Friday, September 07, 2007

Racing Rats, Moving Cheese

Given the huge amount of waking hours we spent at work, it seems rather strange that “secular work” occupies such a vague place amongst Christians. A graphic designer friend of mine was once told by well-meaning folks in church that he should not be involved in three types of jobs: an artist (due to widespread worldly temptation), a politician (because it’s ‘dirty’) or a lawyer (to avoid the lure of wealth).

Sometimes it seems like there is a caste system of spiritual work with missionaries and pastors at the top, followed by people-helping professionals (like doctors, teachers, nurses) and, in descending order, “barely-religious” jobs (such as lawyers, politicians and jazz musicians) close to the bottom! Although my friend enjoys doing creative special effects for movies, he can’t shake off the guilt that it is something unspiritual, if not explicitly sinful. He inhabits two separate “worlds”, shifting from an ordinary life as an “artist” on weekdays to a religious life as a Christian on Sundays. He aptly described his incongruent existence as being “schizophrenic” or “split personality”. If we are not a “full time worker” in church, does that make us only “part-time” Christians?

Even if the example is a bit dramatic, we often talk about work being valuable only as a platform that opens up opportunities to share the gospel. Indeed witness should take place naturally in the context of relationships in offices, factories and cafeteria. However, our labor itself has intrinsic God-honoring significance and dignity. It is not just a material necessity to put food on the table.

At the very beginning, God Himself rolled up His sleeves and worked creatively to get the universe up and running. (Genesis 1:1) Then He graciously gave Adam and Eve their first job description as His partners in eco-management - ruling, caring and stewarding the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). As Marvin Wrong wrote, “Without a human cultivator, every field and garden degenerates into wilderness. In other words, it’s only Eden if you have a gardener. Without one, what you have is the Amazon”. Work itself is designed as part of God’s good gift of creation, not a curse.

But due to sin, work is not always fulfilling or rewarding (Genesis 3:18). It is often characterized by abuses like overwork, shirk, bribery, office politics and exploitation of others. In this fallen world, we often struggle to maintain our ethical convictions and personal integrity in the face of evil. Yet when Christ came to redeem us from sin, He did not abandon the creation for otherworldly pursuits. His kingdom extends not only to a private corner called ‘religion’ but to every facet of public life as well. Instead, we will have resurrected bodies in the new heaven and new earth where everything is more real than before. We won’t “lepak” around playing harps in floating clouds, but would enjoy sanctified work as meaningful expression of who God made us to be. Therefore, as His followers, the rhythm of work and rest in our lives today ought to give out hints of what that future redeemed world looks like.

Perhaps, we could start with the conviction that all Christians are gifted and called to be “full-time workers” for the Kingdom in the world. That doesn’t mean that all Christians should escape “secular” work to join “sacred” ministry. But it does mean that if you are a software designer, you are an “ordained software designer”. You have been summoned by God to serve Him in that specific sphere of activity. Or, if you are an “ordained lawyer”, you are called to prayerfully explore how your discipline shows signs of rebellion against or submission to Christ’s Lordship. An “ordained environmentalist” ought to read the Scripture not just devotionally, but actively apply the biblical mandate for creation care in his work.

Whatever our vocation, we need to learn to think and live “Christianly” in areas specific to what we are called to do – media, education, politics, business or the arts. In humility and boldness, we should creatively integrate the biblical worldview with our occupations . It is not easy in practice. Ultimately, every single job (even missionaries!) has its unique challenges in the form of temptations, ‘dirty’ politics and/or money. That’s why we are “in but not of the world”. With God’s grace and other Christ-disciples, we could embrace a congruent, integrated and holistic “faith that works” (James 2:22).

Don’t settle for a fragmented existence torn between the secular and sacred “worlds”.

PS: The Agora and OHMSI collaborated on a book study on Christian worldview based on "Total truth: Liberating Christianity From its cultural captivity", which addressed issues of life like a privatized faith and sacred-secular divide. This article was written for Multimedia Uni Christian Fellowship. Much thanks to the Sojourner!


LT Jeyachandran said...

Dear All,

During my 28 years 6 months and 26 days (!) in the service of the Government of India, I was made to feel as if I was a second-class citizen of the Kingdom of God. Now that I am a Christian Brahmin - in fulltime Christian work - I am at pains to point out to Pastors not to preach the heresy that Christian work is superior to work in the Marketplace. This dichotomy, I can see, arises out of a poor theology of creation that many Christians hold; our theology of redemption is very strong. Our theology begins with Gen. 3 (the Fall) and ends with Rev. 20 (the Judgment); we leave out 4 very important chapters that show that this is God's world. As a matter of discipline, I have stopped using the phrase Secular World to refer to the world in which we live; the fallen world-system is secular, the created world is not.

Scott said...

I read this somewhere:

"The sanctity of manual labour is this: That God came to the world and made furniture."

See also the Protestant Work Ethic that contributed to the wealth and strength of the Western countries today:

Scott said...

Sorry, incomplete link earlier.

Dave said...

Dear friends,

It's our dream that the laos (people) of God be equipped for ministry in the workplace, not just evangelism (though that's crucial) but ministry in terms of creativity, world-building etc

if this article has been helpful, feel free to share it around :)