Abounding in freedom and plenty, Americans continue to grapple with competing forms of workism and careerism, struggling to find meaning and identity in an increasingly secular age.
In response, many Christians have rightly taken a renewed interest in vocation and calling, reflecting on God’s original design for economic life. Our work has plenty of meaning, but without the right moral foundation and transcendent focus, our individual quests for purpose can quickly devolve into a base idolatry of the self.
So what does a Christian approach to work and economics actually look like?
In a recent interview with WORLD Magazine, David Bahnsen, the founder and managing partner of The Bahnsen Group, offers a refreshingly concise and incisive response.
On a Christian theology of work:
“What is unique to the Christian worldview when we think about work is that it was instituted in creation, so there is a theology of work that is not necessarily shared in the rest of the world. The bulk of the world sees work as a necessary evil. They see work as something one has to do in order to make a living, and therefore, the contest so to speak ends up being finding the work you’re going to enjoy the most and finding the work that is going to pay you the most.
“But it always is disconnected from that fundamental foundation that, in fact, we were created to work, and that our God, being a worker and making us in his image, asked us to be a co-creator with him. He gave us a dignity that mirrors the image that he has, and us as co-image-bearers are now responsible to steward the earth, to have dominion over the Earth, and that, in fact, work was created to be a great blessing in our lives and is existential to our mission here on Earth.”
On a Christian view of economics:
“What is uniquely Christian is a view of economics that sees it as the playing out of human action – the way in which humans, who were made by God with dignity in pursuit of human flourishing, are allocating scarce resources, how we are freely interacting with each other, cultivating the creation that God gave us.
“I just said four or five things there that when stripped from a Christian understanding mean something very different. So we should not be surprised when, at varying degrees of collectivism, of intervention, of a command-and-control view of the economy – whether it’s full-blown totalitarian Marxism in one extreme, or socialism, or even a Keyensian understanding – all of these different views of economics fundamentally lack that worldview component that economics is humans acting in God’s creation. It is a very specific yet crucial aspect of how we view economics.”
From the very beginning, we were made to cultivate creation — to serve and cooperate with nature and neighbor. Wherever we are, and whatever we put our hands to, we proceed from a stewardship mandate that honors and dignifies the most mundane features of economic life. If this is where we begin our pursuit of meaning, flourishing is sure to follow.
Unfortunately, as Bahnsen observes, Christians often neglect this reality, opting instead for a shrugging embrace of the more common cultural assumptions.
In America, for example, we are routinely told that work is just a tool for our survival — that if purpose is to be found, it’s in personal provision, personal success, “doing what we love and loving what we do,” “living the dream,” or “pursuing our passion.” Work is about a means to a retirement or vacation time. It’s about a path to greater consumption: to getting stuff, loving stuff, and keeping stuff. It’s about self-protection and (if you’re lucky) self indulgence.
Christians often adopt or co-opt this same perspective, viewing work as just another tool for getting what we want. It’s for putting bread on our tables and achieving our priorities, whether it be funding evangelism or converting people in the workplace. Likewise, we, too, often see “vocation” and “calling” as mechanisms for justifying our preferred paths to “self-actualization.” Far too often, we work as the world works, adding the spiritual frosting of “God told me so.”
Thankfully, as Bahnsen demonstrates, the Christian vision is far richer than this.
When we begin our story in the garden, we see that work is about far more than satisfying our own wants and needs. It’s a mode of creation bent toward blessing others.
As theologian Lester DeKoster puts it, work is, first and foremost, service to others, and thus to God — or service to God, and thus to others. From the Wall Street banker to the garbage man to the schoolteacher to the doctor to the microchip engineer to the software developer to the father and mother, all of our work is about service to others.
When this becomes our paradigm, calling is no longer about “following our passion” or charting a path for self-actualization, though that may be a byproduct. It’s about obedience to God. Work and career are no longer about personal provision, though that will be a likely result. They are about providing for others. Economic action is no longer about protecting our turf or sitting still in a circle, comfortably biding our time until retirement. It’s about creativity and inclusion, collaboration and competitive development.
“Work restores the broken family of humankind,” DeKoster writes. “Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding.”
From here, and only from here, can we properly grapple with and fully steward the freedom and prosperity that now surrounds us.