July 2015 Issue: Work and the Workplace-The Heavenly meaning of our earthly work

by Rev Dr Tan Soo Inn


There is a sentiment that if you are in church-related work, somehow you are serving God. But if you are working in the world it is not as spiritual. I have always felt very uncomfortable about this — that life is divided into some sacred-secular divide. For example, if you work as a taxi driver or a dentist, nobody is very sure what spiritual significance the work has. But most of us spend most of our time in the marketplace. The demands of the modern marketplace are very unrelenting. Globalisation has meant that our competitors are no longer the shop down the road; we have to compete with the rest of the world. Hence, we are spending the increasingly longer hours at the workplace. So, to never be sure of what God thinks of your daily work is very sad. And it holds people back from being able to give their all joyfully to their daily work. In order to better understand discipleship in the workplace, let us look at some perspectives on work.

Some common perspectives on work

a) As a necessary evil

We need to put food on the table, so we have to work. This is the “Thank God It’s Friday” gang.

b) As a god

For those whose families may have been part of the diaspora experience from India or China, work is seen in godlike terms. Growing up, our parents constantly remind us of the importance of our studies, which were seen as our gateway to earning a good living and hence, security in life. So you have to bow at the altar of studying.

c) As divided between sacred and secular

If I am working in church, that is spiritual, but if I am working in the marketplace, I am not quite sure about the value of my work. Maybe if I use the money I earn to fund mission work that makes my work more “spiritual”. Or, perhaps, I can redeem my work by sharing the gospel with my colleagues. But, what about the work itself?

Today, I would like to look at what the bible says about the work itself.

A theology of work

Any theology of work must begin with God. And the God revealed in Scripture is a worker. (Genesis 1-2; Job 10:3-12; Psalms 139:13-16) In the Genesis account, God is a creator, planning His work and executing His plan. He is an engineer, an artist, a sculptor. As Scripture unfolds, we see God as a composer - He gives a song to Israel. God is a saviour when we are in trouble. He is a teacher who teaches us His truths. He sustains His created order.

What you think God is like will impact how you live your life. The God we follow, who has revealed Himself in Scripture, is a working God.

Created in God’s image, humankind was given the mandate to work, essentially to care for and to develop God’s creation as God’s stewards. (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:4-25) In particular, “God blessed them and said to them. “Be fruitful and increases in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of and the birds of the air and over ever living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) God can do things directly, of course, but He chooses human agency. So, when we work in the world to protect, maintain and bring in the full potential of God’s creation, we are doing God’s work.

Let me give an example. When Israel was in the wilderness, God miraculously provided Israel with manna. But once they reached the Promised Land, they had to grow crops. God wants to feed His people; and He can do this miraculously. But in the regular flow of things, He would raise up farmers who would grow crops to feed His people. So when the farmer is faithful in growing the crops, He is doing God’s work. Similarly, God raises up all sorts of people, doing all sorts of work — for example, doctors and nurses to keep His people in good health; road sweepers to ensure that our environment is kept clean and diseases are kept at bay; and policemen, lawyers and judges to maintain law and order. This is what it means to be created in God’s image; caring and protecting and maximising the potential of the created order.

Work has been distorted and plagued by sin. (Genesis 3) The brokenness that results from sin is now in every dimension of life, including work. Even in a fallen world, we are called to work in ways that reflect biblical wisdom. (Proverbs 31:10–31)

The total redemption of work will only occur in the new heavens and the new earth. (Romans 8:19-21; Revelation 21, 22) Note how Revelation 5:9–10 parallels Genesis 1:26–31). I have always been struck by verse 10 that says: “You have appointed them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Which means there will be work to be done on the earth. (N. T. Wright, “After You Believe”)

Redemption in Christ brings substantial healing to work as it now recovers work as something that is done in relationship to God. (Colossians 3:22-4:1) Work done with kingdom values is an “instrument, a foretaste and an agent of the kingdom.” (Lesslie Newbigin, “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”, p. 232-233)

Jesus, the model human, dignifies work by His own example. (Mark 6:3) He was a carpenter for most of His adult life, working with His hands. He only spent three years as an itinerant preacher. He came not to abolish work but to redeem it. (Luke 3:7-14) We do not leave regular work to enter the world of the kingdom. We are to allow the kingdom to invade and redeem our regular work. The kingdom of God invades the mundane and the daily to transform it. The New Testament assumes the normalcy of work.

Work has also become a primary context to share the gospel. In urban centres, security and privacy are primary values. This makes it very difficult to do door-to-door evangelism. So where will we find the context to meet non-believers and make relationships in order to share the gospel with them? A large part of this will be in the workplace. That is why I think it is important to bring godly values into our work, because when we ask people to follow the king, we must be able to flesh out what the king stands for.

Closing observations

Most of us will end up working in the marketplace and the home. All of us will participate in the life and ministry of our local church. A few of us may be directed by God to exercise our gifts “full-time” in some church- related vocation.

What we should do is determined by our understanding of God’s calling for us as guided by our abilities, gifts, burdens, and the specific realities of each of our lives.

(This talk was given at the Discipleship @ the Workplace held on 29 April 2015 at Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church. It was organised by Lausanne Movement Singapore and is the second talk in April on the theme of Christian Workplace Witness organised by Marketplace Christian Network and part of the Intersect Conversations 2015. This event is co-sponsored by the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship)