Someone at the cafe recently taped this fortune cookie fortune to the cash register: “If you don’t do it excellently, don’t do it at all.” I’m not sure whether it’s resulted in increased excellence or excuses not to attempt certain tasks, but I appreciate the point: Strive to do everything with excellence.
For a follower of Jesus, I think the point needs to be taken one step further: Strive to do everything in a way that honors God. One of the hardest places for many people to do this, unfortunately, is their work environment. Our workplaces are where we spend a great amount of our time every day, but rarely does the church teach disciples well what their faith means for how they work.
I think part of the problem stems from two misconceptions: (1) We assume that a job can only honor God if it’s explicitly ministry related. Occupations that aren’t “full-time Christian service”, non-profit work, or dedicated to a noble humanitarian cause get written off as “ordinary jobs”. (2) We assume also that if people have an “ordinary job”, then the only way they can serve God at that job is if they evangelize their coworkers, or attempt to be the moral conscience of the company.
A helpful corrective for both of these is to see one’s work, whatever it is, as something that is done for God, in the way that Jesus would do it. In two weeks I get to preach on the household code portion of Ephesians (5:21-6:9). That includes a passage encouraging slaves to obey their masters. Without going into detail about slavery in biblical times, it’s worth saying that a common application of this passage in our context today is that of bosses employees and their bosses. Ephesians 6:7, tells workers to: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord and not people.” The parallel passage in Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” The emphasis is on how one sees the work that they do, not what the actual work is.
Dallas Willard has some great words about this in part of The Divine Conspiracy which I recently read. Willard points out that a disciple is “learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I.” (p. 283). This means that we approach our work seeking to do it as Jesus would do that specific task. So for example, tonight at the cafe, while thinking about writing this post, I had to mop the basement floor. Mopping a basement would not be the first thing on my list of jobs that honor God if I were operating from the assumptions listed above. But, thinking about serving the Lord and not people, I tried to do an even better job than I normally would have. (Our manager will probably read this and tell me in the morning that Jesus would be disappointed with the job I did. Oh well. I think Jesus would be proud that I swept the staircase, too.)
Here’s an extended quote from Willard to elaborate on how almost any job can be done for the Lord:
“But once again, the specific work to be done – whether it is making ax handles or tacos, selling automobiles or teaching kindergarten, investment banking or political office, evangelizing or running a Christian education program, performing in the arts or teaching English as a second language – is of central interest to God. He wants it done well. It is work that should be done, and it should be done as Jesus himself would do it. Nothing can substitute for that. In my opinion, at least, as long as one is on the job, all peculiarly religious activities should take second place to doing ‘the job’ in sweat, intelligence, and the power of God. That is our devotion to God. (I am assuming, of course, that the job is one that serves good human purposes.)” (p. 286).
The assumption he tacks on at the end is important. A job that contradicts God’s purposes in this world may not be something we should work at as though for the Lord. Perhaps working some jobs as though for the Lord means being subversive or prophetic in certain contexts? More Willard: “A gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong, together with a sensitive, nonofficious, nonintrusive, nonobsequious service to others, should be our usual over manner.” (p. 285)
But back to the original question, what difference would it make for a secretary, a garbage man, a cook, an accountant, or a mail-carrier to see their job through this lens? How can we better teach this form of discipleship in the Church? Are there any people who serve as examples, known for doing this well?