2.2. Work That Flows Out of Identity in Christ
Though we are free from stress by not depending on our work for how we feel about ourselves, following Christ calls us to have a new motivation for God-honoring work. We have a new identity in Christ, who saves us from slavery to sin to become his slaves.22 Christ has purchased us with his blood (1 Peter 1:18–21; 1 Corinthians 6:19–20) and has set us free from bondage to sin (Romans 6:19). But once freed from sin, we are still slaves. We become slaves to Christ, but it is a slavery that leads to our freedom and our flourishing because through it, we receive the benefits of ever increasing holiness and ultimately eternal life (Romans 6:22–23). So as slaves of Christ, our work for him is not a great burden, nor do we fear our Master. Instead, we work for Christ with great zeal and joy because of all that he has done for us. And we work willingly because he is a Master always working for the good of his slaves.
As I mentioned earlier, all of us have experienced meeting someone new who asked us, “What do you do for a living?” Whenever I hear this question, I immediately think of the Apostle Paul. Paul frequently introduced himself in his letters (and I imagine in person as well) as a “slave of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1). Paul’s union with Christ defined his identity and purpose more than the specifics of his work—whether his missions work, his church-planting, his writing, or his top notch education. Though we do not share Paul’s special apostolic calling, we are fellow disciples. Following his example, it is appropriate for us to keep “slave to Jesus Christ” foremost in our minds as what defines us.
Being a slave of Christ changes how we think about our work. Our primary purpose as a slave is extending Christ’s kingdom. And when our main focus in life is our duty to Christ, we are free from being overly preoccupied with our specific jobs. For example, we still value our jobs because we recognize that God provided them to supply our needs for food, shelter, and clothing. We still value our jobs as the unique realm in which we work for the kingdom of God to redeem our culture, so we take great care to find work that fits our unique interests and gifts.23 Our job is a context in which we work for Christ’s kingdom, but as Christ’s slave, it is more important how we work in our various jobs than what our job actually is.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ commands his disciples not to be concerned primarily with food and clothing but rather with righteous living and kingdom-work, confident that their loving heavenly Father will take care of daily needs and free them to seek first his righteousness (Matthew 6:25–34). Christ clearly wants our minds free from daily worries so that we can focus on laying up treasure in heaven through obeying his commands. Again, after miraculously feeding five thousand followers in John chapter 6, Christ exhorts his disciples that their purpose in life is to labor for food that does not perish (believing in Christ and obeying Christ’s commands) rather than labor for the food of daily provision that does perish (John 6:27). Without needing to worry about daily provision (money for most of us), we are free to make choices that exalt Christ. So workers are free to act with integrity at the workplace even if it means losing a job because they know that God will provide. Students are free to set limits on the time they study in order to nurture relationships and serve other people because they know that God will provide.
And again, the parable of the talents in Matthew chapter 25 reminds us of the same focus in our work. In the parable, three slaves represent Christ’s followers, and the Master represents Christ. The Master commends two of the slaves because they take his resources (differing amounts in each case) and double them, but he judges and condemns the third slave because he makes excuses and does nothing with the Master’s resources. This story reminds us that we are slaves of Christ who must be devoted to increasing our Master’s assets and extending our Master’s kingdom.24 How do we do this? By obeying Christ’s commands in everything we do, whether in small matters or important matters. So we work at our jobs with integrity. We give of our resources gladly. We love our neighbor and we love our enemies. We are devoted to sharing the gospel in our classes, workplace, dorms, and neighborhoods. And the list goes on. Our focus in our work is not maximizing our own resources, but maximizing our Master’s.
The parable of the talents also emphasizes that Christ takes great joy in us as we work for him. And then he shares his joy with us so that we too are filled with joy in our kingdom-work. Christ says to the first two slaves, who have doubled the resources, “Come and share in your Master’s joy” (Matthew 25:21, 23). In the Nature of True Virtue, Jonathan Edwards teaches that unless you have experienced the grace of God in your life, self-interest will to some degree drive everything you do. But when you know that God has embraced you fully in Christ and lavishly loves you, then you can do everything for the sheer joy of pleasing Christ.25 Rooting your identity in Christ and staying focused on your job as Christ’s slave causes flourishing because it releases you from anxiety and stress and because you know that the Master promises to provide for your needs. And then it brings great joy and satisfaction as the Master is pleased and shares his joy. How different this is from the agony of soul and intense pressure that comes when we look to our work to define us or prove our goodness. Let us root our identity in Christ and not in our work.
3. Depending on God in our Work
A third negative effect of our self-centered view of work is how we forget that God is our provider. We believe that our daily provision (through our pay checks) and our future security (through our savings and financial planning) are all a result of our work alone. We forget that every breath we take and every morsel of food we eat comes from the gracious hand of God (Psalm 104:27; Matthew 6:25–33; Hebrews 1:3; James 1:17). When we think that it is all up to us to provide our daily bread, we open ourselves up to much stress and anxiety. And challenging circumstances intensify this all the more, such as our current recession when jobs are hard to come by and paychecks are downsizing.
Students experience the same stress because they believe so much is on the line as a result of their grades and their résumé-building. They feel like they must overwork because they believe that good grades can guarantee the right job, which can guarantee future security, approval from parents, etc. Students I know frequently admit the intense pressure they feel to excel in all they do. And they work as if their efforts alone determine all their success today and security tomorrow.
We must remember that we were not meant to live independently from our Creator. From the opening pages of Scripture, God teaches us that he want us—his creatures—to depend on him. As we live in right relationship with him, he graciously promises to provide everything we need. God made us to work for his glory by relying on him to enable our work and provide our daily needs.
Sin causes humans to live independently from God (both actively, insisting there is no God, and passively, simply forgetting he is with us). The story of Babel in Genesis chapter 11 highlights these sinful tendencies. At Babel, humans used their work to gain independence from God. Through their many gifts—gifts for architecture, engineering, and city-planning among them—the people of Babel sought to make a name for themselves rather than making a name for God. And through their work, which would keep the people in Babel together, they expressly disobeyed God’s command to fill the earth. They forgot the truth, expressed years later in a psalm of Solomon, that “unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). God clearly judged them because humans were not meant to live this way.
The story of how God provided for the infant nation Israel when they were wandering in the wilderness also illustrates God’s care for his people and his desire for them to depend on him. At the beginning of their time in the wilderness, God had set the pattern of six days of work followed by one day of rest, modeled after his work in creation. But God had not yet commanded Sabbath-keeping through the Ten Commandments that he later gave at Sinai. At that time, the Israelites grumbled for food, some even longing to go back to Egypt because the prospects in the desert looked so grim. God lovingly and miraculously provided manna, and he provided it in a way that teaches an important lesson about his character and about the meaning of the Sabbath.
Through the daily appearance of manna, God showed the Israelites that they could trust him to take care of their needs. Then on the sixth day, God asked the Israelites to collect enough manna for two days so that they could observe a Sabbath day of rest from work. It was as if God was saying, “Trust in me for today’s provision and tomorrow’s.26 I will provide for your daily bread, and I will take care of your anxieties for your future well-being.” How we so easily forget that God provides for us. And this is one reason that God commanded Sabbath-observance at Sinai. He knew how easy it would be for his people to forget that he is the one providing. Ceasing from work one day a week would be a tangible reminder of where they were placing their trust—on their own work or on their gracious God.
Consider also Christ’s teaching in Luke chapter 12 that calls us to depend on him. First, through the parable of the rich fool (vv.13–21), Jesus reminds us that no one knows when life will end. The rich fool in the parable has stored away his wealth, tearing down existing barns to build larger ones to hold his vast amount of grain. Then he sits back to take life easy and be merry. Jesus calls him a fool, informs him that he will die that very night, and pointedly asks, “Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” The rich fool has wasted his life hoarding his wealth for himself and failing to lay up treasure in heaven. At the heart of this mistake is the rich man’s self-reliance. He did not take care of others with his resources because he viewed his money as his own, earned by himself and for himself. When we remember that our provision is God’s in the first place, it is easy to share generously. But the rich fool forgot that God gave him his personal talents and blessed his hard work with overflowing abundance. He lived independently from God.
Right after Jesus startlingly warns those who are not rich toward God, he tremendously comforts his followers (Luke 12:22–34). This is just what they need to hear because Jesus knows it will take trust to give rather than store up, to look to God for security rather than personal striving. In this next passage, Jesus commands his followers to stop worrying, reminding them that they cannot even do the very little thing of adding one hour to their lives through their worry (though haven’t we all wished for one more hour before an exam to keep cramming?). When obeyed, the command to stop worrying brings freedom because of the one making the command. Jesus teaches that we are not alone. Our gracious Father is caring for us, loving us, and providing for us, and he knows our needs and is pleased to give us his kingdom.
I love how Jesus, the Great Shepherd, addresses his followers here as “little flock.” He echoes the way God spoke to Israel hundreds of years before: “Do not be afraid, worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you, declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 41:14).27 This brings forth confidence in God because he is our King, sovereignly controlling our world and powerful enough to provide for us even when our circumstances are grim. And it brings forth trust that we can rest in the loving arms of our Great Shepherd. We can experience peace in our work when we depend on God.