This time last year, as many of us began cautiously emerging from a year-long quarantine, one reality rose to the surface: Our old way of working doesn’t work for us anymore.
After months and months of five-step commutes and conference calls in our pajama pants, those “return to office” emails hit our inboxes like a COVID-19 nasal swab. Since then, the American workforce has sustained record-breaking turnover rates in the face of what many are calling the Great Resignation.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, more than 4.5 million people quit their jobs last November. Many continue to cite flexibility as a primary motivator for choosing to leave a role. Especially in cities known for their lengthy commutes and relentlessly fast-paced industries, a new era of remote and hybrid work has paved the way for greater work-life balance. Clearly, this is a benefit many are not quite ready to part with, perhaps because we lived so long without it.
Worshiping Work vs Work as Worship
It’s no great secret that our generation of workers has a tendency to seek a full identity and purpose in work. Case in point: Back in 2019, The Atlantic published an article titled “Workism is Making Americans Miserable.” The writer, Derek Thompson, employs various religious metaphors throughout the article to expose this tendency. He uses words like “worship” and “calling” and writes about what he names “the Gospel of Work.” In doing so, he mirrors the religion-like fervor with which many of us approach our daily work, pointing out that “our desks were never meant to be our altars.”
The picture is a bleak one. It’s a picture in which burnout and overwork are celebrated, ceaseless productivity is expected, and that “I have arrived” moment is always right around the corner. Like that of any idol, this worship of work is inevitably characterized by exhaustion, restlessness, and disappointment.
And yet, from a Christian perspective, this sentiment — that “our desks were never meant to be our altars,” as Thompson puts it — seems to be incomplete. Before we determine if our desk is meant to be our altar, we must first take note of which direction that altar is facing. In other words, my desk may very well be my altar — a place from which I worship — but my work is certainly never meant to be my God.
An Ancient Shepherd’s Worship
This convergence of work and worship was keenly evident in the vocation of an ancient shepherd. In biblical times, the work of a shepherd’s hands was intrinsically tied to the worship he brought before the Lord on the Sabbath. In their book, Work and Worship, Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Wilson remind us that shepherds did not come to the altar of God empty-handed. Rather, “They entered worship as shepherds carrying sheep. With well-worn hands, the Israelite workers carried the hard-won fruits of their labors directly into God’s holy presence.”
Taking note of this intimate connection between a shepherd’s work and his worship, I’m confronted by our generation’s radically different relationship to work. Somehow, we’ve created this sacred-secular divide, by which work is the drudgery we endure Monday through Friday and worship is the hymn we sing in church on Sunday mornings. Whether we mean to or not, we end up worshiping our work during the week and giving God whatever’s left on Sunday. For many, the idea of marrying our work with our worship of God is, at best, complicated — and at worst, completely foreign.
While the saving work of Jesus has eliminated our need to bring physical offerings to the altar, the call to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” remains (Rom 12:1). Instead of bringing a sheep or a lamb to the Lord in worship, we now bring our “fearfully and wonderfully made” selves (Psalm 139:14). We bring our skills, talents, strengths, and weaknesses. Out of an awareness of how God has created us, we return these gifts to him in worship.
A Worker’s Worship Today
When we identify the gifts and passions God has given us and use them for his glory, we are participating in an act of worship. Tim Keller writes about this in his book Every Good Endeavor. “Your daily work is ultimately an act of worship to the God who called and equipped you to do it,” he writes, “no matter what kind of work it is.” In our work, we are quite literally acknowledging a gift from God and giving it back to him as an offering.
Whether it’s in your office, your home, or your community, a great deal of your time on this earth is spent working. An entire year of attending church every single Sunday equates to little more than one week’s worth of nine-to-five work. So we have to ask ourselves: If we aren’t worshiping God throughout our work day, when are we worshiping him?
To put it another way, if it truly is “God’s will that you should be sanctified,” as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, then it must also be God’s will that you should be sanctified through the integral human rhythm of work — a rhythm that is begging daily to be redeemed.
Activating the Priesthood of all Believers
Inherent in the call to unite our work with our worship is the call to identify and embrace our role in the priesthood of all believers. Whether it’s as a plumber, an accountant, a parent, a lawyer, or a pastor, every believer is a recipient of the Great Commission and a member of the royal priesthood. As such, there is an opportunity for our daily work to be an overflow of that identity. A beautiful coming together of how God has created us and the redemptive task to which he has called us.
When considering what that tapestry might look like, we should dispel the notion of a sacred-secular divide — that idea that our work and our faith are only really connected if we are working in a church or parachurch organization. Instead, let’s encourage all of our brothers and sisters to reflect Christ in every corner of the workforce. Especially now, when so many are reassessing their career paths amid this Great Resignation, there is an invitation for Christian professionals to consider how the gifts that God has entrusted to us might map onto this next chapter in our careers.
There is also an invitation for us to consider those for whom this is not a time of options or opportunity. Instead it’s a time of unthinkable pressure and strain. A time when roles at work and at home have become more demanding than ever, leaving little space or energy for seeking new opportunities. How can Christian professionals meet that weariness — in others and in ourselves — by creating spaces that encourage true flourishing for more workers?
Dorothy Sayers puts it this way: “The only Christian work is good work well done.” When the church is filled with people who have fully embraced their vocational callings of all kinds, we will deploy a powerful witness of excellence into the world. We will contribute to human flourishing both within the church’s walls and beyond them.
Rediscovering the Worker’s Altar
Over the course of a lifetime, we are all building an altar to something. Whether it’s identity, success, money, power, or the one true God, we will slowly start giving pieces of ourselves to it until there is nothing left to give. When we place our work on an altar that is facing God, it becomes an offering that is pleasing to him — one that he will see and say, “It is good.”
A version of this article was previously published by the author at lararenee.com.