Yesterday we talked about living in hope when life seems aimless, specifically when a job is hard to get excited about. We are going to talk about work more today, because jobs for many are scarce, and people take what they can get. A longtime listener to the podcast, Joshua in Vancouver, asks: “Pastor John, can a believer ever be called to a lifelong career for which they do not enjoy?” What would you say to Joshua?
It is not an easy question to answer the way it is formulated. The main reason is that there is another question which I think needs to be answered first; namely, Would God ever call a person to a lifelong vocation in which he does not enable the person to have joy? You see the difference? Would he call you to a work you can’t enjoy? That is one question. Is there a work he calls you to that he won’t enable you to enjoy?
“God intends to give his people joy and thankfulness and a sense of usefulness whatever he calls them to.”
The way the question is posed seems to assume that some tasks that God might call a person to simply cannot be enjoyed. God doesn’t have the capacity or the will to give the person he just called into that the joy to do it. And my question is: Is that true? Is there anything in the Bible that would incline us to believe that, if God, the good, loving, Christ-sending God, calls us to something, he would give us the grace to find it rewarding and to find joy in it? Is that not the way the Bible reads?
So here is the way I go about answering it: Joshua is right to assume that God cares about whether we do what we do with joy. Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” That is clear. God does not like begrudging, joyless service. And in one sense, all of our lives, including our vocations, are service to God. Paul says in Romans 12:8, let “the one who does acts of mercy [do so] with cheerfulness.”
Then he says in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “God loves a cheerful giver.” And all of our works should be giving. All of our works should be merciful. And he says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 that we should give thanks in every circumstance. And he ups the ante in Ephesians 5:20, “[Give thanks] for everything.” Amazing. And then Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.” And Ecclesiastes 3:22, “There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work.”
So for all those reasons I would say that Joshua is on the right track here for believing that God wants us to find joy in the work of our hands in our vocational labors. But I think the implication in the Bible is not mainly that we should refuse to work until we find the work that we think we can enjoy, but that we should take the work that we can for the good of the family, the good of the community, the glory of God, and then pray our way into the enjoyment of it and shape it in whatever way we can so that it becomes more fruitful and more enjoyable.
I say that because, for example, in the early church, many slaves were converted to Christianity in the first century in the Roman Empire. And it is clear from the way 1 Peter 2:18–25 talks about these slaves is that for them it was often terrible. The were mistreated, and Peter was helping them to know what to do about that. It was not an enjoyable vocation by and large.
“Whatever work we have, the greatest joy about the job is that we get to be there with God.”
To be sure, in 1 Corinthians 7:21 Paul says that if a slave can obtain his freedom he should do so, which shows that Paul did not consider it ideal that we labor in a role that is miserable. Nevertheless, the main counsel that Paul and Peter gave to slaves and to the rest of us in 1 Corinthians 7:24 is this: “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, let him there remain with God.” And the key words are “with God.” In other words, whatever work we have, the greatest joy about the job is that we get to be there with God. He has come to us. He is with us every day. Whatever we are doing, he is there. He will help us. He will turn it for our good.
One last observation: Those of us in the prosperous West should keep in mind that one of the most surprising features of our culture which visitors from the two-thirds world are amazed at when they come is the stunning number of choices we have — choices in hundreds of kinds of cereals and fruits and vegetables and cars and houses and theaters and every manner of appliance and device. And we tend to take all these choices for granted. Most places in the world, people do not have one hundred possibilities in front of them for how to make a living. They may have one or two or three options given their village and the family they are in and the society they are in and, therefore, the question that was asked represents a very western question.
And so I return to my original reconstruction of the question, which I think applies globally: Would God ever call a person to a lifelong work in which he does not enable the person to have joy? And I think the answer to that is this: God intends to give his people joy and thankfulness and a sense of usefulness whatever he calls them to. Paul knew how to be content in every circumstance (Philippians 4:11). This is the essence of the Christian life: finding contentment in Christ and turning every circumstance and all of our work into living worship.
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