The Image of God at Work (Part 1)
German billionaire Adolf Merckle was one of the richest men in the world. He was number 94 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people. But he used to be number 44. He had 9 billion dollars. But he used to have nearly 13 billion. He made some wrong bets along the way and his illusion of control started crumbling. So in the winter of 2009 he told his wife he was going to the office for a while. He found the train tracks, stepped in them and waited.
About that same time I heard the account of an otherwise unknown man whose small business was in financial freefall. He soaked the inside of his car with fuel, got inside, and lit a match. Stories like these were tragically common during the global recession of 2009. The story of Willy Loman, the tragic character who took his own life in “Death of a Salesman,” isn’t far from reality.
Man naturally wants to make work about himself. Our reputation is on the line! Our image is at stake! Those who would fashion their identity in the mold of their occupation are doomed to feed on futility.
Do you find your identity in your work? Does your reputation depend on where you land on a corporate flowchart? Are you working to establish your own image—or to reflect God’s? If you are born again, may I remind you of your identity? “In Christ.” Believers are liable to forget this and then seek their identity in what they do. We err when we groan about our work and become discontent, and we err when we love our work and try to prop up our identity with it.
Warning: Do you love what you do? One of my young students asked me recently, “If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?” As a pastor and Bible teacher, I happily said, “Exactly what I’m doing!” But with that response comes a caution for my own heart. Martyn Lloyd-Jones warned, “Don’t let your happiness depend on preaching, for the day will come when you can no longer preach. Find your happiness in God who will be with us to the end.” This wisdom he issued to pastors, but his point is well-taken for all of us.
In unbelief we’ve made work about ourselves: our image, our reputation, our identity, our survival. Let’s face it: We’re all toiling for food from a cursed ground, energizing ourselves to keep toiling by the sweat of our face until that same cursed ground demands back our dead body. There’s no escape! But every day millions of men get out of bed, do their morning routine, and go to work—because they have to. Why do you work? If your answer is “Because I have to,” you’re thinking about work like a cursed man. Would you work if you had no financial need? Was there work in a pre-curse world? Will there be any kind of work in heaven? These kinds of questions help us understand God’s purpose for work. But especially: What does God’s Word say about work?
If your answer to, “Why do you work?” is, “Because I have to,” then you don’t understand the biblical view of work. And if you don’t understand it, you don’t yet believe it either! It’s easy for believers to have unbelieving perspectives of work. And this always forces us to the feeding trough of futility.
How do we regain sight of God’s good purposes in our work, which can seem so cursed? We could have a “man pep rally” and tell ourselves to stop whining, man up, buck up, gnarl our hands, and get to work. It sounds moral and patriotic, but if we just try to man up, show up, and wrap up an honest day’s work, that wouldn’t make us more biblical workers. I could try to define manliness at work, but then we might fall into the trap of cultural definitions or the error of exalting certain kinds of work over others. There’s nothing more biblically manly about a lumberjack than a copy editor!
If you think about work like an unbeliever, then you work like an unbeliever. How do we work biblically? It begins with thinking biblically about work. What is God’s purpose for work, and why am I standing behind this greasy counter? In a cursed world is it possible to honor God in our thorny work, to know His good purposes in it—and to escape the futility that comes from unbelief?
The first and fundamental thing to concede is this: Our work is not about us. This runs counter to all the inclinations of our flesh and our culture. After all, from an unbelieving perspective, what is work but a means of money, a reputation-propulsion system, and an identity mold? We must cut the string that binds our identity to our work. Work is about God.
God gave work as a lifelong occupation to glorify Him through emulation. When met with unbelief, the thorns and thistles of work produce a potent flavor of futility. But God makes provision to deliver His redeemed from all the futility of unbelief. Man, faithfully at work, testifies to God. God’s Word reveals His holy intentions for casting work into the world. In the final four parts of this series, I want to demonstrate four ways work testifies to God.
Whitney Oxford is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and serves as a lay leader at Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL.