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Work by the book

Work & Calling | Two books and two websites help Christians to think through how their work is a part of their calling

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

A plethora of Christian books and resources concerning issues of work, business, and calling is now available. I've found four particularly useful.

Those wanting a short book should get theologian Wayne Grudem's Business for the Glory of God (Crossway, 2003). In 96 pages he shows that business glorifies God when we use our talents to employ others in an environment that allows them to be productive and creative. He looks at issues such as ownership, productivity, employment, profit, competition, borrowing and lending, poverty and inequality.

Grudem also concludes that "the only long-term solution to world poverty is business. That is because businesses produce goods, and businesses produce jobs. And businesses continue producing goods year after year, and continue providing jobs and paying wages year after year." He notes that business activities are essentially good but we can sin by making idols of them-and when governments impede business development, they foster more poverty.

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Darrow Miller's LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM Publishing, 2009) is four times as long and broader in its analysis. Miller points out that many evangelicals have a dualistic worldview that leads them to divide life into sacred and secular realms. He notes that in the 62 years he has been a Christian, only twice has he heard a pastor preach on this dualistic problem.

Miller knows that Christians may feel a great dissonance between what our Christian faith says about the sacredness of our work and what we may experience as the drudgery of work. "We may know that God didn't institute work as a curse; we may know that God created us in his own image-made us to work as he does with great purpose and reward. But to our disappointment and unease, in our actual experience work is often more about survival than the fulfillment of our destinies."

Miller particularly criticizes a prime manifestation of this dualistic thinking among Christians, the idea that "it is best to leave the secular arena and go into the spiritual arena so we can be 'full-time Christian workers.' Only evangelists, church planters, pastors, missionaries, and theologians are doing full-time Christian work according to this view, because only these kinds of work are spiritual. The 'helping professions' (social workers, charity workers, counselors, etc.) rank a close second. . . . Accounting, carpentry, filmmaking, the arts, farming and homemaking are secular activities and thus lower."

This split was most dramatic in medieval times, when the Catholic church taught of "two forms of life, the perfect life and the permitted life. The perfect life was higher, sacred, and contemplative. It was the life of religious workers like priests, nuns, monks, and theologians. . . . The permitted life was lower, secular, and active. This involved manual labor and was the lot of the common man, the farmer, homemaker, cabinetmaker, merchant, and artisan."

The Protestant Reformation challenged such thinking: "Reformers like Luther and Calvin and also Ulrich Zwingli . . . recognized that there is no sacred-secular dichotomy but only a consecrated or unconsecrated life." Luther applied the German word beruf-"calling" or "vocation," in reference to professional ecclesiastical functions-to worldly duties as well: "If righteousness is by faith, Luther reasoned, then the contemplative life of the monks and priests is neither higher nor lower than the active life of the faithful farmer, cabinetmaker, or homemaker."

This belief changed ideas about work, and it should transform ours as well: "For Christians who understand that we are saved by grace through faith, the whole concept of work has been transformed to that of worship. Paul told Roman believers 'to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.'" Miller quotes 19th-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle's summary of this biblical ethic: "All true Work is sacred . . . even the poor day laborer, the weaver of your coat, the sewer of your shoes."

Do we believe that? I suspect Miller is right when he notes that "the concept of work held today, in much of the Western world, has been framed by the materialistic or secular paradigm. In this worldview, there is no spiritual reality, only physical reality. From this perspective, what does work do? It gives us access to material things. . . . Man is an animal, a highly evolved animal, but he is basically a consumer. In this paradigm, man has no intrinsic worth. . . . Success in the workplace means moving higher up the career ladder, accumulating more money or power for the purpose of affording greater consumption."

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