The purpose of work…
Leisure, not work, is what life is all about. We work for the weekend and the next vacation. And long-range, a comfortable retirement is the reason for work. Work is not done as an end in itself. Rather, it’s a way of getting something else.
This view of work was recently proposed in a New York Times article entitled “What Work Is Really For.” The author, Gary Gutting, supported his view with arguments from an assortment of philosophers, from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell to Karl Marx.
In a consumer culture, Gutting is right on several points, all of which are worth closer examination. But his assessment differs significantly from a Christian view of work. For this reason, the editors of the Gospel Coalition blog asked Dr. Gene Veith to write a response, which he titled “The Purpose of Work.”
According to Luther, the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbor. The farmer tills the ground to provide food to sustain his neighbor’s life. The craftsman, the teacher, the lawyer—indeed, everyone who occupies a place in the division of labor—is providing goods and services that neighbors need. This is God’s providential ordering of society. But for a Christian, the service rendered can become animated with love.
For Luther, vocation was far more than economic activity, including also our callings in our families, the church, and the culture as a whole. Each of these vocations calls us to particular neighbors whom we are to love and serve. Husbands are called to love and serve their wives, and wives are called to love and serve their neighbors. Pastors love and serve their parishioners, who love and serve each other. Rulers are to love and serve their subjects, and citizens love and serve each other for the common good.
Notice, vocation is not primarily about “serving God” for Luther. He was battling the high view of “contemplation” found in monasticism, which required the rejection of the vocations of marriage and parenthood (the vow of celibacy), the vocations of economic activity (the vow of poverty), and the vocations of citizenship (the vow of obedience, which replaced the authority of secular law with that of the church). Luther denied that “the contemplative life” of monasticism was more spiritual than “the active life” of ordinary Christians living in the world. The problem with the former was that it tended to isolate Christians from their neighbors, at worse becoming a retreat into oneself. The monasteries claimed to serve God—indeed, to allow for salvation by works—but God in Scripture commands that we love and serve him by loving and serving our neighbors. …
The doctrine of vocation, properly understood, frees us from our sinful selves through the gospel as our love for God overflows into love for our neighbors. Our very work becomes transformed not in its substance—Christian workers mostly perform the same tasks as non-Christian workers—but in its meaning and in its value.
I would encourage you to visit the Gospel Coalition blog to read the rest of “The Purpose of Work.” It is a nice short summary of Martin Luther’s view of vocation. Even more helpful is Gene Veith’s book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.
Gene Edward Veith is provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. He is the author of several other books, including Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture and Loving God with All Your Mind: Thinking as a Christian in the Postmodern World.