The following blog is the third in a six-part series on worldview and work taken from Darrow Miller’s new book LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day.
Social critic Os Guinness describes the shift away from a biblical worldview in Western societies as a move from a “calling economy” to a “commercial economy.”
Since medieval times, however, there has been a broader purpose to education: to enrich and form the inner person in terms of both faith and the ability to think rationally and comprehensively about life and its many elements—to grow in wisdom as well as stature. The very first universities, in Europe, were founded as church schools, in fact, with an intentional, clearly Christian perspective on the gathering of knowledge and study. In earlier America, schools were founded not only to teach the three Rs but also to shape better citizens of God’s kingdom. Curricula had frequent reference to biblical information and forthright moral instruction. This extended to higher education as the first American universities were founded by the churches, just as their European predecessors had been. They were places of training for new clergy as well as preparation of young men for other pursuits, most of the same subjects and training of the mind being seen as a good grounding for any worthy direction in life.
By the twentieth century, however, a shift began taking place in our society’s understanding of life purpose and the significance of work. Whether or not individuals acknowledged it consciously, the purpose of life was reduced to working so that one could be productive, ensuring that there would be wealth in society for consumption.
The marketplace became critical for determining self-worth. People who could make a lot of money were considered more valuable than those who couldn’t. So the reason one went to school, even to college or university, was not to learn and grow as a person but to be able to have a job when one graduated. When our life purpose is stunted in this way and when our worth is based on how much money we make, on how big our paychecks are, we become bankrupt in the ways that truly matter. In this paradigm, work becomes a god, an idol; humankind’s good impulse to diligent work is distorted when work is separated from the Creator and from the kingdom of God. Work becomes an escape from the pressures of a broken or meaningless life. People become addicted to work as a means to escape hollow, unexamined, purposeless lives and societies that are morally, intellectually, and spiritually impoverished. But the tragic element of our workaholic society is that because work is separated from God, it becomes equally meaningless. What is promised to give us fulfillment ends up adding to the despair.
As Western Christians we experience the despair and impoverishment of the new commercial economy to varying degrees, depending on how acclimated we are to the surrounding culture. Some of us may be living just like our neighbors to an extent that we don’t realize, judging others and ourselves by the affluence of our lifestyles and unconsciously placing undue value on what money can buy. We may place great pressure on ourselves to measure up to others with the prestige of our career or the way we can build a desirable lifestyle or provide amply for our families. We may find ourselves continually dissatisfied, always thinking life will be better—indeed that life will finally start—if only we could buy our own home, add the extra room onto the house, move to a better neighborhood, pay off the mortgage, take that dream vacation, or retire early. In short, without realizing it we may be basing our goals, priorities, and plans on a false premise, unmindful of the irreconcilable culture clash between the worldview of Scripture and the worldview of our society.
Alternatively, we may experience a great deal of dissonance, recognizing these cultural tendencies in ourselves and feeling dismayed at the gap between what we believe to be true and how we actually live at this foundational level. We struggle to truly hear Jesus saying to us, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matt. 6:25). We have a good idea of where we ought to be and want to be and are distressed to see the extent to which we are not just in the world but of it. About our own material necessities, Jesus said, “The pagans run after all these things” (Matt. 6:32), and sometimes we find ourselves not much different. In a culture where material expectations run high, we, too, can find our families struggling, our connection to our communities squeezed out, our identities in Christ unsure, our very selves blown here and there. We, too, can find ourselves despairing at the gulf between how we think life is supposed to be and the meaninglessness we sometimes experience, whether deeply or fleetingly, over the repeating mechanics of sustaining the status quo, all the while knowing that so many around us are suffering—that we and the world need something radically different.
It’s not just Christians experiencing this dissonance. Many others we know in our communities, universities, workplaces, and children’s schools realize that life is more than consumption. They are seeking to live purposeful, intentional lives, according to a set of deeper values. Many are committed to living simply, in a head-on rejection of the materialism of the culture. Many are going green. Many are working to build a healthier community in their own city or across the world. They are volunteers. They are activists. They are concerned. They are zealous. While they do not know that the kingdom of God is what will make sense of their desire and address the brokenness radiating through every aspect of human life, they feel the need acutely.
So many of us experience this dissonance because the need—the lack—is real. God created us for a very different kind of life. Life as we experience it, and all we know about ourselves, simply does not fit with the secular materialistic paradigm. As Christians in the midst of a materialistic culture, we share with many seekers a rampant hunger for the countercultural invitation of the Maker of the universe, who knows how and why he created us. “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:1–3).
We invite you to explore our new website, www.MondayChurch.org where you can learn more about Darrow’s new book, LifeWork: A Biblical Theology of Vocation, as well as discover a host of resources to help you connect your work with the Biblical worldview.