What do you want to do when you grow up?

This is a question every child is asked. Even into college, I only had a vague idea. For many years, my most honest, but rarely declared, answer was that I wanted to win a Nobel prize. (That was after I realized that I would not, ever, qualify for the Olympics.) I knew “Nobel prize winner” wasn’t exactly a profession, but even as a nine-year-old, I felt stirred to do something big with my life. I wanted to change the world—and I wanted people to notice. But I didn’t know any more of the details.

We can smile at youthful naivety, but a sober look at our own hearts still reveals a complicated relationship with work. Sometimes it feels like drudgery: pulling weeds, enduring seat-numbing meetings, or refolding the basket of laundry the toddler just dumped. We groan: “When will it stop?” Other times, our work sparks a fire of delight in our souls: cooking a beautiful meal, presenting an original solution to a complicated problem, or using pivot tables to construct an elegant and efficient spreadsheet. Maybe we’ve grown to relax our goal of changing the world (see Nobel Prize, above) and we’re simply thrilled to be influencing our corner of it. We marvel: “What a privilege that this work is a part of my life!”

A brief history

Before sin came into the world, God ordained work as an opportunity for humans to mirror God’s own work of creation (see Gen. 1:27-28). Work is beautiful and good because it offers us an opportunity to use the gifts God has given us to help participate in the flourishing of God’s world. Adam and Eve received instructions to fill, subdue, and rule; this direction only came to humans, being made in God’s image. Additionally, God took pleasure in his work (see Genesis 1) and we do, too. We create, build, and cultivate, and look back at our efforts and say, “This is good!”

Unfortunately, because of the Fall of man, our efforts are almost constantly thwarted. We must acknowledge that our work will be, in turns, delightful and disappointing, fun and frustrating. Nevertheless, we should aim to pursue “good work,” or work that pleases God. Dan Doriani writes, “Work pleases God if it promotes the common good. The common good includes care for God’s creation, but we especially care for mankind. The first goal is to love our neighbor, which we do when we supply food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and whatever edifies others.”1  Paul reminds believers that when we use the gifts God has given us, we work for his glory: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23–24).

And still, sin persists

The tricky thing is that when we discover that we are doing good work, it can creep into our sense of identity, replacing our primary identity in Christ. Even while pursuing work that aids in human flourishing, that effort can become an end in itself, rather than a means to glorify God. Culture makes it all too easy to slide in that direction, encouraging us to let our work become a pathway to our own glory. It is socially acceptable to put in excessive hours on “good work,” while excusing ourselves from caring for those around us—or even ourselves. David Zahl posits, “Constant grinding makes a perfect diversion from conscience or loneliness or grief or vulnerability—a way of imposing order on the chaos of relating to another person or oneself.”2

Like every idol, though, the more we serve it, the more it expects of us. Therefore, the more we turn work into an instrument for our own glory, the more the effects of the Fall threaten to undermine the identity we have constructed. Inevitably, our work succumbs to the brokenness in us and around us. When work is our identity, we need to wrest back control at any cost to avoid the collapse.

God redeems it again

On the other hand, if we set aside our own glory, sin’s frustrating effects on our work need not be completely devastating. If our first and highest calling is to follow Christ, our current calling, role, or vocation will be an instrument God uses to make us more like Christ and to bless others in the process. We learn to trust God to use our work despite (and through) the failures and frustrations, and we learn to turn to God in our weakness or in lament. In turn, God uses our work for his glory by making us holy.

Work is a gift from God. And yet, like all things in this quadrant of cosmic time (awaiting Christ’s return), it is cursed by the Fall. We can commandeer this gift and turn it into an instrument for our own glory. That could work for a while, but soon it will become master over us. Further compounding this trouble is the reality that even if we want to use our work for God’s glory and human flourishing, our ego (and sin) will still get in the way.

The only one whose work was untainted by sin is Jesus. Philippians 2 makes it clear that it is both perfect and fully effectual: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:5–9). Christ’s work is as far beyond us as is God’s work of speaking the universe into existence, yet God invites Adam and Eve to imitate him in caring for creation, and Paul asks us to imitate Jesus. We will fail in these roles, but we are invited to participate.

Work transformed

Therefore, as we work, we repent of our tendency to make work about ourselves. I’m not aiming for a Nobel Prize anymore, but there are still plenty of times that I catch myself craving recognition more than I am simply satisfied to do the work that God has asked of me.  When I notice this, my first inclination is to wrinkle my nose at the yuckiness in my heart, but then it is a joy to turn to our heavenly Father who always knows our motivations and lovingly forgives.

In our work, we glory in the privilege to participate in human flourishing. How often do you take time to notice the parts of your work (unpaid or paid) that bring you joy? It’s easy to focus on the challenges of work; after all, they abound! But what it looks like to cultivate a habit of thankfulness for your work? Perhaps it could be as simple as sharing a highlight with your family or writing down one thing you are thankful for in your work. As you write, ask God to help you give thanks for this aspect of being created in his image.

Through our work (and repentance) we allow God to transform our lives to be more like Christ. God uses all parts of our lives to sanctify us, even sweeping crumbs and fixing the printer jam. (And especially when the responsible party has fled the scene!) We learn how to serve through our bodies, through our work. Sometimes, like Christ, we literally wash another’s feet. More often, we find ourselves seeking God when we fail, enjoying serving others with our gifts, repenting of a bad attitude, and repeating the process the next day.

  1. Doriani, Daniel. Work That Makes a Difference. P&R Publishing. Phillipsburg, New Jersey. 2021
  2. Zahl, David. Seculosity: how career, parenting, technology, food, politics, and romance became our new religion and what to do about it. Fortress Press. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 2019

About the Author:

Abby Karsten

Abby is the wife of Dave, mother of Estelle (8) and Jonah (5). She is the Women’s Ministry Director at the Kirk of the Hills church in St. Louis. She is honored to help women deepen their love for God and knowledge of his character, while facilitating community in the church. She loves to be outside, organize spontaneous dance parties with the kids, and find creative ways to use the everlasting sourdough starter.