“Does time dedicated to working in the secular world endanger our souls?”
Chris R. Armstrong asks this important question in Work: Theological Foundations and Practical Implications. Armstrong suggests that all too often American Christians have given up finding spiritual meaning in their work and in their ordinary lives. At best, we try to bring spiritual attitudes, such as selflessness and patience, into the workplace or use the money we earn to support spiritual things.
There is a tendency, all too often, to divide the sacred from the secular, not fully recognizing, as Pope Gregory the Great (504–604) did, that God has called us to live a “mixed life” of spiritual contemplation and activity in the world. In his Pastoral Rule, he insists that God can even use our vocations to deepen our spiritual lives. When our lives are marked by active engagement in the world, such as caring for the poor or teaching, we are better equipped to experience God. Yet how does this synthesis help us to understand the suffering that we experience?
Unfortunately, our attempts to integrate the sacred and the secular can sometimes lead us to hold to a prosperity gospel. We can begin to believe that if we fulfill our God-given vocational calling, God promises contentment and success. In other words, we expect God to reward those who work hard. We read passages such as Psalm 128:2 — “You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours” — as an affirmation of this. All too often, however, this is not our daily experience. Instead of vocational bliss, we face hardships such as stress, temptation, isolation, low pay and lack of acknowledgment. These negative experiences can lead us to question the goodness of God or conversely to view the secular world as inherently evil and dangerous to the soul. Yet Scripture is clear that neither of these perspectives is true. God is a good God (Ps. 119:68), God fulfills his promises (Josh. 21:45), and God is never the source of evil or temptation (James 1:13).
James 1:13 warns us to not blame God. But James also points out how God can use the world and our suffering. James implores us to “consider it pure joy” when we “face trials of many kinds.” Why? Because the testing of our faith produces perseverance, and perseverance helps mature and complete us. Suffering is not only an unfortunate reality, but to be expected if we are followers of Christ.
Christ, the Eternal King, came to earth as the Suffering Servant, humbling himself, being obedient to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:3–11). Christ faced many challenges in his work. While he tasted the sweetness of being hailed King on Palm Sunday, he also experienced the bitterness of rejection on Good Friday in order to bring about victory on Easter Sunday. Without the suffering of Good Friday, there would be no Easter.
We, like the Suffering Servant and Eternal King, are called to just such a “mixed life.” We, like Christ, are called to pick up our cross and to expect suffering, recognizing that God can use the suffering inflicted upon us to glorify him. In speaking to his disciples, Christ says, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Not only can we have confidence in Christ’s victory, but that when we participate in Christ’s suffering, we have the opportunity to grow in Christlikeness and glorify him.
This issue’s Last Word comes from The Good Book Blog, a resource from Talbot School of Theology’s faculty, and was originally published on Oct. 28, 2019. This article stems from the Kern reading group on faith, work and economics at Talbot, which is a small group comprised of Talbot and Crowell School of Business faculty who discuss the intersection of the Christian faith with issues like poverty, work, economics and justice.
Karin Stetina is an associate professor of theology at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. She received her Ph.D. in historical theology from Marquette University and has done major research in Reformation theology.
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