An earlier version of this article was published online by Graceworks in August 18, 2008.
There was once when I had a terrible toothache. I was in Kuala Lumpur for ministry. God was merciful and the toothache started only after I had finished most of what I needed to do. I messaged my dentist in Singapore, a brother in Christ and a dental school class mate (yes, in my first life I was a dentist). He voiced his concern and asked me to see him as soon as I got back.
The pain was bad. One of my lower molars had given up the ghost. When I got back to Singapore I went straight to the dental clinic. My friend took a look and called in the endodontist (root canal therapy specialist) on his team. She was a few years my junior in dental school and a sister in Christ. She went to work and by the afternoon the crisis was over. I was so grateful that my dental friends attended to me with compassion and competence. I was so glad that my dental friends did not see their dental work as something second-class to what they did in church. They served in their respective churches. But they also saw their dental practice as God’s work.
I have heard some Christian dentists say that they practise dentistry just to make a living. Their “real work” was what they did in church. (I have heard similar sentiments expressed by believers in other occupations as well.) I am sure they were passionate and effective in their evangelism, Sunday School teaching or whatever church- related ministry they were doing. I was just aghast that they saw their daily work as having no intrinsic value apart from putting food on the table.
One of the purposes of work is to “put food on the table.” This is Paul’s word to those who stopped work and became free loaders in view of Jesus’ imminent return — “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: Anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10 NIV)
However I have come across many Christians who believe that only certain types of work, in particular only church related work, has spiritual value in addition to their capacity to put food on the table. This division of life and work into spiritual and non-spiritual compartments is very wide spread in the evangelical communities where I hang out. This duality in viewing life and work shows a serious misreading of the Scriptures and ends with an approach to life that does not give proper respect to God and His purposes.
R. Paul Stevens is one of a number of scholars who have tried to correct this erroneous way of looking at life and work. In his book, The Other Six Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), he writes:
The Bible opens with God working speaking, fashioning, designing, crafting, sculpting. God makes light, matter, space, time, sea and land, and most beautiful of all human beings… The Bible also commences with a parallel vision. Human beings are made in God’s image and are commissioned to “work (the garden) and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15)… We take care of the world in spectacular ways (town planning, serving in parliament or congress, sending a rocket to space, and splicing a gene) as well as the most mundane (collecting the rubbish, keeping financial accounts, putting a meal on the table and selling paint). (113-114)
Stevens goes on to defend the intrinsic spiritual value of all legitimate work:
Work has extrinsic value: it is good for what it produces (money, provision for one’s family etc.) Work also has intrinsic value: it is good in itself. Mostly, pastoral ministry and people-helping professions are seen as having both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Are ordinary occupations intrinsically valuable? Certainly those engaged in providing goods and services that seem to have less intrinsic value and durability will require an occupational conversion to view their work as holy, pleasing to God and worthy of God’s “it’s good.” Where society does not invest meaning in a task, does not socially reinforce it, we must regard this task as God does — as part of making God’s world work. Intrinsically work is good for us, good for the world and good for God. (124)
Ironically, those who view church related work as more spiritual may think that they are pursuing God’s purposes. But their dividing of the world into material and spiritual, and their championing of the spiritual over the material, has more in common with Greek and Hindu philosophy than the teachings of the Bible. The God of the Bible is not anti matter. He created it and He will redeem it.
In his reflections on work in the new heaven and the new earth, Darrell Cosden reminds us that Christ was resurrected with a body. Cosden points out that the New Testament writers:
…Make it clear that they see in Jesus a pattern, a principle that through his body he is the prototype for the coming creation. And … in the same way as Jesus’ resurrection, God will ultimately transform evil, neutral, and good aspects of creation for his purposes … this transformation includes our work… (The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006, 59)
In other words, our daily work will also be transformed and find a place in the new heaven and new earth. We have every reason than to follow Paul’s exhortation to slaves in Colossians:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favouritism. (Colossians 3: 23b – 25 NIV).
Here Paul is not talking about church related work. He is talking about work in general and clearly he understands that work done this side of heaven has implications for the life to come.
The Bible is utterly clear as to the importance of evangelism and of making disciples. Human kind is lost in sin and the only cure is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, sharing the gospel through life and word is so important that all followers of Jesus should be doing it. Our “Sunday” work is very important. But so is our “Monday” work.
I am so grateful that my dentist friends saw their Monday work as important too, and as real as all they do in church on Sunday. If you don’t agree, just wait till you get a bad toothache. It’s amazing how a toothache can help bring clarity to one’s theology.
Rev Dr. Tan Soo Inn
He is the director of Graceworks, a ministry committed to promoting spiritual friendship in church and society. He has a BDS from the University of Singapore, a ThM (NT) from Regent College, and a DMin from Fuller seminary. He has served as the lead pastor of two churches and as the executive leader of a major para-church ministry. He is now the teaching pastor of Evangel Christian Church. His passions include connecting the Word of God to the struggles of daily life, and the mentoring of emerging leaders.