The Eternal Value of “Whatever You Do”
A conversation with Hugh Whelchel of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics
Interview by Kristyn Komarnicki
Hugh Whelchel is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE), a nonprofit that seeks to educate and inspire Christians to think biblically about justice, equality, and the economy and to steward their whole lives in a way that benefits society and glorifies God.
“If we want to impact our culture and truly be salt and light, we must teach Christians how to integrate their faith and their work. We must teach them how to do their jobs with Christian distinctiveness, with excellence, and with accountability.”
You talk about “the biblical doctrine of work.” Can you sketch that out briefly for us?
In the mid-1990s I was a Christian working in the business world. If you had asked me then to describe the work I was doing that was important to God, I would have told you about my work in the lay leadership of my church, the adult Sunday School class that I taught, and the work I did with Christian nonprofit groups. I secretly envied pastors, missionaries, and others who got to work “full time” for God. I saw little to no connection between what I did as a businessman and God’s kingdom.
Then I made an amazing discovery. As I studied the Bible over the next 10 years, I realized that the Bible teaches that the chief end of our work as Christians should be to glorify God, serve the common good, and advance God’s kingdom. God has called us to engage the world through all of our work (including our vocations), announcing and exercising the presence and lordship of Christ over every part of it.
I also discovered five foundational ideas that radically changed my view of work, giving it new meaning and significance. Interestingly, these ideas have been taught by the church for centuries, yet I had never heard them.
•First, I found out that the gospel is in four parts: creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration. The gospel does not end with my personal salvation, but it continues on with God’s plan to use Christians to bring about the restoration of all things.
•Second, God gave a job description to Adam in the Garden of Eden which applies to all Christians today. The cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28) reveals that the call to have dominion over the earth through our work is a divine calling for each of us, not just a means of providing sustenance.
•Third, I finally understood what Jesus meant when he said that “the kingdom of God is at hand” and what that means to my everyday work. We can be a part of bringing about flourishing and a true sense of shalom to our fallen world by following God’s calling on our lives.
•Fourth, I discovered a truth about God’s work in the world that is particularly helpful to those of us working with non-Christians and in secular environments. Even those who are not Christians are providing valuable service to the world through what we call “common grace.” Because all truth is God’s truth, we can partner with non-Christians to achieve godly purposes.
•Fifth, I realized what the biblical meaning of success really looks like and how different it is from the definition that our current culture embraces. The world defines success as money and prestige, while the biblical definition is to become the best you can be using what God has given you. This view of success brings a far greater sense of purpose and fulfillment than any earthly achievement could provide.
These five principles are explained in more detail in my book How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. How did discovering this doctrine change the way you viewed your work?
Discovering the biblical doctrine of work transformed my life. Work for me went from being just a means to an end to having transcendent purpose in and of itself. It wasn’t just an avenue simply for sharing my faith or for creating wealth to donate to missions work; it was the very thing through which I could be the salt and light Jesus called me to be. I saw it as the most important tool that God had given me to impact the culture and make a difference. In fact, my vocational work was part of a larger grand story that God was writing, a story that started in the Garden of Eden and continues when Jesus returns and establishes the new heavens and the new earth.
I realized that my work as a businessman, or whatever I was to do, had real value and purpose in God’s kingdom. This understanding that our work matters to God was incredibly fulfilling and freeing. It gave my work true significance and meaning. I finally understood what Dorothy Sayers meant when she wrote, “… work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
“We must rediscover that our primary vocation is the call to follow Jesus and realize that this call embraces the whole of our lives, including our everyday work. We cannot separate our spiritual lives from our so-called ‘secular’ lives and engage in the dualism that is epidemic in evangelical Christianity. We must rediscover the priesthood of all believers seeing every part of our life, work, civic, family, recreational, church, as a ‘living sacrifice’ to God.”
What has been the most surprising or fulfilling thing since this change in your approach?
First, I feel great satisfaction knowing that what I do through my vocational calling has eternal significance. Second, I have realized that by understanding and applying the biblical view of work, what I do can radically impact culture. It can make a positive, sustainable difference in my community, my city, this country, and our world for the glory of God and God’s kingdom.
What are some small steps that Christians can take to begin integrating their faith and work?
First, we can take a verse like Colossians 3:17 and apply it to our vocational work: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
This verse tells us that all of our work has significance in God’s eyes. Even the most mundane things we do at work are important to God and should be important to us because everything we do should glorify God, serve the common good, and further God’s kingdom. It means that whether we work as an assembly line worker, as a Fortune 500 executive, or as a stay-at-home mom, our work matters to God just as much as the work of the pastor or priest.
Second, we need to understand that we work for a heavenly boss and therefore have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. It means I don’t slip out at 3 p.m., because I am ultimately accountable to God. But it also means knowing that your work doesn’t just have earthly value—it has eternal value.
I’ve read that some business owners shy away from the term “calling“ as it implies that God is going to make the business financially successful, and a lack of entrepreneurial success could thus cause disillusionment.* If a person suspects that he/she has been called into business by God, is financial success one essential proof of the calling, God’s seal of approval as it were? In other words, does being called into business imply financial success, or might God call us to discover something else in our calling to business?
I believe our problem today is not how we define calling but how we define success. Christians have been so influenced by the modern culture that far too many measure success in two ways: the number of dollars they earn or the degree of status their job provides them. Furthermore, in our fast food culture, that success is expected to come fairly quickly.
Yet, God calls us to pursue biblical success, which does not always translate into worldly success. If we faithfully use the talents God has given us, we will have both joy and peace of mind knowing we have done our best through the power of Christ as he works through us to accomplish what he has called us to do in order to make a difference in the world. This is true of all vocational callings, whether they involve working in a factory, starting a business as an entrepreneur, or becoming a missionary in Africa.
What the Scriptures teach us is that if we are persistent in what God has called to do, we will be successful. Proverbs 13:4 reads, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” The 18th-century British politician William Wilberforce once said, “Our motto must continue to be perseverance. And ultimately I trust the Almighty will crown our efforts with success.”
Wilberforce’s life is a prefect example. God vocationally called him to be a member of the British House of Commons and to fight against the slave trade. Wilberforce first introduced anti-slave-trade legislation into Parliament in 1787, but it was quickly defeated. Over the next 20 years, he continued to submit bill after bill without success. To most of his contemporaries, Wilberforce looked like a failure because he was not succeeding in his efforts. But in God’s eyes, that was not the case. Each year, as Wilberforce did everything he could do, he was being used to accomplish God’s ends. Finally, in 1807, Wilberforce prevailed and passed a bill that ended the slave trade in Great Britain.
So if business owners honestly work at their calling and persevere, they will eventually be successful, although that success may look very different from what the world expects. It may look like creating thousands of jobs or finding a cure for cancer, but it also may look like a business that struggles or even fails, giving God the opportunity to strengthen their faith and teach them valuable lessons through the experience. Earthly failure does not necessarily mean that you were not following your calling. Sometimes it simply means that God measures success very differently. Like the stewards in the parable of the talents, we work not for our own fame but because we love the Master. Our only desire at the end of the day should be to hear God say, “‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
If work is, as you earlier quoted Dorothy Sayers saying, the medium in which we offer ourselves to God, how should we view retirement?
Based on my study of the Bible and history, retirement is primarily a Western, 20th-century phenomenon. Our culture has promoted the idea that retirement revolves around withdrawing from one’s work or labor and enjoying life to the fullest without obligation, commitment, or worry. You can do what you feel like doing whenever you want to do it. Retirement is all about you.
The only place in the Bible that mentions anything like retirement is found in Numbers 8:23-26. God tells Moses that the Levites (the priests who were charged with serving God by doing much of the work in and around the tabernacle) began their work at age 25 and worked until the mandatory retirement age of 50. However, these retired priests did not pack their bags and spend the rest of their lives at the beach in Tel Aviv. Instead, they assisted the younger men in performing their work. They mentored the younger men in their trade by providing the wisdom and leadership that came from 25 years of experience in serving the Lord.
Today, if a Christian is fortunate enough to not need to depend on a salary, that person may retire from his or her job or career any time he or she chooses. However, a Christian never retires from serving God through their vocational call. While we may have moved into a new season in our lives, we are still called to grow and invest our gifts and talents in the work God is doing in the world.
There is inherent dignity of labor in the Scripture, and God calls us to labor in God’s vineyard until called home. It may not be at one particular job, but we have to be actively productive as long as we possibly can, being faithful to our vocational call to glorify God, serve the common good, and further God’s kingdom.