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When Your Job Sucks: The Doctrine of Vocation pt 2 – No Day is a Waste

In the first part of this series I introduced the Doctrine of Vocation – the Reformed Christian doctrine that basically says that God actually cares about the work you do during the day. I need to expound what the heck this means so that it’s clear why I find it so liberating.

In the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus says we should ask God to “give us our daily bread”. But how does he answer this prayer? Does bread fall from heaven? Usually, no. What we usually mean is that God would give us a salary so that we can afford the bread. What we usually miss is the larger and ordinary means that the bread comes to us – through the work of wheat farmers and cow milkers and bakers and truck drivers and retailers and cashiers and probably others. Our daily bread comes through jobs – those people working to bring the bread to us are serving us, their neighbour.

What did Jesus say were the two greatest commandments? He said we are to love God and love our neighbour (Luke 10:27). The work we do every day is us loving our neighbour. It really is. That’s why the work is important – God sees it as part of the ‘good works’ he encourages us to do.

The idea of loving our neighbour has become very abstract these days. We often think it entails doing charitable things – giving a poor person some food, being nice to those at the office, or standing up for justice. All that is true, of course, and encouraged. But how many of us think the physical day to day work we do, regardless of how menial it is, is actually an act of loving our neighbour?

The Reformers called this our “vocation”. Vocation means “calling” but it’s a better word, I think, because it doesn’t come with the baggage that modern charismatic extremes have pinned onto the word ‘calling’ – God zapping some world-changing idea into our heads, telling us how we are going to do ‘big things for God’ and be ‘God’s man / woman of the hour’ and all those cliche phrases the televangelists like to use to pump us up. That idea, however, is exactly like the old Monastic idea where the only work God sees as important is work done in the Church because it means ordinary work isn’t big enough for God.

So we look for our ‘calling’ in the Church. What is it I can do? For some reason, we feel that serving tea on a Sunday morning at church is more important to God than serving tea at the office during the week; or serving tea at home to our family. We couldn’t be further off the mark. God sees them equally and is just as pleased with all of them.

The Doctrine of Vocation affirms something that I’ve found to become more and more important – how God works in ordinary ways. His means of answering our prayers usually comes through people’s vocations. Sick? Well, he might heal you supernaturally, but the doctor has been called by God as his means to make us well. In need of some inspiration or entertainment? Lo and behold, God has actually called the artist, musician, actor, director, video game designer or sportsman to serve you in that. Every job is a calling from God, besides the obvious ones like drug dealing and sex working.

Suddenly menial work is just as grand and important as the pastor who is ‘saving them by the millions’. God calls some to be evangelists, some to be teachers, some to be pastors, some to be video game designers.

Vocations don’t need to last forever they can often be seasonal things. We also have a number of vocations – serving our family is a vocation from God. We can get into finding our vocations in another post. For now, the point is that all work is seen by God as ‘good works’. See Eph 6: 5 – 7 in this light and things change.

This has been liberating for me for this reason: all throughout most of my twenties I did a job I hated. For eight years I did regular two-o’clock-in-the-morning stints, found myself constantly frustrated, and pretty much hated life. It was an endless slog that sent me into deep despair. Day after day I saw myself sinking into this deep dark pit of meaninglessness. Life felt utterly meaningless. I mean, it sucked. I tried to console myself through my music and my work at my church, but it all just wasn’t fitting.

At last, about five years ago, I grabbed at a chance to get out – I took a voluntary retrenchment and started freelancing as a writer. That, too, over the years has brought its own frustrations – especially the frustration of not being where I want to be yet. I want to be writing books, not writing articles all day. And that dream is nowhere near coming to pass.

Here’s the thing: I always looked back at those years as wasted years. I felt my job meant nothing to me or to others or even to God. I felt I had no impact on anyone’s life and did a botched up job not only in the work environment (ultimately, everything I worked at failed) but also never did anything I thought God would be interested in (no one got saved, no one cared). But, looking at it through this new lens, not one day was a waste. God saw all the hard work for the company as good works. God is not just interested when we help old grannies cross the road. He sees it all as good works. And he rewards good works.

His rewarding I’ll need to expound on in a further post as this one’s getting a bit long. For now, though, you can see why the Doctrine of Vocation had such an impact when the Reformers saw it. None of our work done is in vain. In fact, the idle rich are the ones who, despite living the ‘good life’, are going to be in trouble sooner or later. Jesus said that many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matt 19:30). The guy who collects the rubbish, who works harder than the rich man who lives off an inheritance, will collect a far larger reward either in this life or the life to come. The rubbish collector doesn’t need to have a zillion people ‘come to Christ’ or stop slavery or create some new technology for God to count his work as good. He may die in obscurity to us, but never to God.

Suddenly, everything carries meaning as everything is counted as love towards my neighbour. That’s liberating. Motivating. And inspiring.

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When Your Job Sucks: The Doctrine of Vocation, Pt 1

(Read part two of this series here.)

For many (or most) of us, Sunday nights are often dampened by a feeling of dread, more or less. Tomorrow is Monday and it’s back to the grind. We feel that our work carries very little meaning and that everything actually requires work – even raising a family is work. It’s work, work, work all the way.

Is this sheer negativity? Or honesty? Well, perhaps a little bit of both. All of us are somewhere on the job satisfaction scale. But I think it’s true that we all do seem to look for some kind of meaning in our work – we want to know that what we do matters. We want our work to have impact in some positive way, but for most of us we feel that it’s either only the rich, company owners, presidents, CEO’s or pastors that seem like they can have any real impact.

The trouble here is that all five of those people get those jobs and – if they’ve managed to keep themselves from being influenced by corruption – find they are just as frustrated as the next person. Presidents can’t do whatever they want, they have layers of politics to sort out first. Business owners have to answer to shareholders. CEO’s have to walk a thin line to keep themselves from being fired. Pastors are frustrated with a lack of finances or may find that most of their job is just tied up in administrative work.

Most days are filled with menial tasks, regardless of your kind of job. Regardless of the PR surrounding people like Steve Jobs, I’m not convinced that he was always 100 percent happy with his impact.

In comes the Doctrine of Vocation, Reformed Christianity’s solution to the problem of work. It’s this doctrine that helped shape a prosperous Europe. The American Puritans were influenced heavily by this doctrine, forming their own out of it (the Puritan work ethic) that helped shape what America is today. Of course, in both cases secularisation has come in and tainted the original thinking – a focus on individual gifting in the doctrine is warped by secularised culture where the individual is the centre of the universe. A focus on hard work has led to abuse by secularised culture. And so it goes on.

But the doctrine is incredibly important yet extremely neglected in our modern day churches. Gene Edward Veith, a college dean, believes that the Doctrine of Vocation is second to the doctrine of ‘faith alone’. This is the doctrine that allows Christians to impact the world regardless of what they do.

Martin Luther is a forerunner in the forming of this doctrine. Back in Catholic / Monastic Europe, the only ‘holy office’ that God approved of (ie. the only work God saw as holy and important) was the work of the clergy. In many instances, ‘good works’ were relegated to prayer and spiritual disciplines rather than, well, feeding the hungry or doing a good job. This is because farmers and milkmaids and whatever else were not seen to be doing anything that God actually cared about. The Doctrine of Vocation put that thought right and set people free to approach their work with vigour, joy, and a great deal of meaning. Regardless of what they did. Because even the most menial jobs actually carry meaning.

The unfortunate neglect of this doctrine, particularly in evangelicalism, has led to a kind-of return to the old Catholic Monastic teaching above. Many Christians have no idea how their daily work can have any impact – they’re not content with their work – so they think the only impact they do have that’s meaningful is what they do in church – their contribution to the programs and activities of their church. Not that their contributions are not important or should end, but when life is only ever about our ‘ministry’ then we feel it’s only ‘ministry’ that has impact, rather than the ordinary, every day work that most of us do.

I’m on a journey of discovery here as I study this doctrine. I’ll be putting more posts up as I go. I’m currently working through Veith’s book called God at Work (link to the Kindle version below) and am convinced he is right – this doctrine needs a much more central space in our church life and teaching. Join me as a I post my findings and thoughts on this line of thought, which I have already found quite liberating, in the next couple of weeks.

Read part two of this series here.

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Work (Pt 2): Don’t Stop; Don’t Fret; Don’t Seek a Better Life

bread working prosperity

In Part One of this series we covered that God is the one who created WORK, and he called it good. One of the principle points around this I mentioned was:

If we were created to work, we must work, and in doing so we do one of the things we were made to do – regardless of what we are doing. So menial jobs carry a greater meaning. Also, the point of life is not to try and do whatever we can to stop working. We must work, despite our bank balance.

We tend to either be workaholics or idle busybodies. And both of them lead to anxiety while at the same time tend to become our habit because of anxiety.

We’re anxious about what people will think of our work, whether we’ll be a success or not, if people will call us a failure, whether our family will be proud, whether we are working hard enough to receive a good reward – and that reward is usually financial and often in an effort to stop working. If we could just crack this next big deal we may have enough money to quit this job, maybe retire, or maybe start our ‘dream job’, only to find years down the line that our dream job has also become a bit of a pain.

Psalm 127: 1 – 2

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to his beloved in his sleep.”

The point of work is not to stop working. We must work regardless of our bank account. Sure, it’s nice to do something you really love, but if idleness is our goal then even what we love will become a pain to us. We must see work from God’s perspective – he created it, it’s a good thing and it can be a joy in our lives, regardless of what we’re doing. In this every kind of job carries a greater and more glorious meaning. We’re doing exactly what we were created to do – we’re working.

At the same time, we’re not called or created to fret and be anxious about our work. God is the one who prospers it, who makes something out of it. Unless He does, all of our labour – our rising up early, our staying up late – is in absolute vain. He needs to prosper it and there is no way we can make him prosper it. Hard work often pays off, but not always, and God doesn’t guarantee that He’ll reward hard work or even honest living. He guarantees that He’ll take care of you and I, and He guarantees that we’ll have joy in the hard times, but He does not guarantee financial prosperity – honest work is more likely to lead to prosperity in the long run than dishonest work, but even God does not guarantee that honest work will always lead to prosperity.

This may be hard to swallow, especially in our culture and even in Christian circles. We don’t want a poverty mindset, we say, and I’m not advocating one. But I’m simply saying that God has bigger things in mind.

The difference is in what it is we want. We either want the better life or we want the better hope. We’re either chasing after the riches of this world or we’re chasing after the Treasure of All – one who is worth more than all the riches of this world can offer – Jesus Christ. This God wants to give us, and if a tight pocket leads us to this Greater Treasure, well God is as good as He says He is then.

God sent manna from heaven to the Israelites. He took care of their needs. Manna day in and day out. Manna, manna, manna, and they got bored of it. So would you and I. See, we link the abundance of life God promises us to a life where there is always choice, always diversity, to keep us entertained and feeling happy. Lord, not manna today, but steak; Lord, not manna today, but apples. None of these are bad in themselves, but we want God to keep us entertained and keep the better life coming or we say He isn’t good. Meanwhile, he wants to lead us to a Better Treasure – the Greatest Treasure. We’ll expound on this in the next post.

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Work (Pt 1): A New Approach

work and grapesThis is the first part in a little series of posts I’m going to do about WORK, the thing we do every day and spend most of our lives actually doing.

I hope it’s edifying. As far as I’m concerned the way we view work can really affect the joy in our lives. Work can bring us anxiety, fear, paranoia about our life going nowhere, foolish pride, and a whole host of things that hopefully I’ll cover effectively. Meanwhile, God intends for work to be a joy in our lives. That’s right, a joy. Regardless of what we’re doing.

That doesn’t mean work is meant to replace the joy in our lives — in other words, become our one and only joy. In fact, when it does, then the joy that it can bring us disappears under a layer of selfish ambitions, anxiety about what others think of our work, anxiety about our career, and anxiety whether our lives carry any meaning whatsoever.

Let’s start at the beginning: where work comes from.

God Said It Was Good

God began creation by working. He is the first worker, the first one who worked. And it looks like He took great joy in what He did. Genesis 1 and 2 shows a joyful God who takes pleasure in His work – creation. He calls creation ‘good’ a number of times. Then he creates man and takes pleasure in man as well. He rests on the ‘seventh day’ to indicate that work, too, is not all there is. There is also rest and just enjoying the fruits of labour. The seventh day obviously points towards many other things as well, but for the purpose of this blog we’ll stick to this for now.

On the sixth day, when man was created, God tells man to work.

Genesis 1: 28 – 31
And God blessed them [man]. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Genesis 2: 5 – 8
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground… then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.

Man was created to work the earth – to take care of it, nurture it, and subdue it. It’s only after the Fall of Man (Gen 3) that work becomes a curse, when it now becomes something of a toil. Gen 3:17 says the ground is cursed and in painful toil we will eat of it, all the days of our lives.

Work was never meant to be a toil, but it is now. However, there is hope. We were created to work and it was a blessing only when we were in fellowship with God. In Jesus Christ, God has restored our fellowship to Himself, meaning that there is a restoration (a salvation) of what we were originally intended to be. Part of this is a restoration of work, where work itself is redeemed in a way. What God gives us is His joy within the work, so that we can undergo the toil and labour of it with a joy still in our hearts.

This has a number of implications, which we’ll look into deeper as we go along.

(1) If God created work, it must be good. If we were created to work, we must work, and in doing so we do one of the things we were made to do – regardless of what we are doing. So menial jobs carry a greater meaning. Also, the point of life is not to try and do whatever we can to stop working. We must work, despite our bank balance.
(2) Work will always be a toil – regardless of what we’re doing. The idea that work can bring us the ultimate joy, purpose and adventure we seek in life is a myth. Work is unable to do that for us.
(3) We needn’t be anxious because God is the one who supplies our needs. He is the redeemer, redeeming our work from its futility and making something out of it.

Work is not our primary purpose and it never was our primary purpose. Knowing God is. But yet we were created to work, so work is a natural thing, it’s part of what man is about, and we don’t work to stop working – we work for many other reasons, which we’ll cover in this series.

Some of these points above may seem contradictory but we’ll iron out the contradictions as we go along. Hopefully, future posts will be shorter too!

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How Ambition Makes Me a Bad Friend

I have this issue with ambition that I regularly struggle with. You see, I want to go places, do things, live my life! So in an effort to get there I ignore the here. I look to the future, a thing that the world says I must do, but by doing I so largely ignore the present.

This is known as unhealthy ambition. And it makes me a very bad friend and son to my folks. This is because it gets me to always work towards the goal. For me, the goal is to become a full time novelist. So I’m working at my writing career from all angles to get there, so that one day I’ll “have the time to spend with those I love.”

The problem is that that time will never come. I mean, I know one day I’ll be a full time novelist, but what makes me think I’ll then have the time to spend with those I love? I have to keep my career going then.

Most of us work our lives away so we can enjoy our retirement. But when our retirement comes it’s short lived because our health, and our relationships, suffered so much in the process.

What we really all want is joy, peace, love and a bit of adventure. At least that’s how it is for me. And I can have that all pretty easily by just looking for it in the right place.

For the Kingdom of Heaven is a treasure hidden in a field. God is the source of real joy. That’s where I need to go looking for it. But why do I get sidetracked so easily, and so miss the very thing I’m looking for?

Rather I keep chasing after fleeting dreams which, even though they may be good in themselves, are tainted by this unhealthy ambition to get me there.

I’m know my experience is not unique. If you’re like me, let’s look to God as the source of our joy and hope and let our ultimate ambition be to truly know Him.