Many Christians think about serving Christ as something we do inside the church. If you’re a really good Christian, you’ll volunteer in the church nursery, or you’ll serve in a small group, or you’ll sing in the choir, or you’ll go on a mission trip. And if you’re a super Christian, why then you’ll become a pastor or missionary, because that’s “full time Christian service,” and so that’s really the Lord’s work.
This way of thinking says that other kinds of jobs outside of “full time Christian service” are fine, but really they’re only secondary in importance; they just help us put food on the table so that we can serve Christ, and those secular jobs just help to make money to give to the church so that money can be used for ministry. And the only way to make a secular job spiritual is to use it as a means to open doors for real ministry.
This kind of idea pervades Christian thinking about a number of human vocations, but it does so perhaps no more apparently than when thinking about Christians and the arts. If you have musical talent, for example, and you’re a really dedicated Christian, then you’ll be a full time church musician; that’s the only way to justify your music as service to Christ. And if you do any music outside the church, then you’ll make sure it has biblical lyrics or that it opens doors for real ministry. The only way to really serve Christ through music, this common way of thinking goes, is that it must be in the context of ministry. And then, what’s even worse, Christian artists who buy into this way of thinking often think they need to legitimize their art by adding some sort of explicitly Christian content to it—like a painter paints a beautiful landscape, but then in order to justify it, he feels like he has to put a Bible verse on it. Or a gifted author, in order to feel spiritual about his novel, thinks someone has to get saved in the story. And what unfortunately often happens is that the end result is just bad art.
Colossians 3:22-24 completely corrects this way of thinking:
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
When the last phrase of this passage says, “You are serving the Lord Christ,” it is talking about every single one of the vocations mentioned in the context, which actually begins in verse 18 by speaking to wives. Wives, it says, when you do what wives do, you are serving the Lord Christ. Paul then move to husbands: Husbands, he says, when you do your job as a husband, you are serving the Lord Christ. Then he moves to children and parents. When you do your job as a child or as a parent, you are serving the Lord Christ.
And then, perhaps most remarkable of all, we get to verse 22 where Paul addresses bondservants. Now perhaps we can see how wives and husbands and children and parents are all God-ordained vocations in which we can legitimately serve him; but servants? We can see how God created husbands and wives and parents and children, but bondservant is a station in life that people created. Surely that’s got to be one of the most secular of all jobs.
When you read “servants” in Colossians 3, don’t think someone who flips burgers at McDonalds or who works the checkout at Walmart. Don’t even think Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey or Alfred in Wayne Manor. A bondservant in the time Paul wrote this was one of the absolute worst, bottom-of-the-barrel stations of life in which someone could find himself. Bondservants usually owed some kind of debt to their masters, had to do the dirtiest most menial kinds of work, and were often paid very poorly.
And yet, Paul looks at these individuals whose jobs include some of the most mundane, earthly, secular work, and he says to them, in your job as a bondservant, you are serving the Lord Christ. What a remarkable thought. Paul is intentionally choosing the lowliest of all professions and calling it service to Christ as a way of saying all legitimate human vocations in life are service to the Lord Christ. There is no legitimate profession that is somehow inferior in its ability to serve Christ than another. In other words, being a pastor or a missionary is no more spiritual than being an accountant, a garbage man, or third chair second violin in the Fort Worth Symphony. All legitimate vocations can be full time Christian service.
The kind of thinking that says only full time church workers are really doing ministry was actually perpetuated during the middle ages. The medieval Church taught that only being a pastor was really a calling of God; all other professions were simply necessary evils. And so it is in the seventeenth century Reformers that we get some of the most helpful arguments against this.
Martin Luther was particularly brilliant in combating this way of thinking and in arguing that God works through every legitimate profession. He used Psalm 147:13, for example, to prove this. The verse reads, “For God strengthens the bars of your gates;” How does God strengthen the bars, Luther asks? By city planners and architects; by politicians who pass good laws to protect the city. The psalm continues, “God blesses your children within you.” How does he bless our children, Luther asks? Through the work of teachers and pediatricians. The psalm continues, “God makes peace in your borders.” How? by means of good lawyers and policemen. “God fills you with the finest of the wheat.” How? By farmers and factory workers and grocers.
Luther went on to say this: “When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ And he does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, the person who prepared our meal.” God answers our prayer for daily bread through each of these vocations. Our legitimate professions, Luther said, are like the “masks” God wears in caring for the world. They are God’s work! And God makes the world beautiful and displays his glory in ways nothing else can through artists and musicians.
Now don’t get me wrong: Volunteering in the nursery, singing in the choir, and going on missions trips are indeed service to the Lord. And being a pastor or a missionary or a music minister are wonderful, God-ordained ministries . . . but only if that is what God has called you to do. You can and you should serve the Lord Christ in whatever God has called you to be.
If God has called you to be a plumber, and instead you pursue being a pastor, then that is the worst thing you could do. If God has called you to be a concert pianist, and instead you pursue being a music minister, then you are out of God’s will for you. If God has called you to be a plumber or a concert pianist, you can serve the Lord Christ in those callings.
But you are probably asking, Well how do I know what God has called me to do? I’m so glad you asked.
God is not going to call you to a particular profession by whispering in your ear one night; he’s not going to call you by writing a message in the clouds or by giving you some sort of mystical feeling in your bosom.
There’s a Christian satirical news site I follow that had a headline just a few weeks ago that read, “Man mistakes indigestion for pastoral call.” This fake news report read, “After attending a particularly powerful missionary presentation at his church last week, Mark Gerber, 21, reportedly felt an undeniable burning in his bosom—which he took to be a sign of God’s unmistakable calling for him to become a pastor. Unbeknownst to Gerber, however, the deluxe enchiladas he had consumed at lunch contained a large amount of tainted shredded beef, which was the actual source of the deep and powerful feeling within his bowels.”
If you’re waiting for some kind of feeling or audible message to know God’s call for your life, you’re either going to be mistaken or you’ll be waiting a long time.
Instead, God uses three primary means to determine his calling for us. First, he uses abilities and desires. The natural abilities God has given you as well as desires he has put into your heart can be ways God shows you how he wants you to serve him with your life. This doesn’t mean what God wants you to do will never be difficult for you or something you don’t want to it; it often will be. But God often providentially equips us ahead of time for what he wants us to do, and we need to be ready to recognize when he does. If God has given you natural abilities in music or math or writing or talking, for example, then you should be at least open to the possibility that he wants you to do something with those abilities.
Second, God uses opportunities and training to further reveal his call for us. Beyond just the natural abilities he gives us, God will often put various opportunities in our paths that will further equip us for what he wants us to do. Often we will have to go out of our way to pursue those opportunities, but God will ultimately give them to us. This also means that we cannot just rely on natural abilities to accomplish God’s calling for us. God has provided us with schools and books and training and lessons all for the purpose of developing our skills for his service in the professions to which he calls us.
Third, God uses affirmation from others as a way to confirm his call on our lives. This is why we need parents and teachers and pastors and others we respect in our lives. These people can often recognize God’s call on our lives when we might not immediately.
And, by the way, there’s no such thing as one call from God that never changes. Each one of us has several callings of God for our lives, and God can change what he wants us to do. At one point in my life, God called me to be a full time associate pastor; later, he called me to be a music minister; now, God has called me to talk–he has called me to be a seminary professor, a husband, and father, a writer, a speaker, and a music minister. Through each of these vocations I can serve the Lord Christ.
But the bottom line is that if God has called you to do something through equipping you, through giving you opportunities, and through affirmation by others, then that is the most important, high calling for you. Nothing else is a higher calling for you. And in that calling, you can serve the Lord Christ in just as a significant, spiritual way as a pastor or a missionary can. You can serve the Lord Christ through being a student; you can serve the Lord Christ through being a teacher. You can serve the Lord Christ as a pilot, a banker, a mayor, a judge, a public school music teacher, or as a stay-at-home mother.
And this is the basis for all of the commands in this text. Because the profession God has called you to is service to Christ, do it heartily for him and not with mediocrity. Because your vocation is service to Christ, do it for him with sincerity of heart and not ultimately for others. Because everything we do in every sphere of life is in service to God, then we should have the highest standards of excellence in everything we do; we should give of our best. And we should work ultimately for the reward of eternal life with Christ rather than for earthly gain.
Christian bakers should bake the best bread possible. Christian bankers should invest their clients’ money with the highest integrity. Christian auto mechanics should fix cars to the best of their abilities. And Christian musicians should make music that best reflects and expresses the glory, beauty, and splendor of God. And all of our music making—not just the music with Christian lyrics—should be done to the glory of God. This is why J. S. Bach put Soli Deo Gloria on all his music, not just his church music. Whether you play an arrangement of a hymn, sing a Mozart opera aria, or sing an English folk song about love, you can and should serve the Lord Christ through that.
And we need beautiful paintings with verses on them, too. And novels with characters converting to Christ and music with biblical lyrics. But tacking on explicit Christian content doesn’t justify mediocre art. As Christians serving the Lord Christ in everything, everything we do should be excellent.
In the 1924 Olympics, famous runner Eric Liddell gladly gave up what most consider to be a sure gold medal because of his refusal to run on Sunday. A few days later he ran the 400 meter race, which he was not expected to win. He crossed the line in record time. When asked why he ran, he replied, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
God made each one of us for the purpose of serving him, and he made us with specific abilities to accomplish that purpose in unique ways. Let us pursue God’s calling in our lives in such a way that we feel his pleasure in our work.