Theology 101

Establishing the Work of Our Hands

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May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;

establish the work of our hands for us—

yes, establish the work of our hands.

 —Psalm 90:17

There is an old story set in the Middle Ages during the construction of one of the great European cathedrals. A nobleman was walking among the workers, asking about their labors. The stonemason explained the care involved in raising a plumb wall. The glass worker pointed out the details of a leaded glass window. The carpenter spoke about the wooden frame which provided the support for the whole building. Finally the nobleman spotted a peasant woman with a broom and a bucket going around cleaning up trash. He asked her what she was doing. She replied, “I’m building a cathedral for the glory of God!”

This peasant woman had a firm grasp on what we have been calling in this blog “the Biblical Doctrine of Work.”

In this new series we want to ask and hopefully answer the question, what are the implications of the Biblical doctrine of work for Christians today?  We suggest the following three answers, which we explore in more detail over the next couple of weeks.

  • We must rediscover that our primary call is to follow Jesus.  We must realize that this call encompasses the whole of our lives, including our everyday work. Our call should lead Christians to a radically different lifestyle, seeking not to follow the culture but to influence the culture for the glory of God.
  • We must understand the mission that we have been called to do in this world.  For the Christian, life without work is meaningless; but work must never become the meaning of one’s life. We must find our identity in Christ, not in our work. It is our union with Christ which transforms our hearts and gives us the desire to serve Him out of gratitude while we engage the world.
  • We must realize that the purpose of our work is to have a positive impact on culture.  A prominent metaphor in the Bible is the bringing of light into a dark world (Matthew 5:16; John 1:5). When light is brought into a dark room, the room is transformed. The light of the gospel has the power to radically transform individual people and their culture as a whole.

The Biblical doctrine of work is one of the most powerful means God provides for us to shape and influence culture. Yet today we hear many Christians say that we should not be involved in shaping culture. People who say this are actually supporting the social status quo, whether they agree with it or not. Tim Keller had this to say in a recent essay on work and culture:

When Christians work in the world, they will either assimilate into their culture and support the status quo or they will be agents of change. This is especially true in the area of work. Every culture works on the basis of a “map” of what is considered most important. If God and his grace are not at the center of a culture, then other things will be substituted as ultimate values. So every vocational field is distorted by idolatry.

When Christians do their jobs with excellence and with accountability, in a distinctively Christian manner, they cannot help but have a profound effect on the world around them. Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, tells how Christian monks in the Middle Ages moved out of Ireland and through pagan Europe. Along the way they invented and established academies, universities, and hospitals. Through these new institutions the monks transformed local economies and cared for the unfortunate.

The Irish monks’ goal was not to change the pagan culture into the church. Instead, their vocation was inspired by the gospel, and that changed the way they carried out their work. They worked for the flourishing of all mankind rather than strictly for themselves.

Christians today have a similar opportunity. If we are serious about the truth of Christianity, we need to engage in cultural renewal, working to serve the common good toward the furtherance of the Kingdom and for the glory of God.

Question: What have you perceived to be the Church’s attitude towards the cultural status quo? Leave a comment here.

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