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Spiritual Disciplines and Working

Thursday, 4 July 2019  | Kara Martin

My first encounter with Robert Banks was spiritually forming

In the late 1990s I was a mother of young children who had the opportunity of sitting in a class led by Robert Banks and Simon Holt about the theology of everyday life. It was one of the first units presented by a fledgling organisation, the Macquarie Christian Studies Institute (MCSI), led by Robert and integrated with a public university, Macquarie University.

I clearly remember the moment when Robert asked the question: ‘When God looks down from heaven, does he divide everything you do into sacred and secular?’ I had never thought of my life in that integrated way. Instead of dividing my life into sections where ‘God activities’ was a category, I now saw that the challenge was to place God at the centre of all my activities. This reframed the way I saw my work: paid and unpaid.

Fast-forward a few years, and now I was lecturing at MCSI. Robert ran a session for lecturers where he challenged our tendency to focus on the content of what we were teaching. He said that the Jesus-way was very different. Jesus focused much more on process, the way that information was conveyed, the methods of teaching. Jesus taught through story and questioning.

In that same session he also challenged the focus of our teaching, not so much on the teacher and what we wanted to say, but on the learner and what they needed to learn. This was something I had played with, but here was the paradigm-shift I needed.

Fast-forward another couple of years, and I had been introduced by Robert to different ways of thinking about spirituality and our interaction with God. Partly this was through his book, God the Worker, which examined the metaphors in the Bible that deal with the ways that God describes his working to teach specific things, communicate in familiar ideas and also honour that work: farmers and architects and dressmakers and artists.

I can credit Robert with impacting on the most original piece of my writing on faith and work in recent years: spiritual disciplines for working. If work is something important to God… If work is in fact part of the way we do God’s creative, providential, redemptive, justice, compassionate and revelatory work… If work is therefore part of the way we honour and worship God… Then we need to be spiritually formed for that work. We need some disciplines to help prepare us for that work.

Why we need spiritual disciplines

In my experience, there are usually two emphases from the pulpit on the way we look at our work. The first is a focus on evangelism at work. Our work is only important as the place where we seek an opportunity to share the gospel with non-Christians. Therefore, spiritual formation involves learning how to express the gospel in a short, sharp way.

The second focus is on developing a good character to ensure that we do not sin at work. So, we focus on being kind and peaceful and loving and gentle.

However, these approaches see our work as something of extrinsic value only. If we see our work as having intrinsic value to God, then everything changes. Our work matters to God; it is an expression of our worship of God; it becomes a sacred or spiritual activity; and we need to be spiritually formed for work.

So, I developed the spiritual disciplines for working. A spiritual discipline is a habit or a way of looking at things, which needs to be practised and which illuminates an element of God’s truth and/or brings the believer into a closer relationship with God.

In developing these spiritual disciplines, I was influenced by the work of Richard Foster and his Renovaré organisation. Based on Foster’s six streams of spiritual formation - contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational - I developed the following six categories:

  • Holy Working — for those with a focus on virtue, see work as training in godliness, are wary about temptations in the workplace, work hard and well and value moral purity.
  • Gospel Working — for those who are keen to evangelise where appropriate, promote the truth in their workplace, focus on obedience and enjoy running Bible studies and prayer meetings.
  • Prayerful Working — for those who particularly value prayer and reflection, focus on their relationship with God while working and see the Christian life as lived out in the midst of the everyday.
  • Incarnational Working — for those who see their work as partnering with God in his work as God’s hands and feet, look for symbols of God’s presence and seek to make God visible through what they do.
  • Spirit-Empowered Working — for those who are spiritually gifted, experience God’s empowering in their work, seek to transform their workplace and look for opportunities to bless others through their working.
  • Social Justice Working — for those who are compassionate and love justice, look for opportunities for mercy in the workplace, seek fair treatment for all and are passionate about their work.

This is a brief introduction to the spiritual disciplines, which I describe in more detail in Section 2 of my book Workship: How to Use your Work to Worship God (2017).

Holy Working

Once I was writing about work and spirituality, and someone commented: ‘I don’t know why you are making it so complicated. You just have to focus on working for the Lord and be conscious of your behaviour and what you are modeling’. This woman set high standards for herself and her workplace, according to her level of influence. This is a holiness approach.

Holy Working is virtuous, with a focus on personal moral transformation and training in godliness. It emphasises a deeply moral life, purity, a way of living that stands out from the world around. There is a focus on sanctification, that we are being transformed into the people we were meant to be, and that the fruit of our lives might be the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22–23): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In many ways, work is the perfect context to develop such fruit. It is where we are often most tested in terms of our patience, gentleness, faithfulness to God and self-control. We should be looking for ways to express love, make peace, celebrate joy, be kind and do good.

The behaviours that demonstrate Holy Working are:

  • Working hard and well, being loyal and above reproach.
  • Encouraging a focus on values and principles (note: many workplaces play lip service to these, but Christians may be able to champion them).
  • Being involved in design work or transformational activities, or helping to manage change. These things help shape the culture of the organisation, allowing you to influence it positively.
  • Celebrating the good by acknowledging good work, not just with words but with a mini-party, documenting the story, putting up a sign or symbol.
  • Dealing with difficult ethical issues and being prepared to challenge what is wrong.
  • Trying to minimise exposure to temptations in the workplace.

Gospel Working

Gospel Working is in many ways the default position for evangelicals, and finds its expression in those who are compelled to share their faith with their work colleagues and who run Bible studies at lunchtime and prayer meetings before work. It also is expressed in those who see the Bible as truth for every situation.

Like the other ways of working, Gospel Working should be one of the disciplines we practise, but it should not be seen as the only authentic expression of what it means to be a Christian in the workplace.

Gospel Working is Bible-centred, and focuses on the proclamation of the good news of the gospel either lived or spoken. It emphasises sharing faith, encountering Christ in Scripture, living the Christ-life, Bible-shaped working and speaking the truth in love.

The behaviours that demonstrate Gospel Working are:

  • Focusing on living and working obediently.
  • Looking to integrate biblical knowledge with working.
  • Defending the truth.
  • Linking up with other Christians or forming a prayer group or Bible study in the workplace.
  • Seeking every opportunity to bear witness to the gospel in word and deed.

Prayerful Working

The Bible commands us to ‘rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). In his book, Prayer: The Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster (133) talks about prayer reminders: the school bell for teachers, a scrub down for surgeons, when a customer steps forward if you are in retail, when you receive an email notification. He refers to Frank Laubach’s The Game with Minutes, in which someone practised setting an alarm every waking hour and pausing to pray when it sounded. He then set the alarm every half hour, then every 15 minutes, and so on, until it became a habit to stay in continual conversation with God throughout the day.

This is an example of Prayerful Working, the ability to stay in constant communion with God. It is seeing prayer not as the last option, but the first option. It focuses on a deep intimacy with God and a depth of spiritual relationship that can be maintained, even enhanced, in the everyday.

Prayerful Working emphasises spiritual reflection and continuous prayer. People who cultivate this way of working have a calm ability to be still in the midst of busyness, and are often very contemplative in their approach to issues. There is a spiritual depth to their conversation, and they have often developed the discipline of Christian meditation.

The behaviours that demonstrate Prayerful Working are:

  • An awareness of God’s presence.
  • The ability to bring everything before God either openly or internally.
  • Being able to create rhythms of rest, silence and even solitude in the work environment. While this may be much easier with routine jobs, or roles that involve contact with the natural environment, it can be done anywhere and anytime with some creativity.
  • Marked by the celebration of the good things of God: achievements, truth, goodness, beauty, wonder and joy.

Incarnational Working

Just as Jesus, who is God, humbled himself to be born and live as a human to enable us to know God better, so also God is able to make himself visible and known through us in our working. In even more tangible ways, God continues to work to sustain his creation largely through human beings, the majority of whom are not Christians, and God relies on us to be his hands, eyes and feet in that sustaining activity.

I mentioned Robert Banks’ magnificent book on God the Worker, in which he reveals the ways that God describes himself as a worker in the Bible, including as a composer and performer inspiring music in his people and creation, and even singing over us (Zephaniah 3:17). God is described as a metalworker and potter fashioning the material world, shaping history and shaping the people (Psalm 8:3, Jeremiah 10:16, Jeremiah 18:1–6). God is also described as a garment-maker and dresser creating, providing and transforming (Genesis 3:21, Matthew 6:30, 1 Corinthians 15:53).

There are many verses where God is described as a gardener and orchardist in his creation (Isaiah 4:2), and the new creation is pictured as the ultimate garden (Revelation 22:1–2). God is described as a farmer and winemaker in preparing the soil, as well as sowing and planting and harvesting. God is also described as a shepherd and pastoralist of individuals, of the chosen people and of the Messiah (Psalm 23:1–4, Isaiah 40:11, Matthew 2:6).

There is a metaphor of tentmaking with God dwelling amongst his people and resident with the new humanity (Exodus 25:9, Isaiah 57:15, Revelation 21:3). Finally, God is described as builder and architect, building the universe and building community (Psalm 102:25, Isaiah 56:7, John 14:2–3).

Just as the Bible uses these work metaphors to describe God at work in the world, we can see our work as the means by which God is continuing to fill and sustain his creation. Thus, Incarnational Working is about making God visible to those around us, and bearing witness to God at work in the world, in us, through us and (often) in spite of us. Its emphasis is on everyday sacraments, having our eyes wide open and seeing God alive in symbols and metaphors.

The behaviours that demonstrate Incarnational Working are:

  • An awareness of symbols of God’s presence.
  • The ability to discern metaphors of creation, faithfulness, redemption, salvation, provision and grace.
  • Living like Jesus and doing what he would do, especially in serving those around us.
  • The capacity to see our work as the source material for modern parables to pass on God’s wisdom and the gospel.

Spirit-Empowered Working

Spirit-Empowered Working is focused on using the spiritual gifts in the workplace and seeing your work as a place where God can work miraculously. It is an acknowledgement that God’s presence is everywhere by his Spirit, even in seemingly unlikely places.

It is also recognition that God makes his power available to us by his Spirit. As Paul told Timothy, ‘For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline’ (2 Timothy 1:6–7).

The behaviours that demonstrate Spirit-Empowered Working are:

  • Discovering your spiritual gifts and seeking wisdom on how to develop and use them.
  • Praying for opportunities to partner with God in what he is already doing in the workplace.
  • Welcoming God’s presence.
  • Seeking to serve those you work with to enhance the workplace environment.

Social Justice Working

When people have a strong sense of calling to work, there is often also a strong sense of working for justice, a better life, for those they work for or with. This might be in obvious areas like social work or aid work, or it might be subtler, such as working voluntarily with a union or employer group alongside their normal working. People with a social justice streak are often very passionate about the causes they get involved in.

Social Justice Working is an expression of compassion, focusing on bringing God’s justice to bear on work activities. It is also an expression of shalom, a word often weakly translated as ‘peace’ but which means so much more. It is about bringing about completeness, wholeness, wellbeing and harmony. Social Justice Working means that you focus on the way things could and should be, the way things would be in all their fullness. This especially relates to working relationships and work structures.

The behaviours that demonstrate Social Justice Working are:

  • Striving for workplace reform to ease the burden on vulnerable workers, consumers or suppliers.
  • Agitating for equal opportunity.
  • Seeking to express compassion in the workplace.

Applying the disciplines

While we all have preferred spiritual disciplines, it is good to develop the other disciplines for many reasons.

Firstly, it will give you a different experience of working. If you are typically a person fired up for social justice, the more contemplative discipline of prayerful working will help to deepen your experience of God and the way you look at others.

Secondly, it will help you experience God’s working differently. Each of these disciplines is designed to help us experience the way God works through us. Getting in touch with his Spirit, or with the power of his Word, will help you to see God at work more clearly.

Thirdly, it will help you integrate your faith with your working more deeply. It will mean that your faith is not just a set of beliefs, or even a set of actions, that you take to work. Our faith becomes deeply woven into the person we are at work, expressing itself in our thoughts and words and activities, shining like light from the core of our identity.

Finally, it is the most effective way of following Jesus: Jesus demonstrated all these disciplines, and we show others what Jesus is like by practising these different disciplines in our working. Jesus was holy, gospel-infused, prayerful, made God visible, was Spirit-empowered and advocated for justice and shalom.

Kara Martin is author of Workship: How to Use your Work to Worship God and Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work. She lectures at Mary Andrews College and Alphacrucis College and is currently enrolled in a PhD examining how to effectively equip workplace Christians.

This article is from the forthcoming Robert Banks 80th birthday issue of Zadok Perspectives entitled ‘Prophet of the Everyday’, no. 143 (Winter 2019), 17-19. Subscribe to Zadok Perspectives 
here to receive your copy of this issue.


Terry Hunter
July 19, 2019, 9:31PM
Love your work Kara... also long term fan of Banks, Foster, Preece et al.

The categories above are fine (and I work inconsistently across each of them!) but can't help wondering if something's missing... maybe another category?... maybe explored more in your book?...

Seems to be a lack of emphasis on the big picture of work in God's original intention (?!) for his creatures. Maybe still partly hidden but if God's first command to his humans was to "be fruitful and multiply", although this traditionally has been applied to procreation, maybe it is more appropriate to see it in terms of bringing pleasure to God and his humans as we unpack the wonders of this pregnant creation and not just or primarily procreating - but in partnership with God - forever. And maybe it is this we should be most excited about in our work - despite the frustrations of personal and corporate sin. Maybe this whole creative enterprise of God is to use our real life experiences of the results of sin on this earth to vaccinate us from wrong choices on the new earth.

So while we will have the capacity to sin on the new earth, and begin the destructive ways of work and play all over again, we won't because we will have deep experiential knowledge (which Adam did not have till it was too late) of its God-damning results. This, along with our new-found more direct partnering/fellowship with God (who will make His home with us), redeemed work will be our unbelievably exciting future. And maybe our gifts from this earth will continue in the new one (again this idea is only hinted at in Scripture). And maybe we should not even be thinking about "spiritual gifts" vs "natural gifts" as you have above, but that God's intention is and was for his creatures to recognise that spiritual gifts are simply natural gifts working out through our holy spirited filter - as we work. We thus see our eternal restful thrilling work is to transform (open up the amazing pregnant creation) in partnership with God and fellow creatures.

Maybe if we take these images of work and future into our current workplaces (paid or unpaid), this will give the real meat to our (non-dualist) Gospel proclamations, make Christianity attractive rather than a reactionary escape, and remind us that we were made for the earth as working creatures... for all eternity.

Keep up the great work Kara!

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