Seeking the Kingdom and Finding Contentment at Work

According to Alain de Botton, [1] seeking and finding meaningful work is pretty straight forward. If we just take our time to find our authentic selves, if we just remember to be our best selves at the checkout and if the large companies for whom we work told their world-saving story better – we’d all be able to find meaningful work. [2]

There is some wisdom in these three points. We will act more diligently and be more productive as workers if we can easily commit emotionally to the tasks that are set before us. We’ll likely be more creative when faced with challenges and more determined to overcome them. If we participated in the global economy in a more thoughtful and self-controlled ways then there may well be less opportunity for exploitative people to lure us into spending what we don’t have on things we don’t need in order to impress people we either don’t actually know or don’t really like. If the leadership in the large companies for whom many of us work was better able to tell us stories of the lasting benefits of the products and services we provide to the greater human population such that our small but consistent contributions were caught up in a definite, if gradual, movement towards a brighter future for all, then we might be less anxious as to whether what we do each day from 8:00 until 6:00, six days out of seven was worth the amount of our lives we spend doing it…

All of these things might be possible but only if we, as Christians, take a very different approach to what we are seeking and more importantly, what we expect to find for the duration of our paid working lives. Over and against what, at times, might feel like tremendous pressure to do otherwise, our Lord and Saviour Jesus the Christ deserves that we seek His Kingdom and promises that we will find contentment in doing so. Space doesn’t allow for us to consider all of De Botton’s interesting ideas so for now let’s just concentrate on the first.

Seeking the Kingdom and Finding Self Contentment

De Botton’s put before us the challenge of finding work that allows us to both discover and realise our “deepest or most authentic-self.” He suggests that we need help discovering our authentic working identities before we even start. By way of contrast I’m going to suggest that it is only when we seek our authentic selves in the Kingdom of Jesus the Christ that we will find the contentment we need for any and every paid or unpaid work situation. In fact, it is only when we trust the gospel promises about our deepest self that we will ever find contentment at all.

Ephesians 1 – the Big Picture

God’s Will for Our Lives – The first important thing to observe about this passage is Paul’s insight into the history of the universe as the span “from before the foundations of the earth” in 1:4 to the exaltation of Christ Jesus as Lord in 1:9&10. The promise is that God’s saving actions in Jesus are rooted in His eternal purposes – that is they stem from the inner life of the Triune God. In this configuration Paul draws our attention to (at least) three things concerning the Father’s will for creation. His intention is discerned in “the choice of the divine will (good pleasure v.5), the mystery of divine will (v.9) [and] the plan of divine will (v.11).” Thus to understand the divine will and the manner in which this might be perfected on the earth as it is in heaven we need to understand God’s plan for creation, the nature of His choice within that plan and the extent to which the divine choice reveals the mysterious character of God’s heavenly will for the earth. The contribution of Ephesians 1 in all of this is the fact that all three of these aspects of divine will come together in the person of the Lord Jesus (v.10). The great mystery of the ages is that Messiah Jesus is the choice of God for the perfection of His plans and hence, the perfection of His will on earth as it is in heaven.

The conclusion that we may draw from this is that God’s will for the universe and every living thing in it, and every human being in particular, is summed up in the Lord Jesus. If you have ever wondered what God’s will for your life might be or have said to yourself in a moment of uncertainty, “I’m sure God has a plan…” then look closely at what the Bible says. Your life is part of God’s plan to sum up the whole universe in the glorification of Jesus the Christ. To consider the purpose of your life to be encapsulated by some highly-paid and dramatically influential professional career is not to seek far enough and be contented with too little.

The Self as a gift of Salvation – The next thing to notice about this passage is the blessings that God intends to give us through the Lord Jesus as the fulfilment of His will for the universe. In Jesus we have been chosen to be “holy and blameless in his sight” (v.4); through Jesus, God has adopted us as His children (v.5); through the sacrifice of Jesus blood on our behalf we have been granted forgiveness for our sins (v.7). In short, and through Jesus Christ, God has favoured us with His grace such that we are to Him what His Son is – beloved (v.6).

The conclusion that we may draw from this is that the gospel of the Lord Jesus contains a portrait for us of our deepest selves from the perspective of our Creator. The God who intends to sum up all of human history in the glorified Jesus Christ wants us to be His children who from his perspective are “holy and blameless,” immeasurably precious considering they have been purchase through the blood sacrifice of the Lord Jesus and totally absolved of any and every failing, any and every short coming and even any and every deliberate act of selfishness, greed, pride or idolatry.

Here in the gospel is the offer, a gift, of a working identity that is so far above anything we might ever seek by way of professional advancement, academic achievement or entrepreneurial dream as to render our aspirations as insulting to Jesus the Christ. There is simply nothing that compares to the riches of God’s grace towards us in Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself spoke of how we should approach such an offer in the simplest of terms:

Matt 13,44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.

Matt 13,45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46 When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.

The gift of our deepest selves that God offers us in the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus is worth more than any professional accolade, any academic prize and certainly any corporate incentive be it partnerships, share options or fellowships.

More importantly perhaps, the gift of our identity in Jesus Christ cannot be relativized by a performance review, our worth to God as his children cannot be captured in a dissertation or viva and it refuses to be confined by any work-place contract. In fact, it is a suit of armour against the barbs and banter of work-place bullies, it is the testimony to our personhood when we are regarded merely as a human resources and most of all, it is our ultimate source of freedom and vindication in the face of harassment, exploitation or retrenchment.

The gift of our most authentic selves that comes in the gospel of Jesus Christ has been, for our workplace, summarised in Martin Luther’s famous phrase: “We are freed to work in Christ by faith and for our neighbour in love.”[3] This is what the Lord Jesus deserves in His Father’s eyes and what is given to us as a gift of security and significance like no other.

The Rev Dr David Höhne

Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (London: Vintage International, 2010).(Back to text)
[2] (Back to text)
Luther, “Freedom of the Christian,” LW .31:350 (Back to text)
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