Sacred Work in a Secular World

Several weeks ago, a picture of a man working at Trader Joe’s went viral. At first glance, it was hard to tell what was worthy of note in the picture—a man simply standing near a cash register. It turns out, the picture went viral not because of what the man was doing, but because of who he was: Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin Tibideaux in the Cosby Show. Once the picture brought Owens back into the spotlight, he addressed the phenomenon on Good Morning America:

“This business of my being this ‘Cosby’ guy who got shamed for working at Trader Joe’s, that’s going to pass. … But I hope what doesn’t pass is this idea … this rethinking about what it means to work, the honor of the working person and the dignity of work…There is no job that’s better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper, but actually it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable, and if we have a kind of a rethinking about that because of what’s happened to me, that would be great.”

Is Every Job Sacred?

I’m not sure anyone who heard Owens’ remarks doubted that they were beautiful; the question is, are they true? Is every job really worthwhile and valuable? Is there something about the nature of working itself that caries with it inherent meaning and dignity? To answer that question, it might be helpful to back up a little and ask, “Where does the idea that all work is sacred come from?” Cambridge professor Owen Chadwick points to the 16thCentury:

“The Reformation made all secular life into a vocation of God. It was like the baptism of the secular world. It refused any longer to regard the specially religious calling of a priest or monk as higher in moral scale than the calling of a cobbler or of a prince. Christian energy was turned away from the still and the contemplative towards action. The man who would leave the world turned into the man who would change it.”

Anyone familiar with Martin Luther will be sympathetic to his portrait of the Reformation. It was Luther, after all, who claimed that the milkmaid’s milking was a service to God just as the preacher’s preaching was a service to God. Of course, this only kicks the ball down the road; we’re left now asking of the Reformers the same question we were asking of Owens, namely: why is it that every job is sacred? To answer that, we have to back up even further, as far as one can back up, in fact—to the creation of the world.

In Genesis 1:1-2:1 we’re given an order to creation: day 1, night and day; day 2, the sky and sea; day 3, land and vegetation; day 4, the sun and the moon; day 5, sea creatures and birds; day 6, animals and humans, and on day 7, God rests. At first glance, this ordering seems strictly historical: Moses lists the creatures in the order in which they were created. On a deeper reading, which by no means necessarily negates the first reading, Moses is giving an order to creation that goes beyond the history of realty and touches on the teleology of reality.

Let me explain: days 1-3 are spheres, days 4-6 are corresponding sovereigns—night and day (day 1) are “governed” by the sun and moon (day 4), the sky and the sea (day 2) are governed by birds and fish (day 5), and land and vegetation (day 3) are governed by animals and, most importantly, mankind (day 6).

It’s by examining this passage that we can finally understand the inherent dignity of work. It’s here that we see (1) God rules over all and (2) he rules through us.

God Rules Over All

First, God rules over all. In Hebrew, the ending of most words sounds similar, unlike English. Thus, rhyming isn’t an optimal vehicle for poetry in the Old Testament. Instead, poetry is conveyed through structure, as in the creation account. The first three days are spheres in need of filling, and the last three days are sovereigns in need of kingdoms. But what about the 7th day? Surely God is more like a sovereign than a sphere, but to what dominion does he correspond? To ask the question is to answer it: Yahweh has no sphere; about this Moses is clear. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern gods, Yahweh isn’t over one part of the world, or one thing in the world—like water or fire—no, Yahweh rules over everything, every sphere is his.

Psalm 103 is the interpretive key to Genesis 1-2, it seems to me. Just take verse 19, “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” The 7th day shows us that God is in control; his empire is all-inclusive.

Of course, most Christians aren’t tempted to view Yahweh as a tribal God—as if his powers extend only to the ends of a particular region. Yet, Moses’ words still prick our hearts if we’re sensitive enough to hear his rebuke. We, like the ancient Israelites, are tempted to view God’s reign as limited to one particular sphere. Our God may not be bound by region, but he is bound by religion. We think Scripture is true and Jesus is in charge, etc. But it’s a particular kind of truth and a particular kind of authority, religious. It affects us only in our private, devotional lives. His instructions apply to holy things, but common things are beyond his purview.

This is problematic because, in a certain sense, the whole word is a sacred temple—everything is holy. Indeed, the same words used to describe the Lord in the tabernacle (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14-15; 2 Sam. 7:6-7) are used of God’s “walking back and forth” in Eden (Gen. 3:8). While this reading may sound novel, the book of Jubilees noted this nearly a hundred years before the birth of Christ: “And [Noah] knew that the garden of Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the LORD.”

The witness of the whole of Scripture is this: God isn’t limited to a particular place—be it the tabernacle, the temple, or the church building. We never leave his rule because we never leave his reign. Isaiah 66:1-2a is instructive,

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What kind of house will you build for Me? Or where will be My place of repose? Has not My hand made all these things? And so they came into being, declares the LORD…’”

Thus, even if we were able to compartmentalize work and faith, it’s no matter because God claims every compartment. Viewing our office complex just as much under the rule of God as our worship service may strike our modern ears as extreme, but Dorothy Sayers points out that the alternative is disastrous:

“[The church] has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.”

God rules over everything—work, play, sex, child rearing, lawyering, doctoring, cleaning, peaching—all of it. The earth is the lord’s and the fullness thereof. This is all fine and good, but perhaps we’ve merely begged the question thus far: how does God rule? That brings us to our second point: God rules through us.

God Rules Through Us

While it’s true to say that God has no particular sphere—the whole of creation is his dominion—it’s not true to say that God has no sovereigns. Indeed, while it is God that brightens the sky, it is God working through the sun. Each sovereign (created on days 4-6) is a servant of God. The earth is ruled by God, no doubt, but it’s ruled by God through man’s activity in the world. We’re called to activity not passivity. To quote James Skillen:

“The powerful import of acknowledging God’s ordinances is precisely that we must work at obeying them; in other words, we must shape history in accord with those ordinances and not merely ride through history proclaiming that they exist.”

Adam’s first job will put flesh on this principle. To name something in the Ancient Near East was to take ownership of the thing. This is why God often changes people’s names in Scripture. By tasking Adam with the job of naming the animals, God was allowing Adam to partner with him in the rule of creation. God made creation alone, to be sure, but he doesn’t cultivate it alone. No, he uses the insights, creativity, energy, and efforts of mankind. The cultural mandate given to Adam in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15 and given again to Noah in Genesis 9:1 is a divine invitation to us all—his creatures—to finish in history what God started at creation. Abraham Kuyper put it beautifully:

“Creation was fashioned by God, fashioned with life that surges and scintillates in its bosom, fashioned with the powers that lie dormant in its womb. Yet, lying there, it displayed but half its beauty. Now, however, God crowns it with humanity, who awakens its life, arouses its powers, and with human hands brings to light the glory that once lay locked in its depths but had not yet shone on its countenance.”

Said differently, mankind is God’s vice-regent. Every sovereign, every ruler, should see his or her authority as derivative of the penultimate ruler, Yahweh. Psalm 2: 10-12 says as much:

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss the son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

We’re used to thinking of God working through some people’s jobs—we sometimes call ministers vicars for precisely this reason: they’re working vicariously on behalf of God. Yet, again, it’s not only the religious sphere that’s governed by God, it’s every sphere. Thus, in a way, we are all vicars; we’re all priests in God’s service.

We’ve already noted that Eden was a sort of proto-temple, it follows that Adam—the first worker—was a proto-priest. As a matter of fact, the same Hebrew word used of Adam’s working (שמר) in the garden (Gen. 2:15) is used of the priest’s work in the tabernacle (Num. 3:7).

I said earlier that Psalm 103 is the interpretive key to the creation account. It’s worth noting that after the Psalmist says that the God is ruling all (V. 19), he goes on in the following three verses to insist that every creature is thus summoned to do God’s will:

“Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.”

God is ruling, but he’s ruling through us. Again, the Reformers are helpful here, even as they’re often misunderstood. When the likes of Luther and Calvin and Cranmer insisted on the priesthood of all believers, they emphatically were not trying un-spiritualize the sacred. To the contrary, they were trying to re-spiritualize the secular. Historian David Hopper says this regarding Martin Bucer’s view on the matter:

“Vocation was, for Bucer, the necessary result of a restored order of creation, to wit, a disciplined service and love of neighbor—and all creatures—in this life, once freed, as in Luther, from concern for merit, but one integrated also into ongoing judgments about service to the well-being of the commonwealth.”

The reformers recognized that Adam’s cultivation of the garden was just as much a vocation as was Eli’skeeping of the temple. With Geoffrey Owens, the Reformers would have insisted:

There is no job that’s better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a resume and on paper, but actually it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”

Thus All Work is Sacred

Finally, we’re able to answer the question we asked at the beginning: why is all work sacred? Because (1) God rules over all and (2) he rules through us. We don’t have to add meaning to our work, like pepper to a meal. No, we discover meaning inherent in our work. If God’s rule is as expansive and if his methods are as mundane as Genesis 1 implies, then we can see how all work can be done as unto the Lord. Dorothy Sayers is again helpful:

“Let the Church remember this: that every maker and worker is called to serve God in his profession or trade – not outside it. The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not right they should leave the word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the word. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not right for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the word.”

Think about it, as people came to John the Baptist to hear about the coming Messiah, he didn’t say to the tax collectors, “quite your job and go to seminary.” No, he said, “Collect no more than is appointed you” (Lk. 3:13).  Likewise, when soldiers heard the good news, John didn’t have them trade their sword for a scroll. No, he said, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk. 3:14).

Finding Your Vocation

In what follows, then, I want to gesture toward what this sacred view of vocation might look like practically. How can we see our jobs as bankers and janitors and lawyers and waiters as callings from God? I’ll try to answer that question by giving four pieces of advice: (1) look outside, (2) look inside, (3) look broadly, and (4) look particularly.

First, look outside. Where has God placed you? To whom were you born? What are the conditions of your house, your backyard, your neighborhood? That’s where you’ll find your vocation. I like how David Brooks puts it:

“We don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?”

Are people you know cold? Maybe your vocation is glove making. Are people you know in need of guidance and wisdom? Maybe your vocation is teaching. The point here isn’t that you have to meet every need you see, but it is to say that your vocation will be birthed out of the pain you feel when you look at the needs of your neighbors. All work is ministry, all ministry is service.

While it’s perhaps easer to see the “service” component in some professions, perhaps those in the non-profit world, all work is in essence service. This is why I don’t like it when I hear CEO’s of companies talking about “giving back,” as if they’ve robbed us of something, but now through their charitable donations will offer a part of the bounty back to us. If I pay $40 for a haircut, that’s because I thought the service the barber could offer me was worth $40. Likewise, the barber felt that the $40 I could offer was worth his time.

Who was robbed in this exchange? No one. I, the customer, was served. Just by bringing his skillset and time to the marketplace the barber gave back to society. If someone is willing to pay for your labor, you’re providing a service; you’re giving back. This isn’t to say there’s not a role for charity in corporations. My point is simply that we can’t draw a sharp line between charity and business and call one giving and one taking. Regardless of whether or not you work at a 501©3, insofar as the exchange is voluntary, your job is one of service.

Second, look inside. It’s not enough to recognize a need; we also must have the desire and skill-set to meet the need. I love Frederick Buechner’s advice on how to find your calling:

“…the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”

I’m thankful for doctors—they diagnose us, they mend us, they care for us—yet, I would never want to be a doctor. Even as a child blood made me squirm. To this day, going to a hospital makes my stomach turn. My sister, on the other hand, was never sick on the days we dissected a pig or a frog in school. Now she’s in medicine and I’m not because our subjective feelings about the career differed, not because we disagreed on the objective goodness of the job. That which brings her gladness brings me dread, and visa versa.

Too many people get stuck in a vocational rut because they know they should think the work is worthwhile, yet they just aren’t excited by it. Ecclesiastes 2:24 points to the role of joy in work: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.” Look inside yourself, what sort of toil gives you satisfaction? Of course, this side of the resurrection, no job will perfectly match our internal calling—their will always be, at best, a slight disunity between our vocation and our work. Still, we can pursue satisfying work, even as we do so realistically.

Third, look broadly. By this I mean that we ought to connect our particular vocation with God’s overarching mission in the world. How do all the spheres relate to one another? There are all sorts of studies on the role purpose and contribution play in workers’ productivity. If people are told to dig a hole then fill the hole back in, with no reason behind it, they’re obviously not going to dig as quickly as a person digging their own well.

It behooves us, then, to understand ourselves as subcontractors. Our work is connected to, but not identical with, God’s work in the world. Victor Lee Austin says it well in his beautiful book, Up with Authority:

“A real authority will be seen as a person who acts ‘with authority,’ that is, as a person who is herself ‘under’ authority. This means that a real authority is not seen as an individual isolated from a larger context. A real authority is not a lone person at the top of a pyramid of power. Rather, she is herself related to other mini-societies and other more encompassing societies. To be an authority is to be connected within the complex web of interrelationships that God has given so that humans may be free. An authority within a given society connects that society’s good to the larger human good.”

Finally, look particularly. When one does the first step of discerning a vocation—when one “looks outside,” as it were—it can often feel daunting. There is so much wrong with the world, so much pain, so much disorder, it can lead to one of two negative consequences—exhaustion or apathy. We’ll be tempted, perhaps, to do something only Jesus can do: bear the weight of the world’s pain on our shoulders. Obviously untenable, we’ll be left at the end of the day weighted down, discouraged, exhausted. Or perhaps we’ll be tempted towards apathy. If there’s one empty water bottle at the park, we’ll bend over and pick it up. If there’s a sea of litter, what good will it do to through away one little water bottle? Thus we do nothing. Brian J. Walsh calls us to a better way:

“Build houses in a culture of homelessness. Plant gardens in polluted and contested soil. Get married in a culture of sexual consumerism. Make commitments in a world where we want to always keep our options open. Multiply in a world of debt. Have children at the end of history. Seek shalom in a violent world of geo-political conflict and economic disparity. This is Jeremiah’s word to the exiles. This is Jeremiah’s subversive word to us. And in this vision we just might see, with Jeremiah, a future with hope.”

God doesn’t hold us responsible for every beat-up traveler that’s ever been left on the side of the road, only the one’s by which we pass—he calls him or her our neighbors. Are we stewarding our unique, particular talents well? Are we caring for our home? Are we making our cubicles more beautiful, our meals more delicious, our customers more satisfied, our legal briefs more just, our patients more well, our roads more clean, our crops more productive, our neighborhoods more safe? Fight the battle in which God has placed you and trust the war to him.

In Conclusion

Look outside, where has God placed you? Look inside, what skills and passions has God given you? Look broadly, what is God doing in the world? And look particularly; in what ways can you cause the kingdom to be, even if only a little, more visible in the sphere in which God has made you a sovereign. Because, to quote Wendell Berry, “There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it, and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.”

Work—even work at Trader Joe’s—is sacred because God rules over all, and he rules through us.

Dustin Messer leads young adult and college ministry at All Saints Dallas and teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX. Additionally, Dustin serves on the board of directors at both the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA) and the Center for Christian Civics in Washington, DC. Before starting his doctoral work at La Salle University, Dustin graduated from Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary and completed a fellowship at the National Review Institute.