The Bible's Unconventional Ideas About Work

3 principles to revolutionize your career
The Bible's Unconventional Ideas About Work
Image: A AND N PHOTOGRAPHY / SHUTTERSTOCK

Over decades in the corporate world I’ve seen countless business and leadership trends come and go, some good and some bad. It seems like there is always an exciting new book or theory that promises to revolutionize the marketplace. Yet some of the most revolutionary and impactful business principles I’ve learned are rooted in a much more timeless source.

In the broader discussion of what it means to be a Christian at work, church leaders tend to focus mainly on how our work folds into God’s plan, leading to an emphasis on things like seeking God’s calling, behaving morally, and marketplace evangelism. None of that is wrong; those are all good things to think about. I do wonder though, whether focusing on how our jobs can advance God’s plan leads us to overlook the practical and meaningful ways that our faith can impact our work.

The Bible offers countless principles that inform our understanding of and approach toward work. These are a few of my favorites.

1. Work for a Larger Purpose

Culturally, work is one of the defining characteristics of our lives. It’s one of the first things you learn about anyone you meet. “What do you do?” we ask, but we really mean, “Who are you?”

In a competitive marketplace, the value of the work you do may be judged by the profit it generates or the public acclaim it draws. Our society’s obsession with success—and with appearing successful—incentivizes self-promotion and self-protection.

The Bible turns all of this on its head. In the biblical view, work is significant and how you do it matters (Colossians 3:17), but the important question is why work matters. We’re directed to seek God’s kingdom before all else (Matthew 6:33), and to do all things for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Wherever God has directed your efforts, think of your work as a supernatural act of obedience. When you view work in light of eternity, it frees you to approach your job with radical grace and humility. You can do even the most menial or tedious task with joy because it honors God. You can tout the triumphs of those around you because their successes are never a threat to you. You can go all out, take risks, acknowledge mistakes with grace, and move on unburdened. Realizing that work is not the point doesn’t diminish the work, it just removes the fears and constraints that hold us back there.

2. Don’t Look Back

The corporate world takes a fatalistic view of mistakes. Just ask Warren Buffet, who famously noted that “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” I think Carly Fiorina would agree. The former presidential candidate’s business record came under intense scrutiny during her run for the White House. Critics focused primarily on her rocky tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and branded her a failure, dismissing her entire corporate career as a loss.

I haven’t studied Fiorina’s business record, yet it seems that whatever mistakes she made at the top canceled out the many things she must have done right in her rise to become one of the few women CEOs of a Fortune 500 company.

The business world hates failure, but the Bible says there is strength to be found in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Further, Isaiah 43:18–19 (NIV) plainly directs us not to dwell on past mistakes: “Forget the former things: do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Note that this passage makes two points about looking backward: First, looking back distracts you from the work God is doing now. Second, it’s a waste of time because you don’t see things properly when looking back. What you see as wasteland is being transforming into oasis.

If you struggle with perfectionism, as I do, you know how hard it can be to let mistakes go. I titled a chapter of my book “No One’s Perfect” as much to as a reminder to myself as to readers. Most recently I have struggled mightily to refuse the label of “failure” for every setback experienced through my daughter Annie’s devastating illness—and there have been many. I keep fighting to put the past behind me and look ahead.

I like to think of Peter walking on water in Matthew 14:22–33. There’s Peter in a boat with wind and waves crashing, and he sees Jesus doing something amazing. Peter wants to try too, so with Jesus’ assent, Peter climbs out of the boat. At first things go well, but then he stumbles and starts to sink.

At this point Peter has two choices: dive back toward the boat or look forward to the God of the universe. Peter cries out to God for help and finds Jesus’ hand stretched toward him. When I start to feel like I’m sinking in the storm, I strain forward because I’ve realized—mostly the hard way—that moving forward is the only real option.

3. Play Big

The Bible is full of examples of people who stepped out beyond their comfort zone. They show us that faith in a big God frees you to take big chances. One woman who laid it all on the line was Rahab. We know from Sunday school that “Rahab the prostitute” sheltered Israelite spies in Jericho and, as a result, was spared when her city was destroyed.

It might seem that a prostitute didn’t have much to loose by taking a gamble on a foreign God. But Working Women of the Bible author Susan Dimickele provides a fuller picture of Rahab’s life. She was a businesswoman known to the king, an innkeeper, a property owner, and the caretaker and apparent decision maker for her family. Rahab risked everything she knew and everyone she loved when she sheltered Israel’s spies. As DiMickele points out, Rahab took that bold action without any assurances from Israel. It was only after she sent the king’s guards away that she even asked her uninvited guests for consideration.

Rahab played big because she had a sense that Israel’s God was bigger. Her risk paid off in ways she couldn’t have imagined. After the fall of Jericho, Rahab started fresh among the Israelites. Eventually, she married and had children, and the Bible counts King David and Jesus among her descendants. Rahab had a simple faith in a big God, and that led her to take transformative risk.

Many women I know are relatively cautious by nature, and that’s okay. Cautious decision makers can help a team because they tend to gather lots of information and think carefully about risks and benefits. Caution itself isn’t bad. But like most attributes, caution can go too far. I’ve mentored people who can’t make big decisions because they’re too afraid of getting it wrong. They’re so risk averse that they won’t make changes, even when something is going wrong. In their minds, it’s better to stick with the known quantity—the bad job, the poorly performing product line, the abusive relationship—than face the unknown.

My own play-big moment isn’t quite as dramatic as Rahab’s, but it nevertheless transformed my life. When God introduced me to the idea of starting a nonprofit, it seemed preposterous. Many worthy charities already existed, and many new ones fail. What did I have to bring to the table? And how exactly do you even start a nonprofit? There was just so much I didn’t know.

I felt small in this arena, but over months of prayer and investigation I couldn’t shake the idea that God had called me to make this big play. “God,” I prayed, “I don’t understand this, but I trust in you. If this is the right thing, bring me the people to help me make it happen.” And he did. A mentor here, a lawyer there, a writer, a graphic designer, an administrative genius, and countless others whose help and encouragement have been critical as 4word has grown far beyond what I ever hoped or imagined.

God has not only enabled the organization to touch others, he has also used the very process of its development to bolster me with conviction of his goodness and provision through dark times. Years ago when he laid the seeds of 4word on my heart, God knew exactly how much I would need that encouragement today. God knows exactly what you need too. Is he pushing you toward a big play?

You already take your faith to work with you every day, why not think more about the ways you can put it to work? Dive into Scripture and consider how these principles, and many others, can shape your career as you follow God’s calling in your life.

Richelle Campbell contributed to this article.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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