Called the "hub of five valleys," Missoula, Montana is encircled by five mountain ranges and is the meeting point of three rivers: the Blackfoot (of River Runs Through It fame), the Bitterroot, and the Clark Fork. I traveled there several years ago and thought it was a beautiful place and a special college town, home to the University of Montana. Unfortunately, I wasn't there to do fly-fishing.
But I did have the opportunity to get to know Missoulians by speaking at a local church several times over the course of a weekend. I will never forget one man I met there.
After a talk I gave on how our work is part of God's great restoration plan, one man approached me with tears running down his face and said,
I am 55 years old and I wash dishes for a living. I became a believer about 10 years ago. I thought the best I could do at work was to occasionally share my faith with someone. But I work in the back of a restaurant washing dishes and hardly talk to anyone.
If what you are saying is true, then every dish I wash to the glory of God, in ways that I don't fully understand, brings flourishing to my community? That makes all the difference!
It's stories like these that get me up in the morning. No one should have to labor over twenty-five years in a career thinking their work has no eternal significance.
Our Work in God's Kingdom
Knowing our work matters to God impacts not only our individual sense of meaning and purpose, but also the flourishing of our communities, our nation, and the world. Whether dishwasher, fly-fishing instructor, conference speaker, or airline pilot, each one of our vocational callings is part of God's kingdom work.
Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry that, "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).
The inbreaking of the kingdom of God means that our work can play a part in advancing that kingdom and pointing to its future coming, when Christ returns.
Our Work in God's Big-Picture Story
Unfortunately, Christians in the last century were primarily taught a truncated view of the four-chapter redemptive story of the gospel: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. By only emphasizing the two middle chapters, Fall and Redemption, the focus of the Christian life is on salvation and "sin management." While we shouldn't under-emphasize the importance of evangelism and salvation, we must acknowledge that this is not all there is to the gospel.
Without understanding why we were created and what God's plan is for the future, we can't understand how our present work of dishwashing, homemaking, deal-making, teaching, writing, construction, or project management fit into God's kingdom work.
Tim Keller once said that if he had to define the gospel in a single statement, he might do it like this:
Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.
Without understanding that Christ died on the cross not only to save us but also to restore all things, Christians get the impression that nothing much about this world matters. Grasping the full implication of the gospel should make Christians interested in both evangelism as well as service to our neighbor and working for peace and justice in the world.
Cornelius Plantinga, in his book, Engaging God's World, suggests that as Christians we must:
...prepare to add one's own contribution to the supreme reformation project, which is God's restoration of all things that have been corrupted by evil. The Old Testament word for this restoration of peace, justice, and harmony is shalom; the New Testament phrase for it is 'the coming of the kingdom.'
According to scripture, God plans to accomplish these projects through Jesus Christ, who started to make "all things new," and who will come again to finish what he started. In the meantime, God's Spirit inspires a worldwide body of people to join God's mission.
Our Work Helps to Restore "Shalom"
How do you see your work in light of the kingdom of God?
Think about the dishwasher: with every clean dish, he works "as for the Lord" (Col. 3:23) and serves his neighbor; he restores order, contributing to the flourishing of the restaurant that provides a valued service to the community; and, in turn, he advances the kingdom of God and provides others a glimpse of the shalom that God intends to restore when he returns.
But what exactly is shalom? There was shalom in the Garden of Eden and God intends to restore it in his coming kingdom. I'm currently working on a new IFWE booklet on this very topic because it's a concept that has animated my own imagination on the biblical meaning of work, and it deserves further explanation.
In his book, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga provides an excellent definition of shalom:
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight...Shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be...The full flourishing of human life in all aspects, as God intended it to be.
Even though our work has eternal meaning, it doesn't mean it will be easy. But it does mean that we can live a fully integrated life, where there is no division between the sacred and the secular, where our Christian faith infiltrates all of who we are and what we do, not just on Sundays, but on Mondays, too.
Just like the confluence of the rivers in Missoula, we can experience a coming together of the disjointed parts of our own lives in ways that flow together in one overarching purpose to bring about flourishing as God intended.
Learn more about how your work is part of God's big-picture story in All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel.
Originally posted at tifwe.org