Sacred Vocation

While conducting research into the integration of Christian faith and economics, I have run across many professionals who have already “retired” from their secular job to go into full time ministry or missions work or are looking forward to doing so. In light of that separation between how they view their professional vs. ministry careers, I wanted to synopsize a devotional that I have been working on for a career transition group meeting.

Theologically we have had no problem with proscribing dignity to productive work since God worked in the six days of creation. And we see clearly in Genesis 2:15 – ” Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” Part of being fully human, part of our created purpose and function in the universe, is to work. The first thing God gave Adam was a job.

I want to start from Genesis 2:15 and discuss briefly how the Bible frames our understanding of our material provision coming as a result of working, then look at the ultimate purpose of work. In the verse cited above, it is interesting to note that God never commanded Adam to “cultivate and keep” the Garden as He commanded Adam and Eve to multiply and fill the earth. Seeing work as an integrated component in being human, one could argue easily that our work, in turn, works with creation to provide for our material needs to sustain us…and it does.

But there is another purpose in the relationship between our work and our provision. Two verses that echo each other will help illuminate my point. The first is Psalm 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.” The Hebrew word for desires – mish`alah – means petitions or requests. In effect, this verse is telling us that God will answer our prayers. In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10-13), Jesus taught us the kinds of things to request from God – that His kingdom and will would manifest on earth, that we would be fed, that our debts would be forgiven, and that we would be protected from temptation and evil. Nestled between God’s Kingdom manifestation and the protection from temptation and evil are two substantial economic concerns – food and debt. That these debts refer to forgiving personal sins is arguable in the immediate context.  But the forgiveness of material debt is part of God’s Law given to Israel in how to live together in community so I prefer to take this to mean both material and relational debt and forgiveness. But that topic is a bit of a diversion here.

Let’s move on. The second verse that echoes the sentiment I want to examine was in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.” The “all these things” Jesus is talking about are material provision, specifically sustenance: what we eat, drink, and wear (6:31). Physical survival is very definitely an economic concern since the marketplace is where we create income and buy our provisions.

But I wanted to draw attention to the first clause in each of these verses: “Delight yourself in the Lord,” and “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.” The emphasis is not on receiving our material provision but about being joyful about God and, by coming to know Him and His ways, bringing about His Kingdom and will on earth. It sets a priority of communion with and obedience to God that precedes our material well-being. Our provision is of secondary concern to being in right relationship with God.

These verses test our faith by challenging our focus. Will I seek to know and obey God and not so much worry about or take matters of vocation into my own hands? That is not to say we should not be diligent about working, or seeking work, but that all we do is subordinated to God and our faith that He will provide for our needs.

Finally I want to offer the ultimate purpose of our work. The church often speaks of witnessing to the world, that is, sharing our faith with unbelievers. But there are ways other than vocally, and often with greater impact, to share what our faith means to us and how it affects our lives. St. Francis is famously attributed with having said, “Witness always, if necessary use words.”

The last verse I wanted to draw into this is from Matthew 5:16 when Jesus says, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” The entire book of James is about the relationship between faith and works. We typically take that to mean charitable works but I think it is much broader than that. God gave Adam a job (really two jobs – to cultivate / labor and to keep/ management) in the Garden. It was productive, sustenance providing work. There was no need for charitable work in the abundance of the Garden.

All this leads to the following observations. Work is part of being human, in our DNA, so to speak. Our works, of all kinds, bear witness to what we believe and how we act in response to God. Our provision is a product of God’s design of creation which Scripture tells us repeatedly gives glory to the Creator (such as Romans 1:20 and Colossians 1:23). If we are willing to subordinate our vocation to obedience to God, bringing His ethic and the indwelling Holy Spirit with us into the workplace, we embrace our work as a sacred offering and God will be glorified, His ultimate purpose for His creation.

David Doty is the author of Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission (publication pending under contract to Wipf & Stock Publishers), which articulates an unprecedented biblically-based theology of the marketplace.  Doty is currently writing Downside Up: The Kingdom of God and Economic Potential, re-considering economic system designs in light of sound biblical theology.

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