The writings of Luther led to a fundamental change in the way people viewed their work in the 16th century. The reformer had many impacts on the church and the world during the reformation. This was one of those clear impacts. Luther encourages us to see that our work has value because, through it, God sustains the world by his providence. God gives food to every creature, but he does not do it supernaturally. He does it through the labors and work of everyone in the supply chain. This is why we pray over our meals. We do that as a recognition that God gives the food. However, food is not the only thing he provides. He satisfies the desires of every creature.
God satisfies our desire for shelter, clothing, entertainment, and leisure. But he does it through the labors of men. Therefore, God is working through every farmer, carpenter, accountant, medical doctor, etc. Every noble work that meets the need of man has value. It is God working through the worker to satisfy the desires of every living creature.
A Twofold Effect
The effect of this is twofold, at least. It encourages us in our labors. Work can be daunting at times. The deadlines do seem to have no end. As long as we live in this fallen world, we labor under the curse of Genesis 3. However, we can take courage knowing that our work is valuable, and through it, God works in us, and we express love for our neighbors.
Consequently, when we see the value that God places on our work, it encourages us to do it well. It is no longer just about the salary. Because God works through our labors to satisfy the desires of our fellow humans (neighbors), we must do our work with diligence to the best of our abilities.
The Value of all Work
Luther’s point also leads us to acknowledge that all noble work is valuable. The work of the peasant farmer is valuable; just like the work of the CEO is valuable. Every job is valuable precisely because it is God working through us to sustain the universe – to satisfy the desires of every creature. Work is not valuable because of the salary it pays but by the simple fact that it is noble work.
It works the same way as human dignity. Every human being is valuable (and equally valuable) not because of their socioeconomic class but by the mere fact that they are humans. The poor man living in the suburb of a third world country is as valuable as the rich man at Silicon Valley or Wall Street. The former has the same inalienable rights as the latter. When the two of them go to court, the matter must be settled justly without regard to their class precisely because they are both human irrespective of the social and economic divide.
Every single work is valuable not because of the class it confers, the technical skills it takes to do it, or the wealth it produces. God is working through the nanny, just like he is working through the Senator. The Senator must not be proud and look down on the nanny. The nanny must not be envious because she thinks her work is useless. It is through your faithfulness as a nanny that God satisfies the desires of that little child. Your work is valuable, embrace it, labor cheerfully, and do it with the utmost diligence.
(N.B: The fact that every work is valuable does not mean that some work (the president of a nation for example) do not come with higher responsibility and therefore accountability (to man and God) than others (the bartender for example). However, because God uses both work to satisfy the desires of every creature, they are both valuable)
Staying where you are
Paul makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 7.
He was making a point about people who married unbelievers but later on became believers during the marriage. He told them to remain in the marriage, except the unbeliever decides to depart the marriage. Moving on from that point, he made a general rule- each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. (1 Corinthians 7:17).
He applied the rule to circumcision and then to slaves. The latter are people who were slaves before they became Christians. Now that they are Christians, what should they do? “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave” (7:21, 22).
Paul wrote to these people who were laboring under the lordship of another not to be troubled by their situation. Their circumstances may be difficult, and it may seem that their labor is in vain as slaves working for their masters. However, Paul encouraged them not to live with anxiety and troubled minds. Instead, in other passages, he instructed them how they are to work under their masters.
In Ephesians 6:6-7, we read, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” He gave similar instructions to the Colossians, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”
The Value of Hard Labor
The work of the slaves was not easy. It was undesirable. They were basically laboring for another man’s profit. It was daunting and challenging work.
Yet Paul could instruct the slaves to do their work as unto the Lord and not unto their human masters because it is God they are serving through that work. They are not to live in anxiety and constant troubles. Rather, they are to work as if they were serving the Lord.
In our present situation, we might be laboring like the slaves of Paul’s days. Our work may be daunting, unappreciated, and exhausting. We might labor under unpalatable circumstances. We might even be laboring for another man’s profit. Even in these kinds of difficult circumstances, we are to look beyond our human masters (men) and look to the Lord for whom we are working. We are to serve the Lord, not people. We are still to do our best, laboring with diligence as unto the Lord. We must never allow the present circumstances of our labor to make us forget that it is God working through us for the good of our neighbor. We must not lose sight of the value of every noble work. We must live to please the Lord, who chose to sustain the universe (satisfy the desires of every creature) through our labor.
This also means that even if we work at the very base of the corporate ladder, we must work as unto the Lord. If our work places us at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, we must do it unto the Lord.
Seeking Better Opportunities
However, this is not all that Paul says. When instructing the slaves not to allow their condition trouble them, he makes an essential point – if you can obtain your freedom. Paul does not tell the slaves that they must never seek opportunities to become free. They should, if they can. However, his point is that they should not let their present situation trouble them to make them lose sight of the value of what God is doing through them.
If you work under challenging circumstances, leave if you can. If no one appreciates your work, leave if you can. If the work environment is undesirable, leave if you can. Paul never makes the point that we must stay glued to these adverse conditions. We must move if we can (by God’s providence). However, while we remain in those circumstances, we must be faithful to God and work as unto him. Your work is not less valuable to God when it is in an undesired environment. It is not the work environment that gives value to the work you do. While you stay in that undesired environment, you can work as unto the Lord. If you leave to a better work environment, you can work as unto the Lord. If you can, seek those better circumstances, but don’t seek it with anxiety and troubled mind thinking that your current work does not (cannot) serve the Lord.
Similarly, if you are in the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, leave if you can. Go for trainings, take courses, and enhance your skills. If you can become the CEO through noble means, do it (ceteris paribus – you have to consider what the new role will do to your family, relationship with God, etc.). However, do not seek those better opportunities because you think it is only working as a C-suite executive that you can serve the Lord. If you can improve your income by taking another noble job, do it (ceteris paribus – you have to consider what the new job will do to your family, relationship with God, etc.), but do not do it because you think your current job is meaningless and valueless.
When we think as Paul asks us to, it will have a fourfold effect.
First, it will help us to live free from anxiety. If you believe that your current role, job, or circumstances make your work meaningless and valueless, then you will only seek better opportunities with a heart full of anxiety and restlessness. Worry will take away your peace and joy. It will make it easier for you to sin by doing things you should not do to change your circumstances. It will also lead you to sin in your relationship with the people around you. Anxiety breeds sin in multiple folds. No wonder Jesus admonishes us not to worry about tomorrow (Mathew 6:34).
Second, it will help us to be witnesses to others. It is easier to talk about the value of all work when you do it in a perfect environment with good income and high social capital. However, when we can labor in those difficult circumstances, we become witness to the value of all noble work. We can set an example for others and encourage them in their labors.
Third, it saves us from pride. When we find ourselves in better circumstances with higher income and social capital, we will not look down on others “below us” (to speak in human terms). We will be able to appreciate the labor and work of every other person around us. We will treat everyone with dignity and honor irrespective of the value our human minds place on their work.
Fourth, it will help in our character formation. We will learn patience and contentment. Those two virtues are difficult to imbibe. When we work as Paul teaches us, we will learn to be content with God’s providential dealings in our lives. We will be content with the place in life he has placed us now. We will rest satisfied in him who, with Christ, will freely give us all things. We will embrace our current circumstances as coming from his hands.
Similarly, we will be patient, as we trust him for better opportunities. Because there is no anxiety and restlessness, we can rest patiently in God, who works all things for our good. Patience and contentment will also help us to trust God even if he chooses to keep us in our present circumstances longer than we’d prefer. When patience, contentment, and trust come together, we are on the right track in sanctification.
Serving the Lord
Therefore, we must serve the Lord in every circumstance, role, or job. Wherever we are on the ladder, whatever the circumstances and the class that comes with our work, we do it unto the Lord. Even when we seek better opportunities (“gain your freedom”), we do so without anxiety and restlessness because we know we are serving God in the present circumstances.
Like many other things God commands us, he offers us loads of promises. “Since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” (Colossians 3:24) “Because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does whether he is slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:8).
The man with the one talent complained that his master was a hard man (Mathew 25:24). He focused on the small value of the talent and the hardness of his master (whether that is true or not). The master instructed that they throw him outside into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. May that not be our portion. May we labour as unto the Lord in anticipation of the inheritance and reward he promised us.