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Finding meaning in work: Christian vocation means working with ‘holy intent’

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For those who are lost and looking for meaning in a fragmented world – constantly torn between idols of work and leisure, with little left in between – “the power of holy intent” orients our hearts and hands beyond ourselves. It focuses our worship on the Worker and Creator who made us in his image and likeness. It reminds us that, whether we recognize it or not, he is the one we are truly working for.

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America’s new secular religions of “workism” and “careerism” are leading to all sorts of cultural decay, from cults of self-esteem to the decline of the family and beyond.

Our work has plenty of meaning, but without the right moral foundation and transcendent focus, our quests for economic purpose can quickly devolve into a base idolatry of the self. When individualism becomes the driving force of our meaning-making, anxiety and alienation are sure to follow.

In a recent sermon, Portland-based pastor John Mark Comer encourages us to resist such a path, embracing a Christian vision of vocation through which work is not a mere means of self-provision or identity creation, but rather a form of worship to God and gift-gifting to others.

“We are called to play our role in the family of God and the flourishing of humanity,” Comer explains. “… Your Christian calling isn’t something you choose … It’s much deeper than that. It’s something that you discover, that you unearth and excavate from your inner man or woman … that you and I have to surrender to and let go of control to God for. Culture says, ‘I am what I do.’ Scripture says, ‘I do what I am.’”

Our first calling is to follow Jesus, Comer explains. From there, faithfulness in the broader economy of human life will manifest in any number of ways, marked not by self-indulgence or the status-seeking of modern-day careerism, but by creative contribution to neighbors and strangers.

“Our work as followers of Jesus should have three basic qualities,” Comer explains, proceeding to outline a framework for Christian vocation.

First, our work should be “motivated by love”:

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians about “labor prompted by love” or…”driven by agape,” not by ambition or greed or status-seeking or performative identity or power or grasping for control or a search for self-worth or validation or accolades to prop up your fragile ego. We may do the same thing as the person one cubicle over, but for a very different reason: motivated by love.

Gene Veith expands on this in Working for Our Neighbor, Acton’s Lutheran primer on vocation and economics. While our work can certainly serve our self-interest, when positioned within “the common order of Christian love,” as Martin Luther calls it, it orients us around something far more beautiful and profound. “The whole economic order becomes a network of God’s providential action, as human beings … love and serve one another, meeting one another’s needs, forming an interdependence that manifests itself in multiple levels of communities.”

The profit motive need not conflict with this calling. Indeed, when working within a free economy, we will likely be presented with more diverse opportunities, as well as increased personal ownership over the ways in which such love might manifest on behalf of others.

“Economics in light of vocation may follow the same laws of supply and demand, competition and markets,” Veith writes. “But, for the Christian, economic productivity is not only a matter of self-interest; rather, it is also a way of loving and serving others.” 

Next, Comer continues, our work should be “guided by Scripture”:

Some philosophers define work as “adding value to the world.” [Dallas] Willard called it the “expending of energy to produce good.” … We do all we can, all that is within our power, to find … garden-city kind of work. But it doesn’t have to be glamorous …

Historians of religion argue that Christianity … was the first worldview to ever dignify manual labor as something worthy of respect, not as, in the ancient world … work for slaves, and fit for slaves alone. Not as beneath the dignity of the working class, but as good and honest, with God’s blessing over it.

As Christians, our understanding of the value and meaning of work is grounded and consistent, resilient against the winds of cultural change. In an age that celebrates select vocations and educational tracks as “better” or “more dignified” than others – which only serves to exacerbate a society-wide skills gap and countless crises of calling – Christians can actively agree with Scripture, knowing that as long as our work produces good in the world, it glorifies God and brings meaning to life.

“The challenge that faces the church and society more broadly is to appreciate the spiritual meaningfulness of all kinds of work, to celebrate it, and to exhort us to persevere in our labors amidst the unavoidable troubles that plague work in this fallen world.” writes Jordan Ballor. “If we sow a culture that celebrates all kinds of work as inherently valuable, as valid and praiseworthy ways of serving others and thereby serving God, we will reap a society that promotes flourishing in its deepest and most meaningful sense.”

Third, Christian work ought to be “done with excellence” or “to the best of our ability”:

There’s that line in Colossians: “Whatever you do … work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

… We are to work as if Jesus was our bossnot the corporation, not the small business or restaurant, not our three children … but we are to work as if Jesus was our boss. Dorothy Sayers, many years ago, said the best way to serve Jesus at work is to “serve the work.” What she meant by that was just to be really good at whatever it is you do.

Connecting these pieces together, Comer points to the Hebrew concept of kavana, or “the power of holy intent.” According to Alan Hirsch, some rabbis approach it as a process through which our devotion and worship restore creation and glorify God in the world around us.

When we assume a heart posture of love and sacrifice, ground it in a Biblical vision of the good and the true, and proceed to work and serve others with excellence, we invite glory into the economy and society. “When we do our work with kavana, we are re-weaving the manifest glory of God into the created order,” Comer says.

For example:

This is the barista at your local coffee shop … who doesn’t just hand you your latte with the lid on screwy … but does the heart … and then makes eye contact with you and with a smile says “have a great day.” 

This is the construction worker who doesn’t just throw a bathroom remodel together as cheap as possible and ignore the stuff he found behind the wall, but does every step with the skill and attention to detail and the passion of an artist.

It’s the preschool teacher who doesn’t just babysit children and throw fishy crackers at them, but is down, at eye level, to communicate (if without words) “you are fearfully and wonderfully made and you have a destiny in God’s great universe.”

It’s the parent who doesn’t just hand [their children] a device and go try to survive the day, but is there to unfold children into their full potential. And you thought you were just making breakfast, or spell-checking your email a second time, or setting a table.

Such examples may seem overly mundane, but the spirit sings in every corner of creation. As Pastor Jon Tyson puts it in the NIV Faith and Work Study Bible, drawing on the same concept of kavana, a Christian approach to vocation confounds our dualistic approach to daily life, making our most basic trades and exchanges filled with social and spiritual significance:

One of the meanings of the word glory is “weight or significance.” When we take our ordinary, everyday work and with holy intent seek to make it an act of worship before God, the mundane is transformed into something weighty and sacred. We infuse the ordinary stuff of life with holy intent and so make even the most trivial tasks artifacts and objects of glory.

…. Imagine if Christians had this vision of glory in every part of life. Buildings would be designed with holy intent, food would be cooked with holy intent, children would be taught with holy intent and court cases would be tried with holy intent. And slowly but surely, in every sphere of our world, life would take on a new weight and significance as the stuff of life became the stuff of glory.

For those who are lost and looking for meaning in a fragmented world – constantly torn between idols of work and leisure, with little left in between – “the power of holy intent” orients our hearts and hands beyond our ourselves. It focuses our worship on the Worker and Creator who made us in his image and likeness. It reminds us that, whether we recognize it or not, he is the one we are truly working for.

“We do what we can for the healing of our city … to play our small little part to index Portland a little bit more toward Eden, a little bit more toward Revelation 22, a little bit more toward the New Portland and the New Jerusalem,” Comer concludes. “Because, as it says in Hebrews, we are looking for a city ‘whose builder and maker is God.’”

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.