I regularly teach and preach about work and I must confess: It’s easy to share stories of executives, doctors, and engineers and forget that the most common occupations in America are in retail sales, food preparation, and similar tasks. A series of recent conversations with Millennials reminded me that, even among professionals, there is a chasm between Christian rhetoric and reality. We know the basics: God ordained work from the beginning so that it is good. Further, Gods commands mankind to fill and exercise dominion over the earth, but also to keep the garden. So, we preserve creation even as we develop it (Genesis 1–2).
But daily work is hard, so we need to be realistic. We labor beside people who are sometimes incompetent, careless, and mean. One man likes his job but is harried because his coworkers are indifferent and his company teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. His wife works for a vast corporation that does more good than harm, but it manufactures chemicals that seem to harm the environment and its legal department can be ruthless. The wife is a corporate writer and isn’t sure she believes everything she has to say.
A big company recruited another woman in college. Her first boss was an egotist. She also felt claustrophobic, cooped up in a tiny space, staring at a computer all day, crunching numbers to set prices to maximize sales of frumpy women’s clothes. One day she had an epiphany. She overheard two women admiring the color and quality of the sweaters she despised. She thought, “They are quality sweaters at a fair price. My job isn’t marketing sweaters I would buy. Who am I to judge what styles should please other people?” Suddenly, she saw that her work made life better for someone. She realized that work is the chief place where we love our neighbors as ourselves.
But epiphanies are rare, especially when our perspective on work is clouded by paradigms from the culture. In the beginning, we dream that work will be fulfilling, a realm of self-discovery, a platform to make the world a better place while honing gifts and heeding insightful mentors. That may be a utopian myth, but we need to trade it in for realism, not dystopian cynicism.
“Self-actualization” came into our vocabulary through Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Like most secular ideas that the church imbibes, it overlaps with something in Scripture. Maslow want us to realize our potential and expects us to do so at work. The Bible does link work and joy occasionally (Deut. 16:15; Prov. 12:14; Heb. 13:17). And Jesus says he found satisfaction in accomplishing the work of redemption (John 4:34). But let’s be careful. We might take these slender facts, add a theology of gifts and notions of Christ transforming culture, and so baptize a secular thinker like Maslow.
Scripture primarily sees work as a matter of faithfulness in a given calling, not self-actualization. Hebrews commends Moses because he was “faithful in all God’s house” (Heb. 3:2; see also Num. 12:7). Hezekiah, Daniel, and others are praised specifically for their faithfulness (2 Chron. 31:20; Dan. 6:4). And we rightly treasure Matthew 25, which leads us to hope that Jesus will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
Matthew 25 offers a second perspective on work. It says God sees the significance of our work even if we cannot. When we meet him, Jesus will tell the faithful:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance . . . For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:35–41).
This passage corrects two opposite errors. If we hope to change the world and find fulfillment, we may exaggerate the importance of our labor. If we become cynical, we diminish the significance of our labor. People in finance can despair that “I never do or make anything, I just push money around.” Truck drivers say, “Farmers grow the food, I just drive it around.” But where would we be without truck drivers? Will we drive to Kansas to buy cows and to Minnesota for wheat?
In fact, everyone in the food chain is important. The supplier sells seeds, fertilizer, and equipment that let crops grow. Truck drivers, stock boys, and cashiers get the food into our hands. Take the cashier. To buy food, someone has to take the money. The cashier can think of herself as a cash-taking machine, but she is the last person a shopper sees. She completes the transaction that brings food to the table. She is also the face of the food chain, and the person who can make a tough shopping trip end well. In that way, she loves people at work.
It’s hard to see the value of our work. The math teacher cannot know that her goofy algebra student will one day build excellent bridges. The art teacher can’t see that his doodler will become an architect with visual flair.
We especially struggle with low-status jobs. Take the fast-food worker. The hours are bad, the pay low, the food occasionally toxic. But I have prayed hard to find fast food as I traveled, desperate with hunger, as night closed in. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and God calls farmers, bakers, truck drivers, and fast-food workers to answer that prayer.
Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” We will say, “When did we see you hungry? Or thirsty? Or without clothes?” The answer is: probably at work. At work we have the greatest skill, time, and resources. By faith, we strive to love God and neighbors at work. And Jesus promises to remember it forever. If our work has any role in the chain that brings food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and care to sick, Jesus is pleased—and he blesses us for it.
Dr. Dan Doriani is VP of strategic academic initiatives and professor of theology at Covenant Seminary. A version of this article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition in 2013.