Last fall, a Christianity Today cover story titled “God of the Second Shift” declared that today’s vibrant conversation on theology and vocation is leaving out the working class.
Indeed, the examples of success in too many recent Christian books on vocation are thoughtful believers that start or join non-profits alleviating poverty or that put Christian principles into the mission of the small business, physician practice or law office they run. Or things like that.
I’ve read no book that explicitly exalts these careers over others. But neither have I ever read a book on vocation filled with stories about Christian truck drivers, ironworkers, middle managers, secretaries and stay-at-home moms.
This problem would be helped by greater empathy and interaction between the Christian writers typing away in cafes—toward the barista making their coffee, the clerk at the fast food joint where they grab lunch, and the warehouse worker and the UPS driver that bring them their latest book from Amazon.
But the problem goes deeper than that. It’s theological.
Most Protestant Christian writing on vocation starts with the dignity of all work because all people are created in the image of God. It also asserts that all callings are equally important because no one can work their way to salvation with a more holy job. Preachers and plumbers are all equal—and equally important—in God’s sight.
These principles are true—but incomplete. They leave a gap that many Christians fill with the western secular world’s main message about work—“You can be whatever you want! Follow your heart! Do what you want to do.” Sometimes, Christian writers dress this idea in more religious language, such as the oft-quoted line from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I’m guessing there are more than a few cashiers at the suburban supermarket or highway hamburger joint that, although they are in exactly the place to meet the world’s deep hunger, are nowhere near their place of deep gladness. And more than a few folks in white-collar corporate jobs, after a day of pointless politics and burdensome bureaucracy, see Buechner’s quote as utterly disconnected from their work.
Work for many Christians feels undignified and unimportant. It feels like just a job—a way to get paid and be able to cover the many obligations life brings: rent, car insurance, food, medical bills, kids’ clothes and a few nice things here and there.
Filling the Gap
What we’re missing is a full-orbed view of Christ’s kingdom and how our work fits into it. The most thorough compilation of biblical evidence of Jesus’ kingdom was put together by the Scottish pastor William Symington in his 1839 book, Messiah the Prince.
Symington’s conclusions can be summed up like this: Jesus’ kingdom is universal—extending over all material things—but directing them toward a spiritual purpose—which is to build and bless His church. Or, as I like to summarize it: All of Creation, Now for Redemption.
Let me explain what that phrase means.
- Jesus, as the Son of God, created all that exists—heaven and earth, the spiritual and the physical, the invisible as well as the visible. This is stated repeatedly in scripture, but one of the clearest examples comes in Colossians 1:15-16—“all things were created through him and for him.”
- After Jesus’ death and resurrection, God the Father gave Jesus the entire created realm to rule not just as Creator—which He already did—but now as Redeemer. A key Bible passage to show this truth is Ephesians 1:22: “And He (God the Father) put all things under his (Christ’s) feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” That last phrase, “to the church,” states the purpose for which Jesus was given power over “all things:” to redeem people from their sins via salvation in the church.
- So as Redeemer-King, Jesus makes all parts of creation—including all people, all groups they form and therefore all jobs—work for the redemption of His people.
Reformed Christians understand that Christian redemption is miraculous. It only happens when divine action intervenes in an extraordinary way into a human life.
Likewise, the work that supports redemption is miraculous. The utter destructiveness of sin should have ended the cooperative relationships required for human life—let alone worship and preaching and poverty-fighting. Sin immediately broke the relationship between Adam and Eve, causing them to shift from loving each other to blaming each other. Within one generation, sin had already broken relationships so completely that Cain murdered his brother Abel. By Genesis 6, sin was so great that “the LORD regretted that he had made man” and led him to wipe out everyone except Noah.
But Jesus continues to intervene in human affairs to hold back this destructiveness. He performs this miraculous restraint, in large part, by working through us as we go to work. That means our work is a WAY bigger deal than just the dignity of image-bearing or the equality brought by an understanding of salvation by faith alone. Our work—including grimy, mundane, soul-draining and low-paying work—is doing nothing less than keeping the world going, making it possible for millions of people to come to faith in Jesus.
Jesus' Miracles as Daily Guide
During His time on earth, Jesus demonstrated that He possessed the power of the divine creator and the power of the divine redeemer by performing many miracles. And now as Redeemer-King of the earth, He continues to perform the same kind of miracles, but He works through people like you and me to do it.
Most of Christ’s earthly miracles involved healing people. And today, Christ uses doctors and nurses, scientific researchers and even health care business executives, to bring healing to millions of people every day. Some organizations explicitly acknowledge this fact. For instance, Franciscan Health, a group of 14 hospitals in the Midwest region of the United States, declares on its web site that it “carries forth Christ’s healing ministry.”
But far more carry on Christ’s miracles without even realizing it.
The miracles Jesus did on earth give us a guide for the areas in which we labor here on earth. Categorized into the different human needs they serve, Jesus’ miracles can show us the departments of His kingdom—into which our earthly jobs fit.
Below I have organized Jesus’ more than 40 miracles recorded in the Bible into nine categories under the three biggest miracles of Jesus’ life—His Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension. I included an example or two—not the exhaustive list—of each type of miracle under each heading.
Incarnation—Sustaining physical life
- Food (Catch of Fish, Feeding the 5,000)
- Transport (Walking on water, Directing disciples to find the donkey to enter Jerusalem)
- Shelter/Protection From Natural Elements (Calming storm on the sea)
- Healing That Restores Physical Health (Paralytic Let Down Through Roof)
Resurrection—Restoring relationships with God and others
5. Healing that Restores Relationships (Driving out evil spirits, Raising Lazarus)
6. Teaching/Truth (Prophecies, Revealing the Samaritan woman's past)
7. Beauty/Joy (Transfiguration/Water into Wine)
8. Leadership (Calling disciples with just two words)
9. Submission to leadership (coin for temple tax in fish's mouth)
Defining these departments is important to help us identify the larger purpose for the various work we do and the various roles we play in our world. Each of us works in more than one of these departments—and over the course of our lives, probably all of them. But we tend to specialize in one or two. Artists focus on beauty more than truck drivers. Truck drivers focus more on transport than
So when we feel we’re just barely surviving, we should remember, that “just barely making it” is the way of this sinful world—and that Jesus is working in and us and through us to get through it—and help others do the same.
When we feel our work has no meaning, we should think which of these nine categories is the one Jesus has us working in, and aim our efforts at meeting His purpose.
Here’s just one example: Driving a delivery truck to fast food joints or serving hamburgers is critically important because, by miraculously carrying out Jesus’ miracles of feeding the 5,000, it allows people to keep living, to keep having chance to hear the gospel, to keep having a chance to worship God and share the gospel. In short, to keep glorifying God.
Joining our work with Jesus’ larger redemptive purpose is the job of every Christian—regardless of which class they happen to fall in.