Can you do a little mental arithmetic? Assuming you live to your early 60s, how many hours will you have spent at work? Now, do a similar exercise. Think about how many hours each week you spend on overtly ?Christian? activities, time at church in worship, at Bible study and in prayer groups, time at leadership meetings, teaching kids, or working with youth.
If you were to work 50 hours each week, then you would have spent about 100,000 hours at work by the end of your working life. If you were to spend (say) an average of ten hours a week in ?Christian ministry?, then, over that same 40-year period, you would have spent 20,000 hours. In summary: 100,000 hours at work; one fifth of that time in so called ?Christian work?.
Not in vain?
Park those numbers for a moment and consider the words of the apostle Paul: ?Therefore my dear brothers let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain? (1 Corinthians 15.58).
What is meant here by ?the work of the Lord?? What is the ?labour in the Lord? that is not ?in vain?? Does that refer to overtly ?Christian work?? Many would say yes. Paul means the work of evangelism, discipling and building churches. But, if that were true, then for those of us who have day jobs in the secular world, what about the 100,000 hours we spend at work? Do they represent some sort of spiritual limbo land, just an infill between Sundays, a means of supporting our families, a necessary evil? In terms of value, is it all a second-best use of time for the Christian or, worse still, something ultimately meaningless, of no eternal value, time and effort spent in vain?
The Bible?s answer to those questions is a resounding no! Paul says: ?Always give yourself to the work of the Lord?. Note the word ?always?! That includes the 100,000 hours at work, not just the 20,000 hours spent in ?Christian service?.
But how can I work for the Lord when I am paid to make money for my business, or to serve the good of the public in government? If I need to concentrate 100% on the technical detail of my task, or on the people I am paid to help, then how can I be working for the Lord at the same time?
What meaning does my work have in the context of eternity? The equipment I repair, the report I write, the structures I build, the meetings I attend, what value do they have in God?s eyes?
These issues are not always addressed in our churches. When I first became a Christian, the only sermons I ever heard about work were along the lines of ?don?t fiddle your expense accounts and tax returns and don?t steal pencils form the office?!
While some churches may not seem to have daily work on their priority list, God certainly does. The Bible makes very clear that our daily work is of great interest to him. It does have eternal significance, and it certainly does not have to be ?in vain?.
So, what transforms our daily work into meaningful spiritual activity? The answer of the Bible is twofold. Firstly, it is because of why we do our work (our motives), and, secondly, how we do our work.
?Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. Since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving? (Colossians 3.23,24, NIV).
Notice that three times Paul underlines the same crucial point: ?working for the Lord?; ?you will receive an inheritance from him? (note that our daily work leads to eternal reward); and ?it is the LORD Christ you are serving?. Notice also the same all- encompassing scope of this command: ?Whatever you do?; an interesting tie-in with the ?always? of 1 Corinthians 15.58.
This has several implications.
* It means seeing my job as a calling from God, not just a career that meets my personal goals. We are not to waste hours wondering what our calling is. Surely we are to get on with our job and serve the Lord where we are! If he wants us to do something else he will make that very clear in his time. Seeing our work as a calling is transformational.
* It means being accountable to God. I make it my aim to please him. I can?t please everybody, so if I work to please Christ it simplifies life a lot.
* It means we give it our best in terms of ideas, energy, and creativity.
* It means our primary motivation is not to earn money and accumulate wealth, not to promote our own prestige and boost our own ego. Rather, it is to serve God in and through our daily work.
In the same letter, Paul urges us: ?Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the Name of the Lord Jesus? (Colossians 3.17). Notice again the reference to all our activity, the secular and the spiritual.
To do our work ?in his name? means being consistent with his character and bringing honour to the Name of Christ. It means we work honestly, faithfully and with integrity; it also means that we aim to build quality relationships.
Most of the sermons, books and articles about work seem to me to be focused on either ethics or evangelism, but I?ve found that building relationships with people is often the biggest test for the Christian. After all, the Bible makes clear (e.g. 1 John) that we are fooling ourselves if we think we can have a good relationship with God when we can?t build relationships with other people.
Relationships at work raise many challenges for us: how we exercise authority; how we respond to authority; how we handle conflict. In these areas our professed faith is tested every day. But, every time we face a work situation where we seek to respond in a way that honours the name of Jesus, then our work is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. In becoming an act of service to the Lord himself, it becomes something of eternal significance, part of our worship of God and not ?in vain?.
God is at work
But our work is of eternal significance not only because of what we do, why we do it and how we do it ? there is a bigger picture ? it is of eternal significance because of what God is doing. He is at work also.
He is at work in us. As our commitment to do our work for the Lord is tested, so we learn to rely on God and so we grow. At work we have to deal with long hours, pressure, difficult people, difficult customers, failure when things don?t turn out well. It is in the pressure cooker of work, in the rough and tumble of life, that God moulds us into the people he wants us to be. it is in those 100,000 hours (as well as in the home, of course) that much of God?s work of sanctifying us takes place, a work that is of eternal value.
He may also be at work in the lives of those we work with and that is always exciting to experience. Further, he may choose to work through us in bringing someone to faith or helping them along the road in some way.
When our work is ?for the Lord? and when we recognise God at work in and through us, and in the lives of others, then we can be confident that our labour is in fact ?labour in the Lord?. It has a divine purpose and will have a fruitful outcome. It will not be ?in vain?.
Graham Hooper is a consultant and former senior executive with a global Infrastructure company. He recently recorded four talks on the theme ?Tested faith in the workplace? for the LICC. To listen to these talks, visit http://www.licc.org.uk/resources/2012/07/04/testing-faith-in-the-workplace/
His book Undivided – closing the faith-life gap was published by IVP in April 2013 (http://www.ivpbooks.com)