Excellence at Work

Principle three is that we work to display excellence.  Colossians chapter 3 is set in the context of the new life in Christ.  What does this new life look like in marriage, in family life, in the workplace, etc?  Regarding work, Paul writes, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.  It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:23-24).

Following the Protestant Reformation, churches began to see more clearly the value of work in the context of Scripture. The Protestant Work Ethic initially encouraged us to carry out our work in a chosen occupation with an attitude of service to God, and secondly, viewed work as a calling and avoided placing a greater spiritual dignity on one job over another.  The calling of a CEO is no greater  than the calling of a janitor.  The calling of a minister is no greater than the calling of a retail worker.  Our focus is on excellence in whatever work God has called us to do, not on the type of position.

The world’s value system measures our significance by the type of work we do and our position in the company.  We are so tempted to boast in our wisdom, power, or riches as it relates to our job.  One of the things I enjoyed about my former job is the lack of titles at the company I worked for.  When I started there, I asked my boss what to put on my business card.  He said that since I was the only geophysicist at the company at the time, I could call myself whatever I wanted.  He said I could be “chief geophysicist”, “principal geophysicist”, “senior geophysicist”, or “grand pooh-bah” if I wanted.  I settled on just “geophysicist” since that is what I do.  When I gave my order to our office manager, she said, “You are going to do well at this company if you don’t need a big title.”

In Jeremiah 9:23-24 we read, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast if his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.”

Contrast our natural desire to boast in our riches or position with the apostle Paul’s boast.  “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).  When we are secure in our significance in Christ, we are free from the chains of finding our significance in our position.  The world and its glory have been put to death.  Our boast now is in the cross of Christ and living lives of gratefulness for the price He paid on the cross to rescue us.

And we are free to pursue our work with excellence, not to acquire wealth and position, but to please the Lord in all that we do.

Redirecting Wealth

Principle two of why we go to work is that we work to redirect wealth from the world’s system to God’s purposes.  Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.”  We are to work in order to share with those in need.

God calls this laying up treasure in heaven.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:19-21).  Or, “I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteousness wealth, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Lk 16:9).  Or, “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys” (Lk 12:33).

Putting this into practice can take many forms.  We may use our wealth to directly support the work of our church, or other ministries, or family members in need, etc.  This principle gives us the freedom to use our gifts and talents to capture as much income as possible, because our motivation is to redirect it into God’s work.  I have no qualms about reaching for my maximum salary potential when I am motivated to do so as a ministry to others.  Just keep in mind our need for balance.  If I am working 70 hours a week to provide money for ministry needs, I am probably doing so to the detriment of my family who need my time and attention.

Now consider this, while God teaches us to work to redirect wealth, the world teaches us to work to accumulate wealth.  “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’  And He told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man was very productive.  And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?”  Then he said, “This is what I will do:  I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ ”  But God said to him, “You fool!  This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?”  So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God’ ” (Lk 12:15-21).

The worldly principle of working to accumulate wealth is called foolishness by God.  Wisdom redirects wealth, foolishness accumulates it for selfish reasons.  We go to work to redirect wealth from the world’s system to God’s purposes.

The Value of Work

One of the things recovered by the Protestant Reformation is the value of work.  In fact, it became known as the Protestant Work Ethic.  But that ethic is slowly being chipped away by forces from two very different directions.

On the worldly front, the work ethic is under attack by an age of corruption and entitlement.  Rather than the traditional ideal of making money by working hard and gaining wealth by saving or ingenuity or inventiveness, we seem to be entering an age of corruption and entitlement.  Gaining wealth through fraud extends from Wall Street to Washington DC to Main Street.  It has become such a common income stream that we can’t even tell if it is being policed.  And don’t get me started on our entitlement culture that lives for handouts to corporations and individuals alike.

But there is another direction of attack on the Protestant Work Ethic that is a bit more subtle and actually happening within the church.  For lack of a better description, let’s just say it is coming from the radical ministry camp that looks down on what they consider “secular” work and the wealth that is derived from it.  It hints that those engaged in traditional jobs are somehow missing the call to radical discipleship, or worse yet, are second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.

So let’s address these issues by looking at what the Bible says about work.  As with almost every topic the Bible touches involving practical instruction, there is an important balance to keep in mind.  On the one hand, we are not to make work and the pursuit of wealth our life’s goal and our god.  On the other hand, we are not to trivialize work as just a “worldly activity”.

Consider James 4:13-15, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’  Yet you do not know what your life will be tomorrow.  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this and that.’ ”

It would be easy in light of this passage to take a dim view of work and say, “Why bother, it’s all going to burn up?”  God is not encouraging laziness here.  He is asking us to view our work in light of His eternal perspective; to make our plans subject to His will.  So rather than minimizing the value of work, let’s turn to the Scriptures to find four principles about what God would like us to accomplish through our work.

Principle one is that we work to provide for our families.  “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (I Tim 5:8).  Pretty strong words.  The concept is clear.  One aspect of our work responsibility and value of work is to provide for those who depend on us.  And while the concept is clear, let’s be sure to think through the implications.  Are you willing to take whatever job is necessary to provide for your family?  Or are you so focused on finding just the right job for you that your family has to suffer through income gaps as you bounce from job to job?  I have a lawyer friend who took a second job stocking grocery shelves when business was slow in order to keep providing for his family.  That is the kind of providing we are talking about.

Contrast this idea with the world’s message.  The world says that we work to find self-fulfillment.  So we need to find the perfect job that satisfies that need.  God’s word teaches us that the need to provide for our families is more important than a focus on our job satisfaction.  There is nothing wrong with finding a job you love and even changing jobs to accomplish that.  Just keep the right priorities in mind and let’s make sure we are not ignoring our family’s needs while seeking our own way.

Next time, we will move on to principle two:  we work to redirect wealth from the world’s system to God’s purposes.