Work as Holy War: What’s Right?

By Greg Forster; part five of a series.

We have been looking at how spiritual formation in daily work and resistance to the world’s injustice are deeply and extensively interdependent. Last time we began unpacking two amazing sentences about how we should do our daily work, drawn from Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy in a section titled “The Glory of My Job.”

The first half of the first sentence started with what was wrong in our workplaces. The second half brings in what’s right:

A sensitive, nonofficious, nonintrusive, nonobsequious service to others should be our usual overt manner.

The core is of course “service.” Willard even referred to work as the spiritual discipline of Service, using that title to place it alongside his other disciplines like Silence and Solitude.

Although work is intrinsically good, one of the key things that distinguishes work from other activities is that work is always an instrumental good as well. It is done not primarily as an end in itself (a purely intrinsic good) but for the sake of some other outcome that we are working to produce (toward which it is instrumental).

Instrumentality is really just another word for service. As Lester DeKoster put it in his classic book Work: The Meaning of Your Life, work means making ourselves useful to others.

When we talk about “service” the focus is service to others, as we see in both Willard’s and DeKoster’s formulations. Of course we actually do much work to serve our own needs and desires – to serve ourselves – and nothing wrong with that. I’m not generally sinning if I make myself a sandwich. (Although I guess I could be, depending on things like what goes in the sandwich and what alternatives I chose the sandwich over!)

Work serves others both directly and indirectly. We provide a direct service to the customer, client or other immediate recipient of our work. And we indirectly serve our households (by bringing home a paycheck and in other ways) as well as bosses, coworkers and others who are affected. Ephesians 4:28 affirms both these forms of service, emphasizing that we must do something that provides direct service (“doing something useful”) but also identifying indirect service (the paycheck is “something to share with those in need”) as the purpose of the work. Indeed, the indirect service of the paycheck for the household is usually a stronger emphasis in Paul than the direct service.

Why is service to others at the center of attention? Because that is what makes work a primary force for justice and reclaiming the world from Satan. Working to serve yourself is fine but it doesn’t distinguish us from the world as such. Working to serve others does.

Of course, one may reply that worldly people also serve others with their work. That is God’s sustaining grace to the fallen world, by which he keeps the image and likeness of God from being erased by our sin. So we must take care to distinguish mere participation in service to others (which may have any motivation) with a really intentional service to others.

This is why the intentionality of instrumentality is so important. The question is, how high a priority do you give to serving others as opposed to serving yourself?

That comes out in the way we work. Hence Willard’s long string of adjectives: “sensitive, nonofficious, nonintrusive, nonobsequious.”

If we work to serve others for the sake of what we get out of it, we are advancing the kingdom of darkness – even if “what we get out of it” is not something crass and materialistic, like money or power, but something more cultured and refined, like self-expression, or even the advancing of a good cause that we like for worldly reasons.

If we work for the good of others for the sake of the good of others, we are reclaiming the world from Satan.

But this must be further qualified, because service to “others” simply by itself is not enough. Ultimately we must serve God with our work; he is the first and last and most important “other” to be served. This is so not only because God is God and he rightly demands that we have no others before him, but also because service to our human neighbors is unsustainable in the long run if it is not service to God first.

We speak loosely of “the common good” as a way of distinguishing disinterested service to the general good from service to the merely private good of one or another person or group. That language is fine for that purpose. But if we start asking hard questions, we see its limits. Is there really a common good among the diverse people of the world? If so, how do we know what it is, since we don’t have common agreement about what is the common good?

Ultimately, it is only in Christ that all things hold together, and true service to the common good ultimately means service to Christ – including service to others in and through serving Christ. This is why serving in a workplace alongside non-Christians raises all the problems we looked at in the last post.

I wouldn’t want to hinder spiritually marginal people from moving toward the kingdom by implying that service to neighbor is simply worthless on its own terms. As C.S. Lewis has wisely said, every road out of Jerusalem is also a road into Jerusalem. There are many who have discovered that service to Christ must come first after they initially strove only to serve their neighbors, and then followed that golden thread to its source.

But neither would I want to cut off the thread from its source. The gap between service to neighbor that is and is not service to God first is a difference of kind, not degree. One is lifted by the Spirit over the chasm between the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God, or else not. And every moment of every day on the job is another choice between kingdoms.

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