A helpful resource I’ve found is Ben Witherington III’s book Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. He traces a couple of different approaches to faith and work that are commonly accepted.
First, he cites one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Buechner in which work is described as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” This approach seeks to line up our personal desires with the needs of those around us. Personal fulfillment is only found in serving others. One challenge, according to Witherington, is such a view can overemphasize our own satisfaction in serving others. The emphasis, in the end, is only personal.
An alternative, then, is to take a more social approach to determining the relationship between faith and work. Working off of David Jenson, Witherington defines work from this perspective as “any activity with an obligation towards self, others, community, and God.” Service itself - “obligation” - is the grid for worthy work. Positively, this view validates many different activities as worthy callings. Yet it is so broad, Witherington points out, that it doesn’t give much room to assess the negative aspects of certain jobs. How do we factor in or assess unhealthy obligation?
In light of these two approaches, Witherington offers his perspective, a “kingdom” approach to faith and work. “[Work is] any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be undertaken to the glory of God and for the edification and aid of human being, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new creation.”
This proposal values both personal and social aspects to work - calling, giftedness, help and encouragement are all key to meaningful work “inspired by the Spirit.” I find this balance helpful in avoiding the extremes of personal satisfaction and social obligation. But it’s Witherington’s last point on “foreshadowing” that is often missing when we think of vocation and calling - how does our work anticipate and reflect a future hope? As Christians, our hope is placed in the reconciliation of all things (Col. 1:19-20) - a return to the wholeness and peace (shalom) that characterizes God’s deepest intent for all of creation, humanity included. This means that work isn’t just about “putting in our time” until our ultimate desires are fulfilled in the future. Rather, as Witherington suggests, our work can offer a foretaste of such fulfillment. Witherington suggests these crucial questions to help in discerning a job or career:
- Is this work that foreshadows the Kingdom and its ends and aims and character?
- Does this work help or hinder the kingdom?
In this sense, kingdom work is hopeful work. Hope for ourselves, yes. But also hope for the whole world. This, as I tell my students, is work worth striving for.