Meaning in the Mundane
How do we think about the value of our work? There is a trend in recent theology to locate the meaning of our work in eternity. If we, as God’s people do good things, these things will remain forever. So, they argue, do whatever you are doing with great heart because ultimately what you do will be a part of God’s kingdom and the new creation. Others argue that the only thing that matters in our lives is how we use our vocation to advance the kingdom through gospel proclamation. In other words, our jobs and lives only matter so much as we can tell people about Jesus; everything else is just details.
My fear is that both of these positions are misguided. I am concerned that we have been looking for our answer in the wrong place. Our question of the significance of work is most often raised in relation to the stuff of life – our status, our career, our spending, our giving, our doing, our location … and so forth. Our struggle is an honest one: we want meaning in the mundane. We live with anxiety about what we are doing and if it ultimately matters. This concern grows as we get trapped in a routine and seemingly dead-end nine-to-five jobs. In fact, this problem extends beyond just the work force; what of the stay-at-home parent, the disabled, or the retired? Where is meaning located in our regular vocation – be it formal or informal, professional or otherwise? The concern is a good one, but it is only appropriately sorted once we have clarity about the primary issues of life. Meaning in our life is not found in the what, but rather in the who and the how. Let me explain.
The worth of our vocations is established not in what we do, but in whom we do it for. Our life belongs to Christ. We submit our lives to Him, because he is our Lord and King. We are citizens of his kingdom. He may use our work in wonderful ways for eternal purposes, namely bringing people to know the gospel. But it also may be just ordinary, and have no seeming eternal consequence. But the work we do, no matter how ordinary, has great value when it is done unto the Lord. The value of our work is established in the relationship we have with the all-glorious God, and us returning glory unto him. In addition, the work we do now has a place in loving our neighbours in every day ways. This is a part of God’s good order for the world.
In consideration of these issues, it is important to consider how the Bible discusses continuity and discontinuity between this age and the end.
Isaiah 65:17-66:24 – emphasizes discontinuity from the past, in the removal of wickedness. The newness is associated with the forgetfulness of the pain and problems in the past. Whether or not this is a literal forgetfulness is not central to the argument. Instead, what matters is that things will not be as they have been: marked by brokenness and death associated with sin. The future will be glorious because God will have finally judged the world.
2 Peter 3:1-13 – depicts a future in which the current cosmos (specifically the heavens) are burned up and the earth and its works are exposed. This is an image of God’s judgment, anticipating the day – a day which God is patiently withholding for the sake of repentance – when the entire world will be judged. The promised new heavens and new earth will be revealed, where righteousness dwells.
1 Corinthians 15 – demonstrates continuity in eternity, as Christians are raised in bodily form. The future of God’s people is not one disassociated with their existence now, especially their bodies. Instead, God promises to raise believers in glorious bodies – bodies that have been transformed and renewed, fit for eternity.
Revelation 21-22 – foretells of both continuity and discontinuity as the old heaven and the old earth will pass away, and the new heaven and the new earth will be joined together. The marks of this newness include peace, life, glory, and perfection. No longer is there pain, weeping, or death because these all belong to the old order.
What characterizes each of these chapters is the redemptive work of God in bringing in renewal. The old order – the world after the fall – is judged by God, bringing an end to all evil and sin. The new order (new heavens and new earth) are where God’s peace is perfected, evil is no more, and people live forever.
The recent retrieval of a notion of continuity in the future is most welcome. The Bible is clear that what God is doing in the future in bringing about the new creation is not going to be from nothing – just as at the flood God did not completely start over. In fact, our resurrection is a great window into the new creation that God is bringing about. But what we must be careful to recognize is that the new creation is also disconnected from the current world in important ways. The new creation is a transformed world, which has been judged and thereby purged of all wickedness. This is not our work; we do not transform the world. To think we play a part in bringing in or establishing the new creation is to undermine the sufficiency of Christ’s redemption. This is why the resurrection is so crucial for our understanding of this matter. It affirms continuity, but also stresses discontinuity – like a seed being sown and growing into a plant – and ultimately is grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Let’s consider a practical scenario. If you are a dentist and seek meaning in the stuff of your work, you would need to find a way that it has eternally lasting significance. You might argue that good teeth will be part of our resurrected bodies, or perhaps that you share the gospel with patients while drilling their teeth and they can t escape! The trouble is these answers either try to extend the worth of the work into eternity or manipulate the work to involve more than it does. But meaning is not in the stuff of the vocation, meaning is in found in how you relate to God in Christ in your vocation. In this instance, you can be mindful of how you love God in and through your work and honour him in loving others. Your work is a valuable part of what God has given us for living in this world, namely dental health. It is true that we will have real bodies for eternity – and they will likely have teeth (will we need to floss forever?) – but our preservation of dental health now is not a contribution to the new creation. I am thankful for this because I would like cavity free teeth in eternity!
The key, then, is a matter of our ethic. Do we remember that all of our life is in Christ, that we belong to Him, and that he is our Lord? How then do we live? The answer is unto the glory of God, loving him and our neighbours. The nitty-gritty of what this looks like in each of our vocations is less prescriptive than some of us might hope. But this is part of living life prayerfully unto the Lord, under his Word, and in the fellowship of his people. Does sharing the gospel have more lasting (eternal) effect than drilling teeth? Certainly. Is drilling a tooth less honourable to God? No, not when it is carried forward with regard to our relationship to him. There is meaning in the mundane when we remember that we live our lives, every aspect of our lives, unto the glory of the Lord.
It is important to add qualification here for the sake of clarity. What has just been argued for is in no way intended to diminish the importance of gospel witness. This is the world’s only hope of eternal life! In fact, humanly speaking this is what remains unto the end. But it is important to disassociate our thinking about the value of work with a contribution to eternity either materially or spiritually. Sharing the gospel is an integral part of our love for God and love for the world, as in sharing the gospel we introduce people to the God who is love. As people know God the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, they come to recognize their purpose/meaning in life too – to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But we want to avoid any notion of second-class Christianity for anyone who is not engaged in full-time gospel work (who does that anyway? – does anyone only just share the gospel every hour of their work?). All vocations have their value not in what they achieve but in how they are oriented.
The bottom line is this: Our work is not insignificant in view of eternity, nor is its significance found in eternity; our work finds its value in how we relate to God the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. Ultimately, our work is an occasion for us to love and glorify our God, and this occurs most often in the way we show love to our neighbour.