When my boys were small, I stenciled a black tractor and Colossians 3:23 on a burlap sign and propped it on their bookcase: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” I wanted them to have a solid theology of work, though my flesh used it as a means of coaxing (or guilting) them into doing their school work and chores.
My head was right, but my heart was misguided.
And I still find myself espousing this truth while struggling to live it. I can encourage college kids to forge ahead in their core classes for the glory of God and young moms to not grow weary in doing good. I can remind teacher friends who are burdened down with new policies and procedures that they are working for God and not men. I can tell someone working on an assembly line making stoves that their work is a blessing to their neighbors. I can point them all to the glorious inheritance they one day will receive.
But as I consider transitioning from being a full-time mom to rejoining the “workforce,” I realize what I say isn’t translating into how I live. Two seemingly contradictory desires are at work within me. I want to work (and get paid), and I want to give my life to the mission of God.
I know those aren’t contradictory desires. Many Sundays I hear my husband say, “Don’t forget your company is paying you to be a missionary in your workplace.” But these desires seem to be pitted against each other in my soul. Perhaps it’s because I am confused by my husband’s vocational call to ministry and my call to be a helpmate alongside the presumed freedom I have to choose what I want to do based on my own gifts and passions.
In a way, I envy people who don’t have a choice and are doing what they have to do to survive, and in another way, I envy people who “hear” the voice of the Lord and know exactly what He has called them to do. Basically, I don’t like living in the I-am responsible-so-I-will-pursue-existing-opportunities season while submitting to the your-will-be-done prayer I’ve been praying for months and months.
My heart squabbles and wrangles with the wise command of Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might”—a resounding echo of Colossians 3:23. I cry out, “God, I’m driving my kids in circles and doing other people’s laundry and picking up their groceries. I’m sitting at my kids’ football games and planning neighborhood meetings. Help me do it with all the might your Spirit can muster, but…don’t you have something else you want me to do? I know Peter was a fisherman and Paul was a tentmaker, but you used them to do great things. Even you, Jesus, worked as a carpenter, but your time came. When’s mine coming?”
I can easily slap my gospel identities on top of all my daily activities, yet my Spirit-filled desire to fulfill the Greats of the Bible (Mandate, Command, and Commission) gets tangled up with the luring American lie of greatness. For the sake of analogy, I can give lip service to the significance of the person in an orphanage who is working to feed and clothe the children, to teach them and tend them while they’re sick, but if I were honest, I would have to admit that I want the glory of the one on the cover of the brochure, of the one who’s making it happen.
I’m not alone in this. Most people I know want to do fulfilling work, and every (honest) person I know is not fulfilled by his or her work. It’s true for preachers and teachers, homemakers and factory workers alike. And maybe that’s why I like Ecclesiastes so much. It calls out the “vexation” of work (Eccl. 2:23) while admonishing us to “be joyful and to do good as long as [we] live,” to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all [our] toil” (Eccl. 3:12-13). Again, it echoes the New Testament command found in 1 Cor. 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
We do ourselves a disservice if we see this command as simply a maxim to live by. The specificity of these words actually point to a means of grace. In eating and drinking, we learn to give thanks as dependent creatures trusting in a Creator-God who supplies our every need. They point us to Jesus, our bread of life and living water. They point us to the table and the good news that His body was broken and His blood was shed for us.
Therefore, if we want to learn to work for the glory of God, we may first need to learn to eat and drink for the glory of God. If we want those we are discipling to have a good theology of work, we may need to narrate how the rhythms of eating, Sabbath-ing, and celebrating teach us to enjoy our work—“to accept [our] lot and rejoice in [our] toil” (Eccl. 5:19)—as a gift of God.
Perhaps if I learn eating a pack of peanut butter crackers is as glorifying to God as eating a filet mignon, I will learn to make His name great through everyday acts of love and service.
And perhaps learning that will prevent me from seeking my own glory and greatness in more “official” work or ministry.