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A Christian vision for the meaning of life and of work

Sunday, 4 June 2017  | Ian Hore-Lacy

One of the implications of Jesus inaugurating His kingdom is our role in serving Him towards its consummation. We look forward to God restoring His groaning and blemished creation, and, in our endeavours to serve Him and pursue His purposes, we know that our labour is not wasted. So, understanding that in His creation He has provided abundantly for every kind of human need, and observing that two-thirds of the world's population lacks all or most of the basic necessities of life, there is an immense challenge that needs to absorb our energies. Where someone sees a need not being met, and invests his or her time, resources and energy into doing something about it, either directly or indirectly (perhaps as a banker or supplier), then this is an expression of God-like creativity and provision.

Supplying food, fibres, building materials, minerals and energy and infrastructure at both primary and manufacturing levels all require application of human creativity (in God's image) and sometimes huge amounts of capital. This presupposes efficient banking systems and political contexts of property rights and contract law, without which no dreams can be turned into reality on any scale. In many parts of the world, endemic corruption frustrates efforts to develop resources and to apply them affordably to the needs of people. Christians potentially have major roles, both in the economic system itself with its legal infrastructure that we take for granted here, and in shaping its ethics, i.e., contributing to its freedom from corruption and rip-offs. This is all part of seeing work in the eternal context of God’s kingdom moving towards him restoring His creation.

Even in churches with 'workplace ministry' on their agendas, most of this is right off the radar. Bankers, accountants, engineers, metallurgists, miners, oil industry executives and manufacturing managers are all left without any real sense of how their daily endeavours and the application of sometimes considerable skills and experience are contributing to God's purposes in the overall economy. Often the church is only able to affirm the 'visible' roles of those with whom the staff come into personal contact - teachers, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, some public servants, operators of urban infrastructure and of course those in church-related ministries. Mines, steelmills, LNG terminals, power plants, merchant shipping, etc. might as well be on another planet (of course they are just as remote from the consciousness of most people who depend on them). Likewise, the entrepreneurs and discerning investors who bring those enterprises into being economically are largely invisible to most. Yet they all need to be part of the church's vision of a restored creation where all the needs of all people on Earth are fully met, and they need to feature in a church's witness that looks beyond the world's goals of productivity and material prosperity to an economy based on a notion of servant stewardship.

Work is a major aspect of a Christian's role in the world. Certainly there is a practical role in providing for our material needs, but our involvement should be much more than this. We should aim to understand how to participate in the economic enterprise of our communities and societies, creating wealth in the broadest sense of that term, and serving others even as a (seemingly) relatively insignificant cog in larger enterprise. This is a true missional calling, and one that showcases the character of God's kingdom in the context of the grand biblical narrative.

Such wealth creation, although it has not been a central aspect of the church’s mission in the world, nevertheless is in fact part of it and plays an important role in ensuring that life on Earth is sustainable, and even enjoyable. It is therefore fundamental in the perspective of God's kingdom purposes. Since the church’s mission must occur in the world, the church has a clear interest and even mandate in respect to the world’s basic affairs, central among which is wealth creation - broadly understood. It is important for Christians to be involved and setting the tone of this in all aspects of public life and professions. In his 2009 New Year message on the importance of economic development in alleviating poverty and creating peace, Pope Benedict affirmed that ‘The creation of wealth is an inescapable moral duty’. Paul is careful to make clear that being a heavenly-minded Christian is no excuse to be idle and unproductive (2 Thess 3:6-15). And, in the words of the Lausanne Movement's 2011 Cape Town Commitment:

We cannot claim to love God while abusing what belongs to Christ by right of creation, redemption and inheritance. We care for the Earth and responsibly use its abundant resources, not according to the rationale of the secular world, but for the Lord’s sake’. ‘We support Christians whose particular missional calling is to environmental advocacy and action, as well as those committed to godly fulfilment of the mandate to provide for human welfare and needs by exercising responsible dominion and stewardship. The Bible declares God’s redemptive purpose for creation itself. Integral mission means discerning, proclaiming, and living out, the biblical truth that the gospel is God’s good news, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for individual persons, and for society, and for creation. All three are broken and suffering because of sin; all three are included in the redeeming love and mission of God; all three must be part of the comprehensive mission of God’s people. (I, 7)

All human beings are to be stewards of the rich abundance of God’s good creation. We are authorized to exercise godly dominion in using it for the sake of human welfare and needs, for example in farming, fishing, mining, energy generation, engineering, construction, trade, medicine. As we do so, we are also commanded to care for the Earth and all its creatures, because the Earth belongs to God, not to us. We do this for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the creator, owner, sustainer, redeemer and heir of all creation. (IIB)[1]

Furthermore we should personally develop an understanding of how our work fits in to God's kingdom and purposes, attaining its full significance in the restored creation and realised kingdom. Having developed that understanding, it is good to be able to articulate it on a biblical basis, as one aspect of developing a Christian mind:

“Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord… your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). When the final consummation comes, the work you have done – in Bible study or biochemistry, preaching or pure mathematics, digging ditches or composing symphonies – will stand, will last. (N.T.Wright, The Challenge of Jesus).

One important perspective on work is Christian stewardship of God's creation, and how this is undertaken. God has provided very liberally for us, so this stewardship needs to involve attention to both the human economy and the natural ecology. Science and technology can bring these aspects together and provide the tools for the job. On this point, Christians above all should resist the extreme green agenda, which puts a majority of seven billion people in second place to some narrow, idealised concept of ‘the environment’. It would seem that some of today's Christian environmentalism is essentially pagan, effectively commending the elevation of God's creation to something more like God himself.

Care for creation is important but does not preclude careful and respectful use of it in deploying its resources to ‘make poverty history’. Christians should understand that they can virtuously apply their lives to meeting people's needs by focusing on the utilitarian aspects of creation - notably its productive potential including minerals and energy - without losing sight of the need for care and respect for creation. In other words, this care and respect must not divert us from using the resources of creation to benefit people, especially those who are in poverty or economic disadvantage and effectively deprived of access to God's bounty unless, through trade or aid, we make resources available. This is a salient question in Australia in 2017 as debate rages on coal exports to India, particularly from a large new Queensland mine. India is desperate to increase electricity generation as a prime means of raising its standard of living. To do so, it needs to import coal. At the same time, the world is rightly seeking ways to use less coal and find alternatives that don't create about a kilogram of CO2 for every kWh. However, there is no scenario where coal use is going to diminish greatly any time soon. Australia reneging on its moral obligation to share its resources with less well-endowed countries will not change India’s coal use at all. We would simply shoot ourselves in the foot economically and display a callousness at odds with God’s generous endowment.

This perspective of addressing people’s needs must go alongside understanding human work as part of God's transforming purposes in the world.

Ian Hore-Lacy is a founding Zadok board member (1978-98), author of Responsible Dominion - a Christian approach to sustainable development, and now Senior Research Analyst with World Nuclear Association. He is co-author of Down to Earth Discipleship, a pastoral ‘book’ on the web.

[1] Lausanne Movement 2011: The Cape Town Commitment - A confession of faith and call to commitment, part I Confession of Faith, 7 Love for God's World; part II, Call to Action, IIB Building the peace of Christ.

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