There is an intuitive understanding today that the work we do is not merely a means to a paycheck or compulsory effort that makes up a substantial portion of our lives, but rather constitutes a deeper aspect of our being. Part of this intuitive acknowledgement has led to a growing interest in understanding how our work, both within our careers and beyond, can play a role within our Christian callings to serve others and love God.

One of the many examples of this rising interest in the intersection of work and faith is the Princeton Faith and Work Initiative, which, according to the website, aims to “generate intellectual frameworks and practical resources for the issues and opportunities surrounding faith/religion/spirituality and work.” One of its members and author of the book God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement, David W. Miller, addressed this swelling desire for many in this country — whether Christian or adherents to another religious tradition — to find deep meaning in their work. Miller writes in his book:

“What draws most people to the [Faith and Work] movement is the desire to live an integrated life, where faith teachings and workplace practices are aligned. Workers of all types, whether data entry clerks or senior executives, are no longer content to leave their souls in the parking lot … Regardless of job level or salary, today’s employees want their work to be more than just a way to put bread on the table and pay the rent.”

Regardless of job level or salary, today’s employees want their work to be more than just a way to put bread on the table and pay the rent.

Acknowledging that our work plays an integral role in our lives and spirituality, how can we make sure the work we do each and every day draws us closer to God as Christians? How do we ensure our work doesn’t instead become an obstacle to our holiness and call to love others? And how, exactly, can our very work be seen as a means of worshiping God?

Women reading the Holy Bible.

Called to Work from the Very Beginning

From the beginning we see that God commanded us to not only be fruitful and to fill the earth, but to “subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Therefore, even before the Fall, God desired us to labor and work for the purposes of bringing order to His creation — and working would thus be an integral part of our identity as His children. While the Fall did result in our work becoming, in part, connected with toil and suffering, as evidenced by our needing to eat our food “by the sweat of [our] brow,” work had always been a part of God’s divine plan for humanity. Being made in His image, we are called to work creatively as God Himself did in creating of the world, for we learn that it’s on the seventh day that God rested, implying that His opus of creation was the result of Divine workmanship. As the Theology of Work Project explains, “[God] creates people in his own image, and he himself is a worker. He puts Adam in the garden for the purpose of working it.”

We also read from Paul in Ephesians how members of the church are called to different forms of service, or labor, for the purposes of spreading the Kingdom of God. Some are called to teach and preach while others are called to evangelize and prophesy. Of course, Paul is speaking about explicit service to the church, but the idea of laboring — of using our natural and God-given gifts to serve others — can be applied even to our secular working lives if our labor is fundamentally centered on loving our neighbor. We notice that Paul commands all Christians to continue in their work and do it well (Colossians 3:23-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12), which further points to the deep value of work and the role it can play in our lives. In fact, Paul himself continued in his secular work as a tentmaker in addition to spreading the love of God. Thus, the living of our daily lives — much of which entails work — can be a means to live well as a Christian. As Hugh Whelchel, the Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, writes:

“The picture we see … is of Christians working out their holiness in the ordinary callings of their lives. They were truly salt and light in their culture. As a result, they radically changed their world in the first few centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ.”

In other words, looking to both the Old and New Testament we see that not only have we been called to work from the very beginning to work, but that our work can also provide us with opportunities to grow in holiness.

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PLNU theology professor, Mark Mann, Ph.D., when asked about the relationship between work and our Christian calling to love others points to the spirituality of monastic communities.

“There is a strong focus on the idea of work as a form of worship in Catholic monastic spirituality,” Mann said. “It’s within these monastic communities where monks are doing all kinds of things in service to God and the community. Yes, they pray and worship together. But they also live and work together for mutual benefit in fulfillment of their religious calling. Some of them work in the kitchen, others clean the bathrooms, and others sweep the grounds. The key is that everything they do is in service to God. Everything is service and worship. Some monastic traditions refer to this as ‘practicing the presence of God.’ Washing dishes and serving the community is as important a way of serving God as prayer. Life itself, a kind of continual prayer. It’s out of this context that the idea of work as worship has developed and finds its highest ideals.”

Mann also sees this as core to the Wesleyan spiritual tradition, in which worship can therefore be equated to acts of service for others or God. Although praising God in song or within a congregation might be considered more traditional forms of worship (they are direct expressions of love for God), since love of God also means love of neighbor, all acts of service done on behalf of our neighbor can also be seen as a type of authentic worship.

It’s worth wondering in what ways we consider our jobs, from sending emails to writing proposals to teaching 4th-graders American history, as valid and pleasing forms of worship to God. Do we see our work not only as “secular” activity that allows us to take care of ourselves, others, and have time to do other things — be with our families and friends, attend church, pray, enjoy leisure and recreation — but as something that can be an act of worship and love in and of itself? And work doesn’t only mean that which we are paid to do. All work and labor that we engage each and every day, from doing laundry to sweeping the driveway to getting our kids ready for school, can hold out for us the possibility of worship. While prayer, church worship, and other forms of explicit Christian practices remain necessary, it’s perhaps by viewing our work through this lens that we can better understand Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing.

Silhouette shadow of woman looking at city from office

The Pitfalls of Our Work

The United States, thanks largely to its historical commitment to industriousness, hard work, and enterprise, has always placed a lot of emphasis on work and the fostering of a career. While there are certainly virtues in such a national orientation toward labor — an admirable work ethic, the cultivation of discipline, the willingness to sacrifice leisure to support one’s self and family — there is always the temptation for such a focus on work to become an idol.

Further, such an intense commitment to work can have other negative consequences. For one, many people suffer from work-related stress and anxiety, often because they are stuck in a job that is unfulfilling, overworked to the point of exhaustion, or beset with far too many expectations and responsibilities. And this extolling of work in this country, the focus on ensuring one’s career is worthwhile and respectable, will inevitably prove damaging to one’s spirituality.

The most obvious example of work failing to help us grow in holiness and serve as a form of worship is when our work is intrinsically evil or disordered. In other words, if one is working as a criminal for an organization that scams the elderly or a pimp engaged in the world of sex trafficking, then no matter how hard-working or disciplined one might be, the work grossly fails to serve others out of love.

However, the possibility of our failure to worship God with our work doesn’t only apply to blatantly sinful types of work that most Christians would never entertain doing in the first place. There are subtle ways in which we can fail in our call to work honorably before God. Even if we’re working for an admirable organization or industry, there remain temptations that can derail us. It’s worth asking ourselves how honest, ethical, and Christ-minded we are at our workplace. Do we take office supplies that belong to our company and justify their personal use? Do we show up late every day and leave early, which over time accumulates to dozens of hours of stolen salary? Do we gossip about others at the workplace, refuse to do quality work when we can just as easily do mediocre work? Do we serve customers or clients with a warm exterior only to badmouth and complain about them behind their backs?

In doing our best to be honest and ethical in all of our dealings, we are then more perfectly able to offer up our workday as worship to God.

Of course, we’re going to fall short at times in some or all of these areas, and the point isn’t to become overscrupulous about our use of office of supplies or leaving a few minutes early, but, rather, to call attention to the opportunities that are inherent every day at work to serve God and others. By at least being aware of some of these minor temptations, we can strive to be more ethical, honest, and loving each day. In doing our best to be honest and ethical in all of our dealings, we are then more perfectly able to offer up our workday as worship to God.

Another way, according to Mann, our work can fail to be worship is by limiting the value of our work. When we only assume that a certain type of work — usually work that has a large, visible social impact like pastoring a large church or managing a successful non-profit — is worthy of us, or indicates that we’re “successfully” worshiping God, then we’re allowing our ego to rule.

“It’s a temptation to believe that there are only particular ways that my work can be worship,” Mann said. “When I was in seminary I met a man who was a successful State Farm agent, and he told me he regretted that he hadn’t gone to seminary and become a preacher because he said preachers are the types of people who can make real changes in people’s lives. I think back to that and wonder if helping others was his primary motivation for wishing he’d been a pastor. Why could he not see that his work as an insurance agent was a really important way to love people and serve them?”

This isn’t to say that if someone feels a call to be a pastor that they should not hope to be effective or make a meaningful impact, but success in God’s eyes might look very different than what it looks like to the world. Mann’s point is that if you’re working honestly and in service to others, your work can be deeply meaningful no matter what the external result is.

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Mann mentioned another obstacle that can hinder our work from being a form of worship.

“The other pitfall would be a lack of humility, and by that I mean an inability to be open to letting God use us in any way possible,” Mann shared. “Am I living fully consecrated so that no matter what I end up doing, I can be satisfied with that? I would hope that my joy is found in my capacity to serve God in whatever it is that I’m doing.”

While we should hope and dream of doing certain things with our work that make a real impact, if we end up doing work that is somewhat “unglamorous” or “unsuccessful” it can still serve as a means to love others and worship God.

Lastly, when our work is concomitant with a measure of our worth, and therefore a tool we use to prove our value, it becomes an idol. This can also happen when we allow the work we do to detract from our other responsibilities, such as spending time with friends and family, taking sabbath, and worshipping God in a church community. It would be a mistake to call a speaker or teacher successful in his or her vocation if, though filling massive auditoriums with speaking events or selling a plethora of helpful books, they are at the same time neglecting their role as a parent, son or daughter, friend, and community member.

Work as Service

While we often think of work as what we’re paid to do during the week but, as mentioned above, it encopasses much more than that. It entails the mundane that we do to get on with our daily lives: vacuuming the house, running to the grocery store, replacing a rattling doorknob. The writer Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Thus, with much of our days filled with small opportunities to “work,” we are invited to shape these as opportunities of grace that can allow us to grow closer to God.

Mann shared a few ways that our work can be viewed as a form of worship through our work. One type of work as worship is the labor we offer that is explicitly in line with bringing about God’s Kingdom. This would include preaching at church, doing administrative work to run a ministry, or studying the Word of God. We might note that these forms of work are, by virtue of their explicit connection to serving the church, inherently “worship-filled.”

Another type of work as worship is at play when  we do something as Christians that is not explicitly church-related but nevertheless in line with our call to love others.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Thus, with much of our days filled with small opportunities to “work,” we are invited to shape these as opportunities of grace that can allow us to grow closer to God.

Professor assisting a student with studies in college library

“For instance, by just being a kind and loving professor to my students I’m doing a service to God, and it’s therefore a form of worship, simply because love of God and love of neighbor are so deeply interwoven,” Mann continued. “So, if I’m a businessman adhering to ethical business practices, I’m honoring God even if I’m not thinking about it because I’m living a moral life as a Christian.”

And another way entails the work we do in good conscience in which we might inevitably fail. For example, we might provide poor counsel to someone as a mentor or encounter disaster in a business project despite our best efforts; yet, in either of these cases, God’s grace will be present nevertheless and can therefore draw good from them. This also relates to the work all non-Christians do that is, although not explicitly done for the purpose of worshipping God, done in accordance with their conscience. In other words, those who do not know Christ can still offer up a form of worship by loving others via doing their work honestly, ethically, and to the best of their ability. This notion, as Mann explains, stems from the Wesleyan doctrine of “prevenient grace,” which holds that “God is in all things and available to all people at all times,” whether or not they are aware of it or not (this presupposes, of course, that these efforts are inherently aimed at the good and not in and of themselves evil).

“There’s a sense in which all of creation participates in worship because wherever God’s will is done, it glorifies the Creator,” Mann said. “And by God’s will being done we might think in terms of everything having its place and purpose in the created whole. Whenever we fulfill God’s purposes in our lives we are giving glory to God. As the psalmist says: the heavens declare the glory of God.”

With this in mind, we may seek to offer our work more perfectly as a form of worship each and every day. Can we volunteer to help a colleague finish a project as an act of compassion? Can we do the dishes without being asked in order to demonstrate a small bit of self-sacrifice? Can we show patience with an ungrateful or angry customer to honor their inherent dignity?

The Lasting Fruit of Our Labor

Much of what we do in this life, especially the unpaid work that make up our lives as parents, friends, and neighbors, may not present visible fruit in this lifetime. This is partially where humility comes in, by understanding that though our efforts may not seem meaningful or lasting — from cleaning up after our children to taking out the garbage to making our grieving neighbor a cup of tea — they are remembered by God. They become a part of that eternal heavenly storage.

And there will also be times when our work “fails” in the eyes of the world. We may be laid off after years of service or have our deeds of compassion returned with only apathy. Yet, it’s in these moments where all of our labor, when done with a heart of love, can be seen as fruitful and meaningful. As Mother Theresa said, “God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful.”

“God has chosen to create men and women in His image to, among other things, work and tend this created order for His glory and for the betterment of humankind. In ways we can’t fully understand, the good work we do now, done with and for Him, will survive into the New Jerusalem. Work itself has intrinsic value.”

Additionally, many in the world don’t have the luxury of choosing a certain type of work, instead being forced to toil to merely survive. This is the nature of a world still beset with injustice and sin. Some may be limited in their work due to financial pressure, physical and mental limitations, or ill health. However, God’s grace still offers a way for our work, despite all of these shortcomings, to become a form of worship. No matter how unseen or toilsome or menial our daily work may seem, it remains infinitely valuable in God’s eyes. As the co-chair of the Theology of Work Project Andy Mills, writes:

“God has chosen to create men and women in His image to, among other things, work and tend this created order for His glory and for the betterment of humankind. In ways we can’t fully understand, the good work we do now, done with and for Him, will survive into the New Jerusalem. Work itself has intrinsic value.”

Mann looks to the many young students he is privileged to teach at PLNU, seeing within them a great reason to hope that their work and labor will produce lasting fruit in this world and beyond.

“I do see a deep desire in this generation to serve and make an impact in the world,” Mann said, while then calling attention to that perpetual obstacle that many will face. “The temptation, though, is to only find their value in making a difference through their work in ways that are visible. Yet, the truth is that the smallest of acts can be meaningful and, maybe, those are even more profound acts of worship because they go unnoticed.”

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