At Work & Theology 101

Work, Dignity, and the Source of Our True Value

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Because we live in a Genesis-3 (fallen) world, we are tempted to think wrongly about our work in two ways.

First, we can make our work everything: an object of worship and devotion instead of the good gift God created it to be.

Our careers are often seen as a marker of identity and worth. Consider the way a conversation goes when you meet someone for the first time. Next time you greet a visitor at church or strike up conversation on the train or meet a new family in your neighborhood, you will likely, without even thinking, ask, “So, what do you do for a living?” Their answer will, to some extent, inform the way you think of them.

I spend much of my time in either Nashville or Washington, D.C.—two cities where this question takes on heightened significance. In Nashville, a city blessed with a vibrant artist community, people are often defined by their creative acts. I’m a songwriter. I’m working on a project with so-and-so. I’m working in marketing for this or that label/company/nonprofit. In D.C., it’s a power game, where business cards are exchanged and contacts are stored to leverage influence. I work on the Hill on Ways and Means. I just started at this think tank. I work at this government agency.

Think about the questions work often provokes:

  • Is my job significant?
  • Does it give me influence?
  • Do people know what I do and do they think it matters?

We don’t ask these questions out loud, of course, but we think them, subconsciously.

And so it is very easy to end up worshiping work as that which gives us our significance, our ultimate fulfillment. Sometimes it’s important for us to step back and see what work, when worshiped as an idol, demands of us. We don’t just leave it at the office or the factory floor—we take it home. It is in our pocket, always pulling us away from our family and friends with one more check of our email, one more phone call, one more quick project. Work whispers in our ears that we are God-like, without a need for rest.

If we are not careful, we will load our vocations with the weight of a significance they were not meant to bear. As long as we are working, productive, and influential, we think we are happy. We often don’t even realize we’ve worshiped this faceless god until we’ve looked up and seen all of the unnecessary sacrifices we’ve made to it.

Work matters, and it matters to God, but it makes a poor god. We were not created in the image of our salaries or our positions or the organization for which we work. These good things will one day pass away, leaving us, if we are not careful, empty and unfulfilled.

This is why we must return, again and again, to the truth that our identity is not dependent on our utility or our influence or our paycheck, but is grounded in the love God has for his image-bearers. And in Christ, we know we are not merely laborers for corporations, but co-heirs with him forever. Tim Keller says that “faith gives you an inner ballast without which work could destroy you.”

As much as we are tempted to exalt our work, we are tempted to diminish it as well.

I’ve heard variations of this sentiment in the churches I have served: “Pastor, I wish I could really serve Jesus like you do. I have to sling it in a factory or stuff bags on an airplane or serve coffee to college students.”

This reflects an underdeveloped view of work, as if only what we do on Sundays when we meet as a church “counts” as Christian service, and work is just the way we get a paycheck and the place we go to try to evangelize.

Sadly, much of this exists because of misguided teaching and preaching. We pastors have often failed to teach a robust doctrine of work and have often elevated our own vocations higher on the heavenly org chart than God does. When we reduce the significance of our callings to mere utilitarian purposes, we diminish our own dignity. God did not create us as mere money-generating bots, but as creators, even if much of our creating seems mundane and monotonous.

Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this because I felt that everyday vocations such as my father’s were considered second-class by the church culture in which I grew up. It is too easy for those of us who receive paychecks from Christian organizations to consider our callings more sacred than those of the people we serve.

Constructive work is in and of itself a way we live as image-bearers. And the way we work can be a way we demonstrate that we understand the value of those we work alongside, and those we interact with. Our work is how we love and serve our neighbors.

When my father gave full attention to installing plumbing systems that work, he was serving the family whose house he worked on, and thus the community and the world. A craftsman should make good products because fellow image-bearers will use them. A baker should produce delicious baked goods because they will be consumed by fellow image-bearers. A retail employee should stock shelves with excellence because those shelves will be perused by fellow image-bearers looking to purchase goods. And in all of this, our Father is watching, pleased with our honest labor (Col. 3:23).

Editor’s note: This article was adapted with permission from The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity by Daniel Darling.

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