Several days ago I was listening to a radio show hosted by a Christian financial counselor. The topic was career issues that day, and while I listened a woman called in to say that she was unhappy with her job and wanted something different—a job through which she could help people. Her current work was in sales, she said. A discussion of the merits of various other careers followed, but I was wondering if perhaps she was missing the value of the work she was already in.
Many Christians today hold a low view of their work because they cannot see how it can be valuable in the sight of God. To some, their job seems irretrievably crass and worldly. Though it may produce a nice income, it is dissatisfying because they do not believe that God really wants them to be in that career.
Sales may be one of those. Some Christians who are in sales regard it as a "second-best"; career—something that allows one to earn an income for the practical necessities of paying bills, but not something that can be as pleasing to God as something like international missions. Yet there is nothing sordid or unimportant about sales. A job in sales, in essence, requires communication about the merits of a product to someone who might have a use for it. Performing that function is immensely helpful to people, especially when the usefulness of the product is not easily understood.
Sales, then, is partially educational. Here is how the product might meet needs you may have, the salesman says. I might discover, through a salesman's help, that an insufficiently fulfilled goal of mine can be attained with the help of the product he is pitching. The salesman is not "creating"; a need for his product but is showing me how his product can meet a goal I already have. If that product is used to accomplish worthwhile goals, there is nothing at all improper or inferior about a career built around selling that product. A car salesman may help me appreciate the way a particular vehicle can meet my need to travel to and from work, to carry my family on vacations, and stay safe in the event of an accident. Though it may seem mundane and far removed from more spiritual duties of the Christian, there is godliness in doing sales work well.
Many Christians, in sales and other careers, are discouraged because they cannot see the eternal significance of their work. Some adhere to the idea that the best careers are those in "full time Christian service,"; which is taken to mean work as a pastor, missionary, teacher in a Christian school, or some such work. Certainly the work of pastors and missionaries is important. However, even a job seemingly far removed from "Christian"; work, such as assembly-line work in an auto parts factory, can be done to the glory of God. Every Christian, whether plumber or pastor, is engaged in "full time Christian service."
Even the least of careers, as man ranks them, can be a work of service to God. In Colossians 3:23, 24, Paul, writing to those in the lowest ranks of work, says, "And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ."; Any legitimate work can be honorable. If it is the most profitable use of the abilities of the worker, and is done diligently and honestly, the work can be pleasing to God.
This can be a great consolation to the Christian who is working in a seemingly meaningless job. John Calvin wrote that the doctrine of the Christian calling can relieve discontent in the workplace. If we keep our calling in mind, he wrote:
...everyone in his respective sphere of life will show more patience, and will overcome the difficulties, cares, miseries and anxieties in his path, when he will be convinced that every individual has his task laid upon his shoulders by God.
If we follow our divine calling we shall receive this unique consolation that there is no work so mean and so sordid that does not look truly respectable and highly important in the sight of God! (Coram Deo!)
The Christian idea that work of all kinds can have eternal value and moral significance has helped to make Christian nations prosperous. (The sociologist Max Weber noted this relationship, particularly for Protestant nations, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.) Christians who desert the concept of the calling for the pursuit of "full time Christian service"; (narrowly defined) are drawing back from taking dominion over the earth in all things. At the same time, many Christians are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, that they are not serving God as completely as they might be if they entered some "secular"; occupation. How many pastors are in that office because they thought that other work would have been inherently less pleasing to God? How many missionaries? How many more are doing short-term missions, part-time Christian education, or some other "Christian service"; because they believe they must somehow make amends for the full-time career in some second-class occupation?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking time away from a career to serve the Lord in some other capacity. And this essay certainly should not be taken as a discouragement to a genuine calling to a ministry of preaching. This earth will always have a scarcity of godly preachers, and a gift in preaching should not be wasted. But we must not make the mistake of believing that "serving the Lord"; can only be done when preaching, teaching, or evangelism is part of the work. Some, like Christ’s disciples, were called out of other occupations to receive ministry training and preach the gospel (e.g., Mark 1:16-20; 6:12, 13). Others were expected to remain in their "secular"; occupations and do that work honestly and well (e.g., Luke 3:12-14). We should remember that a Christian can serve God in any legitimate calling (I Corinthians 7:24), and not succumb to a false guilt imposed by the expectations of men.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.