoid workaholism and find a way to balance the various priorities God lays out before us as Christ-followers is to understand our very real limitations as human beings.  We must allow ourselves the freedom to say no to some of our work responsibilities that begin to enslave us, in order to focus on the other callings in our lives.  Quoting Calling and Work again: “Although there is no formula for balancing work and other elements of life, it is crucial not to let a sense of calling to a job prevent us from recognizing God’s calling in those other areas” (p. 12).  If our job prevents us from doing that, maybe it is time to ask for God’s wisdom to re-evaluate the paths we are on, like my son and many others have done.

Working for the Department of De Fence

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I want to reflect on what I did for six hours today. A friend helped me paint our fence.  It had been a little over a year since we treated it with a clear protectant, so it was due.  It does not change the color of the wood; it brings out its natural beauty.  Sounds like a restoration effort to me.

As I have developed a biblical perspective of work the last few years, I see every work project as a spiritual journey of sorts. In a manner similar to when I picked blueberries last summer, I want to reflect on what I experienced, as I found myself doing Immanuel Labor, work in God’s presence.

The first thing I thought about was the value of preparation. I went out to the garage at 8:45 to get my equipment and supplies together.  I was dismayed to find that I was not ready to go to work.  I recalled there was some paint leftover from last year, but when I took inventory, I found that two of the five-gallon cans were empty; the third one was only half-full (or half-empty, depending on your perspective.)  There was also one other small one-gallon can.  I would have to make a trip to Lowe’s.

My friend arrived on time with his professional spray apparatus. I had my hand-held spray gun.  He was able to start right away.  I had to go and get some paint.  Thirty minutes later, I was ready.  The Steven Curtis Chapman song, “Let us Spray (Pray)” went through my head.  This emphasized the second thing I wanted to share: the value of having a co-worker, a partner to share the load.  I started on the inside; he did the outside.  When he was done, he came inside to help finish the job.

It did not take long for me to feel the strain as I used muscles I have not used in a while. It was a good feeling, actually, although I am still a little bit sore even now.  Work was designed to be challenging to us mentally, physically, and spiritually.  It took a different set of skills than I usually use at my job every day.  It felt good to do something active, something artistic even.

As many of us know quite well, one of the most important biblical concepts of work is that of the curse. Because of sin, God made labor for men and women much harder than it needs to be.  It is frustrating.  It will take longer than expected.  Things will go wrong.  Thorns and thistles would grow up and interfere with what was planted.  All of us experience this phenomenon at work.

It didn’t take long for me to experience that this morning when I had a major spill. (I knew Major Spill when he was a 2nd Lieutenant.)  After working about one hour, I spilled about half of my paint container all over the front of my sweatshirt.  It was now going to become a rag.  It was time for a break to change clothes and clean up.  It was officially lunchtime!

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After a leisurely lunch, we went back to work.  I had it down to a science, or so I thought.  I noticed that I had been underspraying the tops of the horizontal crossbeams (2x4s).  The front of the boards was good, but when I did the vertical planks, there was not much paint on the tops of those boards. This forced me to go back and repaint (repent?) what I had done before.  I changed my technique from that point forward.  Isn’t that just like work?  When you think all is perfect, surprise!  Humility is developed in these kinds of moments.  God will provide opportunities to grow in character and Christlikeness (the fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22-23) every day, if we will keep our eyes open.

The final thing I wanted to reflect on was compensation.  I could not remember what I paid him last time, so I asked him.  It was a smaller hourly wage than I had thought.  I decided I would increase it substantially, as he not only brought his experience and expertise to help me do the job, but his own equipment as well.  I recalled a verse in Scripture: “A worker is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7).

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The time flew, and we were done. We looked at the results, and like God did every day at creation, we said, “It’s good!”  After we cleaned up, I took a victory photo.