Integrating Faith and Work for a Meaningful Life
Hugh Whelchel’s book How Then Should We Work? just keeps on giving. I was reviewing my notes and came across quotes that seemed to answer the very same questions I’d been asking recently. It was uncanny. Sometimes the Providence of God will lead you right to the answers you need, at the right time. You just have to keep trying. But I digress.
What struck me is his clear thinking on the integration between work and faith. I am now working a full-time job in the financial world, pursuing a career in financial planning. And this transition has brought up so many questions, the core of which are questions like “How do I balance work and ministry?”, or, “If I’m not in vocational ministry, what level of commitment and devotion does God require of me?” These are questions I know intellectually, but not experientially.
The Meaning of Life isn’t Achievement and Acquisition
The financial world is focused on…wait for it…finances. It’s natural. But this daily focus leads (in many) to obsession. I know money isn’t the most important thing in life, but one question I began having is How important is it? What defines a successful life? And I began to wonder how my American life was programming me to value things. Tim Keller once said that the two great American idols are achievement and acquisition. We are an individualist culture where I am the star of my own reality show:
The secular scaled-down version of Solomon’s lifestyle shows up in the modern bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Even for many Christians, the acquisition of material things and the pursuit of pleasure are the driving force and measuring rod of what it means to live a successful life.1
We’ve Lost the Meaning of Life by Losing Values
Well that rang true and it’s a relief to know that is coming at me from the outside. But there is also this demoralizing futility: that life isn’t meaningful, that there are no more pleasures to be found, etc.
Such demoralizing futility is hitting people at an earlier age. Google “quarter-life-crisis” and you will get over one and a half million hits about young people, usually in their mid—to late 20s, who are unsatisfied with the direction of their lives. These overachievers diligently worked at getting superior grades in high school so they could get into the right colleges and in turn get the best jobs. Now that they are out in the workforce, many are filled with feelings of anxiety and failure. They realize that the world of work is not giving them the satisfaction they expected. One anonymous twenty-something wrote, “You look at your job. It is not even close to what you thought you would be doing or maybe you are looking for one and realizing that you are going to have to start at the bottom and are scared.”
Richard Leider and David Shapiro, in their book Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life, found that most people’s number-one fear is having lived a meaningless life. According to a recent Harris Poll, a monumental 97% of Generation Y (twenty-somethings) are looking for work which allows them to have an impact on the world. Yet it is a difficult task to find meaning in the current postmodern culture.
Douglas Groothuis in his book Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism writes about the contemporary mood:
“The self becomes saturated, sated with possibilities, options, and preferences—yet without an inner gyroscope for direction, correction, and inspiration. When all values are constructed, no hierarchy of objective values is possible, no guiding ideal is available, and no taboos intrude; there are only experiments, amusements, and diversions. The postmodern self is protean and dynamic, but also fragmented and ultimately empty of objective meaning. The self was made for better things.”2
The Antidote is Integrating Faith and Work, and Seeking First the Kingdom of God
That is the way things are for my generation in the work-force. But then I ran across this quote, which is the antidote:
In such a toxic cultural environment, Christians are also at risk. We need to know who we are and whom we serve. We should be crystal clear not only in our theology of salvation but in our theology of work in the Kingdom, finding our identities firmly in the transcendent reality of the triune God. “The Gospel, you see, is not only a message for individuals, telling them how to avoid God’s wrath. It is also a message about a Kingdom, a society, a new community, a new covenant, a new family, a new nation, a new way of life, and, therefore, a new culture. God calls us to build a city of God, a New Jerusalem.”
Again Groothuis observes:
“While postmodernists madly “reinvent” themselves (to no ultimate end) ever more rapidly, radically, and frantically, the Christian can rest in his or her identity in Jesus Christ, his Kingdom, and his calling. As we “seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness” (Matt 6:33), our lives are brought into greater harmony with God’s truth and, therefore, into greater disharmony with all untruth, postmodernist or otherwise. In so doing, we serve as signs, clues, and rumors of God’s objective reality in a world moving toward depravity in nearly every direction.”3
Integrating Faith and Work is Living in the Kingdom
Therefore, if I can integrate my faith and work, I will have lasting impact.
In a 2009 interview, the theologian N.T. Wright stressed the lasting impact of what we do for the Kingdom of God:
“What you do in the present matters. It’s hard for Protestants to hear that without thinking, ‘Oh, dear, this is good works again.’ That’s a scare tactic. Sometimes, it’s a political scare tactic—to stop Christians from actively working to change the way the world is, confronting [in] justice and building communities of peace and hope instead of ones of violence and hatred. The verse which says it all for me is the last verse in 1 Corinthians . Okay, you’ve got this great chapter on resurrection. What is Paul going to say after writing a whole chapter on resurrection? Is he going to say, ‘Since there is a resurrection, spend your time looking up and waiting for this glorious future?’ No, he says, ‘Therefore my beloved ones be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.’ Your work is ‘not in vain.’ Why not? Because everything you do in the present, in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, everything that flows out of love and hope and grace and goodness, somehow will be part of God’s eventual Kingdom. That is the message of the resurrection. The resurrection is your new body in which you will be gloriously, truly wonderfully you. The resurrection means everything you’ve done in the present through your body—works of justice and mercy and love and hope—somehow in ways we don’t understand will be part of God’s new creation. We are not building the Kingdom of God in that old social Gospel sense. We are building for the Kingdom of God.4
How to Integrate Faith and Work
That’s all fine and dandy, but How do we integrate our work and faith?
So then how do we integrate our work and our faith in a way that is pleasing to God?
First, we must rediscover that our primary vocation is the call to follow Jesus. From our primary call flows our call to the church, to the family, to the community, and to economic work. All of life is to be lived under the comprehensive Lordship of Christ (Matthew 28:18).
We must realize that this call to follow Jesus embraces the whole of our lives, including our everyday work. Our Christian calling finds no separation between the secular and the sacred. To God, what we do on Sunday is no more important or spiritual than what we do on Monday. Everything we do should be unified in obedience to God and for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).
We must learn how to think out the implications of the Christian view of reality for the shape of everything we do in our professions. Our theology of work should teach us how to think Christianly about all of life, public and private, and about how to work with Christian distinctiveness. In all of our work we must labor as though Jesus Himself is the One we must ultimately please (Colossians 3:17). We must work diligently, ever striving in all our labors to excel still more (1 Thessalonians 4:1). We must also employ good stewardship by using all our gifts and every opportunity to serve the Lord and others (Matthew 25:14-30), setting our minds on our exalted King, who watches over all our labors and takes them even more seriously than we do (Colossians 3:1-3).
We must embrace a view of our vocation which includes some constant elements but is also flexible enough to help us make sense of lives in which the nature and mix of our work is regularly changing. It is projected that college graduates today will not only have a number of jobs during their careers, but will have a number of careers during their lifetimes, some of which have not even been invented yet. Therefore the vocational call will be different for different people, and different at different stages in our lives.
We must be committed to the idea that employment is an important part of life through which we express our Christian discipleship; therefore it must be done with excellence.
Christians need to be practically mentored, placed, and positioned in their vocations in the most advantageous way. They need cooperation with others in the field who can encourage, advise, and advocate for them.
We must realize that through the Christian doctrine of work, God changes the culture. If Christians live in major cultural centers in great numbers and simply do their work in an excellent but distinctive manner, it will naturally produce a different kind of culture than the one in which we now live.
We must identify which cultural practices are common grace and can be embraced and which practices are antithetical to the gospel and must be rejected, adapted, or revised for use by believers. This must be done not only for work in general, by also for individual professions such as the arts, law, medicine, and business.
We must call all Christians to rediscover the Cultural Mandate, embracing the opportunity to influence culture to the glory of God and the furtherance of His Kingdom. In the church, we must teach about calling and cultural influence and provide vital support to cultural leaders. “We must become an integral piece of the local culture, convening and encouraging creation of future culture that serves the common good. We must become connoisseurs of good culture, recognizing and celebrating the good, true and beautiful to the glory of God and begin to lead the conversations that will shape future culture.”
Finally, we must see our work within the larger perspective of God’s plan for the restoration of His creation. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon warned Rehoboam against living “under the sun,” holding a vision derived from a purely secular perspective. “If all you can see in your work is what goes on at your work, then you may be stuck in a kind of ‘under the roof’ perspective that keeps you from envisioning the contribution your work makes to God’s larger purposes of beauty, goodness, and truth. With a little imagination, no matter what our job—as long as it is legitimate, and entered into for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31)—we can find reasons to praise and thank God for our work and for the way it contributes to restoring uprightness to the world.”230 It is this larger perspective of our daily work which will not only help us see the significance of our labors but will also give us great satisfaction as we embrace what we have called the Biblical doctrine of work.5
Now that’s a hefty quote, but I thought it was worth it. When I read all of that, I knew which way to go. It’s amazing how such truth can guide you through transitions in your life and light your path as you learn their truth experientially, in a way you never have before.