Vocation is a subject that often comes up in the minds of those who are serious about serving the Lord with their whole lives. A follower of Jesus wants to honor the Lord in all things, and this includes work. Too often, however, we separate work into two categories: work for the Lord and work for, well, money. Work for the Lord may well result in money, but it’s easy to claim a higher motive for ministerial work than it is for selling widgets, knowing full well that the more widgets you sell the more money you get. Is this the right way to think about work? No.
In the opening pages of Scripture we’re greeted with the declaration—and introduction—of the Creator God: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” After describing the process of creation we’re told that God created humans a bit differently than he created animals.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”Genesis 1:26 ESV
In the Ancient Near Eastern world, a god’s spirit resided in an image—often a statue or other physical representation of that god. The image represented the god and the god’s authority. Kings were also image-bearers of a god or gods. Thus a god’s spirit resided in the king, granting the king the right and authority to rule on the god’s behalf. Through Moses, however, God—the only God—declared that all of humanity was created in his image, after his likeness.
This means each and every human being represents God. Each human being, regardless of ability or aptitude or even spiritual status, represents God. Some clearly misrepresent him while others represent him poorly, yet every human life is valuable and carries inherent dignity and worth for being in God’s image.
God also said he would create humans “after our likeness”. That is, humans may represent God, but humans are not God. There are merely like him. This distinction was highlighted in the singular prohibition given to them in the garden of Eden: they could eat from any tree, save for one. This lone tree was to stand as a reminder to Adam and Eve and their offspring that there is one God, and they are not him.
In Genesis 2 the narrator has stepped back a bit and zooms in on the creation of humans. The Lord God forms the first man from dirt:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.Genesis 2:15 ESV
The world is perfect at this point. There are no thorns and thistles. There are no natural disasters. There are no diseases. The man is placed into this garden paradise and given a job to do. He is alone at this point. The job is given to him. That job is to work the garden and to keep it. Here we see work is a gift. It is not the result of the fall of man. In a perfect world God placed the man in a perfect garden to work. The word for “work” here has the basic sense of serving in the sense of tilling the ground. Think of that. In a perfect garden with no weeds and no damaging insects and with a perfectly fertile soil, Adam was to till the ground. For what? The garden was already full of trees!
Adam was to improve the garden. He was to cause it to expand. He was to make the world a better place. This is the intended outcome of work: we must strive to make the world a better place. Adam was also “to keep it”. He was to keep watch over, to protect the garden. Protect it from what, though? One obvious answer is to protect the garden from the serpent who is introduced in Genesis 3. The serpent poses a danger, but the serpent is not the danger we think—at least not yet. Adam has full authority over the creatures in the garden. If Adam were to order the serpent to leave, it must obey Adam, for Adam’s authority was still absolute, save for that lone tree.
The real danger to the garden, the danger that could bring death and ruin into God’s good and perfect world was Adam. Adam must serve the garden by working to improve it and expand it, and Adam was to protect that same garden by not allowing sin to invade it and bring corruption into it. Adam must protect the garden by resisting the serpent’s temptation.
Later in Genesis 2 God shows Adam that he is alone and being alone is not good, so God causes him to sleep and takes one of his ribs and forms a woman—Eve. God brings Eve to Adam to be his wife and says Eve is to be “a helper fit for him”. This means she was created to be his equal, unlike all other creatures on the earth. None of the animals were fit for Adam. The idea behind being “fit for him” is that she is his opposite, strong where he is weak, capable where he is lacking. Together they would accomplish the work God had given them to do. Together, man and woman, they would work the garden and keep it. This was their vocation, their calling in life.
There is no indication their work would be easy work; it was manual labor, after all. They did not have the problems that later gardens would offer, yet they would work. In their work they would be productive. Their effort would be fruitful, even if difficult. We see from this that work is good. It has inherent value. This value is found in what work does. If work makes the world better, it is good work.
We don’t live in the Genesis 2 world. We live in Genesis 3. Adam failed to protect God’s good world and so death has come and with death has come disease and destruction. Now, rather than tilling fertile soil, we must deal with thorns and thistles by the sweat of our brow. Work has become more difficult, for the earth itself resists us. Yet, work is inherently good, provided it helps human flourishing.
If your work—whatever that work is—makes the world better, your work is good work. There are those, er, jobs that do not make the world better and so can never be good. I’m thinking of the so-called “world’s oldest profession” here. If your job provides a valuable service or product, you are making your “garden” better, which means your vocation is good!
Whether you’re building widgets or selling them, whether you provide insurance to protect against the thorns and thistles that can destroy a home or car, whether you provide medical assistance or dig ditches that protect roadways, whether you teach Scripture or you teach math, whether you sell products online or you sell them in a retail store or out of your garage, whether you program computers or configure network infrastructure, whether you manage people or handle logistics, whether you change diapers or run a corporation, whether you earn a paycheck or not, whether you work a literal garden or a metaphorical garden, you are working as God’s image-bearer, which means you bear God’s authority over creation. You represent God in your work.
This means your work matters to God. God has placed each one of us in a garden. That is, God has given each one of us a sphere of influence. We are to work that garden and to keep that garden. We are to seek human flourishing in all we do. In some jobs this is more directly recognizable while in others we may toil away wondering if we’re having any positive impact on anything at all. The truth is that even if your job feels like a dead-end, if you recognize that you are created in the image of God, after his likeness, you will see that your job is important because you are important.
If you clean toilets, then do so as God’s representative! If you toil away at spreadsheets all day, then do so as God’s representative! If you repair things, then do so as God’s representative! If you run meetings all day, then do so as God’s representative! If you pull levers and turn knobs in a factory, then do so as God’s representative! Your job matters because God matters, and God has determined that you will represent him in whatever capacity you find yourself in.
If you only work for money, it probably isn’t the work that is wrong, but your motivation. We need a paycheck in order to live, but it is important that we do not live for a paycheck. The work we do must not have money as its primary purpose. In all things our motivation must be the glory of God, and God’s glory is revealed when we represent him well in the work he has given us to do. This is why preaching a sermon is no more holy than plowing a field.
It is very significant that in the garden, the very garden in which God himself would walk with Adam and Eve, the job that was given to Adam was not preaching a sermon, but plowing a field. Each day Adam’s high and holy calling ended with dirt under his fingernails.
Whatever your calling is, whether it’s caring for young children or working in a factory or sitting in an office somewhere or the busyness of retirement, you represent the Lord. There is no higher calling than that.