The Work Before The Work: Biblical Perspectives On Transitional And Non-Vocational Jobs

Given the economic downturn in much of the developed world and the high number of college degrees competing for the same jobs, an ever-increasing number of people find themselves in what can be called transitional work. Many have found jobs simply to “get by” and hope to return to a vocation that better suits their abilities and what they believe to be their personal calling from God. It is important to address those who find themselves in such a position as they often feel that their work has no meaning and that they themselves lack worth as they cannot use their gifts and talents. The value of transitional work is clearly evidenced in the Bible and such work has inherent value and dignity as well as an important existential impact on those involved both in their personal development and their spiritual growth.

MOSES

Moses serves as a prime example of those involved in transitional work during his time in the desert of Midian. Here, Moses had fled after murdering an Egyptian and thus his time in Midian began not after any type of calling but rather because of his sin. During his time in Midian, Moses took a wife, had sons, and worked as a shepherd for his father in law.[1] As a provider for his family’s welfare, Moses’ work as a shepherd carried immense value and importance. Despite being exiled from his home, his family, and former lifestyle Moses was forced to create a new life and find meaning in that instead. Indeed, though many interpreters consider this period to be a time of preparation for the Exodus, there is no indication that Moses would have recognized this. Instead he chose to settle down, make a life in the unfortunate circumstance that his sin had forced him to. He was not called by God to go to the desert — though God was certainly at work in this experience. Moses did not know if he would ever return to Egypt; it appears that he thought that scenario impossible as he put down roots and started over.

For one who has been forced by circumstances into a new job, a new lifestyle, a new place of living, Moses’ story encourages the reader to put down roots and to make the best of wherever one is placed. Moses’ story is especially important for those who find themselves in a job “just to get by” and provide for either themselves or a family. He had gone from a royal palace and life of luxury to one of barest living and survival. Moses spent forty years in the desert of Midian, accepting his time there with no view of returning to Egypt. When he did return to Egypt and led the people out, he was not rebuked for having spent years away, scraping a living out of the Midian desert. Instead, this time in the desert — and the following years of wandering the wilderness — are later used as a metaphor of the way God leads his people to unusual, remote places in order to rekindle their love for Him.

DAVID

Where Moses provides the example of acceptance and adjustment despite unfortunate circumstances, David gives a rather different approach for managing transitional work. Despite being anointed for kingship, David spent many years on the run from Saul, moving from place to place and working as a mercenary. David knew he was meant for a life outside the caves where he and his men often lived. He had been promised a kingdom, a chance to lead God’s people, but he lived in exile for many years, never knowing when God’s promise would be fulfilled. Instead he took work as it came (fighting for other nations and sometimes against them on Israel’s behalf) and chose to trust God that this time was temporary and fleeting. Many believers live with the awareness that their current lives, jobs and situations are not where God has called them to be. Whether it’s a missionary working as a barista while raising support, a student doing data entry to put themselves through a counseling program, or a pastor holding down three jobs while he interviews with churches; many people live under a “promise” or calling from God that has not yet been fulfilled. David’s willingness to take other work while waiting on God speaks directly to those situations where one languishes in a job that they have no real desire to maintain.

Not only his willingness to submit and work but David’s honesty with God also provides important comfort for believers in similar situations. “Listen to my cry,” David lamented, “I pour out my complaint!”[2] Many who are in transitional work know that they will not always be in their current jobs and occupations. They may be encouraged by David’s prayers and longing for the time when their waiting is complete. The psalms provide great inspiration for honest prayer time with the Father and the struggle of waiting under a promised future that seems unlikely to come.

Similarly, David’s waiting on God evidences not only hopeful longing but incredible patience. The greatest obstacle in David’s path to becoming king was King Saul who hunted him for years knowing that David’s anointing would lead to his demise. Twice Saul was within David’s grasp, once in a cave and once in an unprotected camp.[3] David could have killed Saul and ended his time as a mercenary on the run. Instead he rebuked those who encouraged him to take matters into his own hands saying “the Lord forbid that I should put out my hand against the Lord’s anointed.”[4] Again, one notices that David trusted God to fulfill the promises of his calling to kingship on His time and refused to take action. Despite longing for change in occupation and work, believers must always rely on God to make the necessary changes rather than forcing it to happen themselves. Relying on God may be an exhausting and discouraging process and with David one may lament “how long?” However it is still important to wait on God and acknowledge His sovereignty over our own desires and hopes. His ways are not our ways but as David knew, His timing would be perfect and right.

JESUS

Finally, one must turn to Jesus Christ as the ultimate example for the value and meaning of work in transition. Though his work as a carpenter is not discussed frequently in Scripture, Jesus did not start work as a wandering Rabbi until around the age of thirty, and he only served in this role for about three years. The rest of Jesus’ working life was spent working with his hands, creating objects for homes and businesses as a carpenter. This work, though not discussed throughout the Gospels, Acts or Epistles, is never denigrated or looked down upon as a waste of Jesus’ adulthood. Instead, his time in carpentry is seen as a part of life, a part of who he was and a phase that God kept him in for many years until the time was right for his preaching ministry to begin.[6]

Jesus, like Paul and David, knew that his calling was not to the work of carpentry, but he performed this work willingly. Unlike David there is little evidence of the languishing questions — how long would he be left to the seemingly menial task of carving out tables, chairs and other necessary implements? Instead, Jesus provides an even more patient and trusting example than that of David. His work, unlike Paul’s, was not necessary for sustenance during his preaching ministry as Jesus lived on the gifts of women like Joanna and Susanna.[7] He lived in such close reliance on the Father that he knew he could be patient and trust that at the right time he would move on to the real reason he had come to earth. His example serves to encourage those in work that they know is not their “vocation” or “calling.” Like David it pushes believers to trust God and His perfect timing even when the transitional, hopefully temporary, occupation may drag on for years.

Despite Jesus’ awareness that his occupation would someday change, there is no denying the importance and dignity of the work that Jesus performed while a carpenter. Indeed, it elevates the meaning and value of such work. If there had been no value in the work of a carpenter, it is unlikely that Jesus (and the Father) would have consented to the occupation — spending anywhere between thirteen and twenty years in it! Instead, the story of the God-man working a trade reminds the reader that working is in the very nature of humanity made in the image of God — even when that work is not what one may feel “called” to do.

VALUE OF WORK: COMMON GOOD

One of the great values of all work that is not immoral is the contribution to the common good of humanity. Even work that is seemingly dehumanizing — like standing in the assembly line — provides for the common good of all humanity.[8] Sometimes, in transitional work that does not incorporate one’s gifts or talents, this is what believers must hold on to: perhaps the work itself is not the value but that the work contributes to the common good.[9] This can be seen in the stories of those lives already examined: Moses as a shepherd providing for his family and network, David on the run providing for those men who remained loyal, and finally Jesus who provided various objects and structures for those in his community. Whatever work one is put to, it is always contributing to the common good by providing a product, resource, or service. It can be a transforming experience for a believer to realize that even their most mundane daily work “contributes something to the care of the earth” and those who live on it.[10]

VALUE OF WORK: GLORIFYING GOD

Another avenue for discovering value in work is to recognize that all work, being done by one who is part of the imago dei, is glorifying to God. There is a tendency to divide work into categories of sacred and secular and to compartmentalize one’s faith to specific times and acts. But the Bible teaches that Christians are called to serve God in everything and at all times, “even though our differing vocations display such service in a variety of forms.”[16]  There is no divide between work that honours God and work that does not. Creating a product, whether an entire bookcase as a carpenter or labeling cans of soup as part of a mass production factory, is glorifying to God if an individual works honestly and with a mind to serve others. No matter where a Christian is placed and no matter what their position looks like, they are called to be transformative and take up their role as the imago dei. Whether one “answers his call from God in business, in politics, in education, at the assembly-line…[one] cannot work merely for profit…for the sake of achieving leisure but for serving God and neighbour.”[17] No matter how mundane its appearance or how far outside the realm of one’s gifting, talents, and hopes, all work done “unto the Lord” is glorifying to Him because it reflects what He has been doing since the beginning of time. The Christian God is a God who works and who thus “destined men for work” as a part of reflecting His image and creative impulse.[18]

EXISTENTIAL IMPACT: DEVELOPMENT

There are numerous ways in which transitional work can impact a person’s development. When one is forced to take a job that is not in one’s line of previous work or hoped for vocation, one may be stretched while learning new skills and abilities for this position. Sometimes this leads to a new awareness of a different calling than the one previously imagined or a broader vision of that calling. For instance, Stanley Baldwin tells the story of one man who discovered that, while he had dreamed of being a counselor he really just wanted to work with people. Taking a job as a manager, he discovered that his training as a counselor allowed him to be a better manager and better serve those under him.[19] Working as a shift manager in a small independent coffee shop, one might grow to realize his calling of owning a business — even if that business turns out to be construction. Or working alongside teenagers in a local daycare might cause one to develop a heart for teens and a desire to become a counselor rather than a teacher. Sometimes being in an unexpected place allows God to unfold His plan for our lives in unforeseen ways. The work He guides one to in a period of transition may later make sense as part of the grand narrative in one’s life rather than a haphazard set of jobs and seasons in life.[20] This may occur early on in one’s career or much later after years have been spent in an industry. Either way, if one is open to being stretched by the work and the guiding of the Holy Spirit, their transitional work may grow into a renewed vision of their calling and vocation.

EXISTENTIAL IMPACT: SPIRITUAL

Perhaps even more pervasive than the developmental impact is the spiritual impact of transitional work. The difficult journey to trust God and learn dependence on Him is necessary in times of transition where one may struggle to see any plan of God’s and may feel utterly abandoned. It is important, however, to cultivate dependence on God and trust in Him even though one may never see his purposes.[23] In one’s daily work in a transitional job, amid confusion and personal crisis, through dead-ends, failed interviews and little opportunity to pursue one’s calling, individuals are forced to hand over their plans to God and lament not only “how long?” but also acquiesce “not my will but yours.”[24] This is the slow journey of all believers — to trust God and to believe His promises. It is especially difficult, but necessary in moments of transition where the road ahead is unclear or even invisible. In this instance, it is important to remember the general call that God extends to all believers: not to be successful in the eyes of the world, but to be faithful to Him despite hardships and confusion.[25]

EXISTENTIAL IMPACT: ESCHATOLOGICAL

Finally, much of Western Christianity struggles with a sort of dualism regarding the end of times. Many hold the belief that the earth will be wiped away and replaced by a more ethereal existence in this place called “heaven.” This is not the picture offered by Scripture. Instead, the Bible teaches the world will eventually be renewed and restored to an even better version of the early Garden. Transitional work, being displaced, frustrated by not being able to pursue one’s calling — these things provide a solid basis for longing that the creation is renewed.[32] When work seems futile, when the world refuses to provide meaning and purpose, one must look ahead to the coming eschaton.[33] While there is no way of knowing what will last into the future creation, one may acknowledge that their work will be caught up into the new city as Christ reconciles all things to Himself and puts the world to rights.[34] This longing for the coming eschaton creates a renewed sense of purpose today but always keeps believers in check. For the displacement one experiences in transitional work which does not fit the way God designed that person never fully disappears, even if one does find fulfilling work. The longing felt so tangibly when in an ill-fitted occupation is the evidence of the groaning within human souls and all creation as they await the eschatological culmination.[35]

CONCLUSION

Given the economic state of the United States and other developed countries, transitional work that does not fit one’s calling or vocation is at an all-time high. It is necessary for Christians to address this feeling of displacement that plagues much of the work force — especially among the younger generation. Transitional work has immense value and dignity simply by its connection to the imago dei; it also has widespread existential impact on those engaged in it as they develop and grow spiritually. While there are many negative aspects of transitional work, this paper has sought to focus on the encouraging and helpful characteristics and opportunities in work. Given how much time work takes in a person’s life, it is important that the church encourage all workers to think theologically about their work, to realize its contribution to the common good and to their relationship with God. Humanity works as part of its representation of the Triune God who works in relationship and creative enterprise. Indeed, the culmination of human work can be seen in the most sacred event of all Christianity: in a sanctuary built by human hands, believers take, from a table crafted by human ingenuity, a bit of bread that was once only a number of ingredients, dip it in wine from grapes that were picked and fermented, and all these results of human labor are transformed to the body of Christ and his blood to remember the sacrifice and resurrection which began the Kingdom and the new creation.


[1] Exodus 2, ESV

[2] Psalm 142 ESV

[3] 1 Samuel 24, 26 ESV

[4] 1 Samuel 26.11 ESV

[5] Acts 16.10 ESV

[6] Galatians 4.4 ESV

[7] Luke 8.3 ESV

[8] Klaus Bockmuehl, “Recovering Vocation Today,” in Heart and Mind and Strength, ed. Donald M. Lewis, vol.1 (Langley: Credo Publishing, 1990), 98.

[9] Ian Breward, “William Perkins,” Acton Institute, http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-10-number-3/william-perkins (accessed January 22, 2013).

[10] Larry Peabody, Secular Work is Full Time Service, (Fort Washington: Christian LIterature Crusade Inc, 1974), 70.

[11] Otto Piper, “Meaning of Work,” Theology Today, 15 (1957): 176.

[12] Loren WIlkinson, “Art as Creation or Art as Work?,” in Heart Mind and Strength, ed. Donald M. Lewis, vol. 1 (Langley: Credo Publishing, 1990), 299.

[13] Finley Eversol, “The Meaning of Work in Our Time,” The Christian Century, 78 (1961): 1025.

[14] Piper, Meaning of Work, 184.

[15] Peter Leithart, “Making and Mis-making: Poeisis in Exodus 25-40,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 2 (2001): 309.

[16] Peabody, Secular Work, 18.

[17] George Wolfgang Forell, “Work and the Christian Calling,” Lutheran Quarterly, 8 (1956): 117.

[18] Piper, Meaning of Work, 174.

[19] Stanley C. Baldwin, Take This Job and Love It (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988),140.

[20] Judith Allen Shelly, Not Just a Job (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 41.

[21] Amy Sherman, Kingdom Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 99.

[22] Shelly, Not Just a Job, 115.

[23] Peabody, Secular Work, 23.

[24] Luke 22.42 NASB

[25] John D. Beckett, Mastering Monday (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 178.

[26] William E. Diehl, Monday Connection (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 35.

[27] Scot McKnight, Community Called Atonement (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2007), 126.

[28] Matthew 5.45 ESV

[29] Andy Crouch, Culture Making (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 97.

[30] Philippians 4.12 NIV

[31] Baldwin, Take This Job, 40.

[32] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) 95.

[33] Darrell Cosden, A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2004), 151-52.

[34] Colossians 1.20, ESV

[35] Romans 8.22-23, ESV

Sara once hoped to move to Central Asia and create world peace via her kitchen. Instead, she ended up in grad school. When not sorting through potential thesis topics for her MATh at Denver Seminary, Sara can usually be found working on her chaco tan in the mountains or drinking coffee like a snob in the city.

3 Comments

  • Reply August 23, 2013

    Dustin Risner

    Great work and write up friend. A very relevant piece for, what I would guess, a large portion of 20’s-30’s.

    • Reply August 23, 2013

      Sara Bibb

      Thanks Dustin. It has become especially relevant in my own life as Ethan has started thinking about going back to school and re-entering the world of transitional work…he recently asked if they were hiring at Jake’s (local brew-pub) which forced me to consider again what it means for work to have meaning. Even if your work is pouring beers with just the right amount of head.

      [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  • Reply September 9, 2013

    Kimberly Beasley

    This is incredible, well written, researched and timely. It is what I have been needing to hear for the last 5 years. When I have struggled with waiting, patience and understanding that God’s plan is greater than mine. Such a great reminder to focus on Him no matter what. Many times it is easy to trudge through hoping for something more, however, it is extremely difficult to do so AND believe that God has a purpose for this trudging. I think our generation struggles with this concept because we see so many young people making a huge impact on the world – good or bad and we think that it is easy.

    I think the most important piece you brought up is understanding that our transitional work as Christians means something different than for a non-Christian. We are representing God and His work in our lives. Even in the church that is a difficult point to uphold. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve received a skeptical look from a Christian when I tell them “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, I’m waiting to see what God has in mind”. Honestly, I expect the judgement from the non-Christians, but it is a shock every time from the Christian community. So for those of you not living this struggle – please reserve your judgement until you see the finished work that God is putting together.

    Thank you Sara, for such a well written, thought provoking piece.

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