Title: Work Matters
Author: Tom Nelson
Pages: 203 (plus notes)
Because of a forthcoming Sunday school series on the topic of vocation, I have been on the lookout for simple but helpful writings to supplement our secondary resource. I came across this book by Tom Nelson at the college library. Because of the author’s association with TEDS (I have much respect for the institution!), the recommendation by Ravi Zacharias, and the trendy cover (by which, sadly, you can occasionally judge an actual book), I decided to give it a shot.
I am glad I read the book, and I would gladly have given it 4 stars had it not been for the 9th chapter. Sadly, I considered 2 stars because of the 9th chapter. Harsh? Perhaps. But there are certain subjects that have such an effect on me.
I’ll start with the merits, and there are many:
Nelson is faithful to advocate for a “robust doctrine of vocation.” He is personally and pastorally committed to connecting Sunday worship to Monday work. I am a fan of this aspect of his ideology. Far too many churches elevate Sunday at the expense of the other six days of the week, providing an experience instead of equipping the saints to live. Nelson is determined to reclaim Sunday as not only a day of worship, but also of thankfulness, encouragement, and preparation for a life of worship. After all, if worship means to ascribe worth, then certainly we should desire to ascribe worth to the person and work of Christ through a life of faith by God’s grace.
“It is not a question of whether we are being formed spiritually, but rather, are we being spiritually formed in the inexhaustible riches of the gospel as we live and work in the already and not yet kingdom reign of Christ.” (p. 107)
Even if not by conscious decision, Christians live in danger of equating church work with ministry. Nelson advocates (I would say, rightly so) the intentional application of matters of the gospel to the many and varied vocational callings of Christians. The church does not exist that the world may run to us, but rather we are called to be the body of Christ exactly where the Lord finds us. If we fail to communicate God’s good – and now redeemed – plan for everyday work, our brothers and sisters in the faith may struggle with dissatisfaction and discontent at the life and means provided by God’s grace, wishing away six of every seven days just to get back to Sunday.
Nelson also strongly defends God’s common grace, and the connection between work and the common good. The value in work is found, not in compensation or benefits, but rather in God-ordained human contribution to the common good of creation. Early in the work, Nelson pronounces the value of work like this:
“Not only would the crown of creation (referring to humanity) have joyful intimacy with their Creator, but they would also be given the joyful privilege of contributing to the work of God in his good world.” (p. 24 emphasis mine)
God provides for his creation through common means. Human connection is one such glorious means. We use the gifts and talents endowed to us as a contribution, an offering to the benefit of the Father’s world. This was God’s plan. In Christ, we have the opportunity again to find the true value of work as a gift of God, an avenue of sacrificial worship in his name, and a distinct way to love others. Our misunderstanding (or sinful dismissal) of the value of every vocational calling leads us to undervalue work, or worse yet to undervalue the image-bearers God has gifted to perform the work.
Nelson also spends time on the significance of work in the believer’s sanctification. Work provides one crucible in which the Christian is sanctified, molded in holiness through common trials and successes. Considering the hours of life spent in vocation, a failure to understand the value of work could easily result in decades wasted with regard to the intentional pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness. If we believe ministry and worship only happen on Sunday, then we will surely downplay the spiritual significance of work.
It is in the matter of trials that I offer my only disappointment in the book. Chapter nine addresses the challenges of work, the dangers and temptations of working in a fallen world. From matters of honesty to sexuality, the workplace is yet another setting in which humanity unfortunately displays the depth and outworking of original sin. I do not disagree with Nelson’s premise, but rather his proposed remedy. For a book that so heavily leans on the gospel as God’s means of redeeming work, Nelson leaves Jesus out of the discussion of temptation.
Blatantly absent is the account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Absent is the reality that a Christian’s ability to resist temptation comes from Christ who endured temptation on our behalf (Hebrews 4:14-16). Absent is the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting our hearts. And, sadly, absent is the hope born of the sacrificial blood of Christ, offered for a world full of failures. There is none who is righteous – no not one.
Subtly, and tragically, present is a works-based righteousness through the mishandling of prominent Old Testament personalities. Daniel made good decisions, so should you. Joseph made good decisions, so should you. Moses made good decisions, so should you, because God blesses good decisions. Chapter nine presents these men as flawless models to emulate, instead of sinners in need of God’s grace. Chapter nine presents these men as heroes to worship rather than sinful and fatally flawed forerunners of the only authentic hero. Daniel’s good decisions were filthy rags without the sacrifice of Christ (Isaiah 58), as were those of Joseph and Moses. Even their finest work required the purity of Jesus. By the account of chapter 9, God may provide the trap door to escape temptation, but you can take care of the rest on your own.
I would strongly argue for the removal of chapter 9, or better yet crafting it anew in light of grace.
In conclusion, the book is good, but not great. I would argue that it lays a wonderful foundation, but that it casts a dangerous gaze away from Christ at a critical junction.
“All vocations are intended by God to manifest his love in the world.” (Thomas Merton – p. 19)
“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. – p. 83)