Speaking Out offers responsible Christians a forum. It does not necessarily reflect the views of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.By Steve Jolley, pastor of Santa Barbara Community Church (Calif.). He is currently cowriting a book on the Christian and work.

When I go to a party, meet a neighbor, or am introduced to anyone, the inevitable question rears its ugly head: “What do you do?”

I resent that question. “Who are you?” or “What are your interests?” would be better questions. To be defined by how I earn my living bothers me.

In our society, work defines who we are. Work is no longer just work; it is an extension of our very being. No longer do we have jobs; we have “careers.” No longer do people find satisfaction in providing for their families; they now need “fulfillment” from their work. Some, the unlucky ones, even feel they have found “meaning” in their places of employment. For these, salvation is found in a well-placed resume.

This is a sad state of affairs for anyone, but especially for Christians, who should be defined by their relationship to Christ.

Christians who allow their employment to define them become trapped in hierarchies of power, prestige, and pedigree. The pernicious effects on the unity of the body of Christ, especially in its local manifestation, are pronounced. All too often, leadership in a local church is based upon financial success, rather than spiritual maturity.

Consider how often we find that serving on a church board or in other positions of leadership is contingent upon accomplishment in the workplace. Further, consider how many local churches take pride in the number of community leaders who are members.

I understand why so many people seek “fulfillment” or “meaning” in their jobs. Jobs can meet legitimate ego needs. But Christians—who ought to know better—are meeting their primary needs for self-esteem, meaning, and fulfillment in their jobs, rather than through kingdom ministry. The vast majority of Christians spend more emotional energy compiling a business plan than in laying strategies to affect the world for Christ. They find more personal satisfaction if their sales figures are up than if their next-door neighbor responds to the gospel. They somehow feel more “secure” after they have received a raise than because they have been raised with Christ.

The Temporal And The Eternal

There are at least two critical reasons why this troublesome scenario exists:

First, Christians have failed to distinguish between temporal and eternal labor. The purpose of temporal labor is clearly seen in Scripture. For example, Paul says, “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul again affirms the value of temporal labor in Ephesians 4:28: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need.” Temporal labor is good and has value in that, at minimum, it provides for the physical needs of ourselves and others. With Calvin and the other Reformers, we must strongly assert that temporal labor is good and ordained by God at Creation. However, our temporal labor must be understood in relation to our eternal labor.

Scripture delineates the value of eternal labor. In evaluating his own life, Paul muses on his reason for being: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:21–22a).

Put simply, labor has value when we know its purpose. When Christians confuse temporal labor with eternal labor, there is a distinct probability that temporal labor will begin to usurp the place of kingdom work.

Stroking Egos

Second, Christians place an inappropriate amount of importance on their jobs because of their real needs for self-esteem. Secular employers have done a better job of stroking ego needs than most local churches. Compare the salesman who makes the big sale and receives both hearty congratulations from higher-ups and a hefty check for the effort, to the Christian who faithfully leads a Bible study, shares Christ with a neighbor, or disciples a brother or sister. Business offers immediate, tangible rewards, while the church lets labor go unnoticed and unrewarded. Add the meeting of ego needs to the tremendous importance our culture places on what you “do,” and it is little wonder that Christians have such difficulty distinguishing the relative value of temporal and eternal labor.

I am not worried because believers find importance in their jobs. I am worried by the inappropriate amount of importance that work occupies in the Christian life. At life’s end, I don’t want to be like the disgruntled writer of Ecclesiastes, “Sol … gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun” (2:20). I want to find meaning in my life in Christ, not in my sales figures or corporate status. I want to find my primary needs for self-esteem and fulfillment met through service to the risen Lord.

By Steve Jolley, pastor of Santa Barbara Community Church (Calif.). He is currently cowriting a book on the Christian and work.

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