Of the many legacies of the Protestant Reformation, few have had greater and wider-reaching impact than the rediscovery of the biblical understanding of vocation. Before the Reformation, the only people considered to have a vocation or calling were those who were engaged in full-time church work—monks, nuns, or priests. As Gene Veith writes, “The ordinary occupations of life—being a peasant farmer or kitchen maid, making tools or clothing, being a soldier or even king—were acknowledged as necessary but worldly. Such people could be saved, but they were mired in the world. To serve God fully, to live a life that is truly spiritual, required a full-time commitment.”
But as the Reformers returned to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word, they found that while full-time ministry was a vocation, it was by no means the only one. They saw that each of us has a vocation and that every vocation has dignity and value in the eyes of the Lord. We can all honor God in the work we do. We must discern our God-given vocation and then devote ourselves to it.
Still today, we can lose sight of what the Reformers recovered, and if we do not constantly return to God’s Word and allow it to shape us, we will soon drift back to a disdain for ordinary work. It is encouraging that today we find many Christian pastors and authors exploring what it means to be ordinary Christians doing ordinary work as part of their ordinary lives. It is encouraging to see these leaders affirming the worth of all vocations from plumbing to writing, from pastoring to homemaking, from engineering to piloting. It is encouraging to see Christians responding with confidence to embrace the duty of diligence, our next area of consideration in “The 10 Duties of Every Christian.”
A Life Pleasing to God
The church in Thessalonica had a bit of a problem. This was a strong church, a mature church, a thriving church. It was a church so marked by love that Paul was able to commend them in the most glowing terms: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10). The love between the believers in this congregation was so strong that it overflowed into expressions of love for believers all across the region. This was an exemplary church. Yet it still had a bit of a problem—a problem with idleness.
In this letter, Paul responds to questions he had received from the people of this congregation. And apparently, one of the questions was something like this: How can we live lives that are pleasing to God (see 4:1–12)? They had been told of God’s creation mandate, that God created us and placed us on this earth so we could exercise dominion over it as his representatives. They had been told of Christ’s Great Commission, that his people are to take the gospel to the farthest corners of the earth, and as more and more people come out of darkness and into light, to train them in the things of the Lord.
This church knew those big-picture commands, but they found themselves looking to Paul for specific guidance. What does it look like for ordinary people in ordinary places and ordinary times to live out the creation mandate and the Great Commission? Does it require full-time ministry? Does it require moving to the far side of the globe? What is the life that is pleasing to God? Perhaps they were even wondering if work was necessary or advisable since they knew of Christ’s imminent return: “If he is coming back anyway, what’s the point of work? Shouldn’t I just read my Bible, pray, and wait?”
Paul’s response is surprising. He addresses three issues: sexual morality, the local church, and work. He first tells them of the importance of submitting themselves to God’s design for sexuality and emphasizes the need for self-control. Then he commends them for their love and encourages them to carry on their exemplary behavior. Finally, he turns to work and tells them of the importance of diligence, giving them simple instructions that transcend time, geography, and culture.
Under this heading of “diligence,” he tells the Thessalonians to live quietly, to mind their own business, and to work with their hands. When he tells them to live quietly, he means for them to be content to be unknown and unnoticed, to make it their ambition to be free from worldly ambition. They are to be content with their lot and to know that this contented diligence is how they can best honor God. When Paul tells them to mind their own business, he means for them to focus on their own work and to avoid being busybodies. And when he tells them to work with their own hands, he means for them to carry on in their work, even (or especially) if that work involves manual labor. He could call them to all of this because their work had intrinsic value simply because it was their calling—their God-given vocation.
As far as we know, Paul was not writing to a group of brand-new Christians here. He was not giving them the basic instructions for their early years, hoping they would eventually graduate to better and more difficult things. This church appears to be strong and spiritually mature, and still Paul’s word to them is very simple: Bring honor and glory to God through your very ordinary lives. God means for you to be diligent in the work he’s called you to. He is pleased with your diligence and glorified in it.
As we apply this instruction to our own lives we have to admit our tendency to laziness, to succumbing to the billion-and-one distractions that surround us each and every day. Then we have to admit that sometimes we discount or diminish ordinary work, thinking there is greater value and worth in “sacred” callings. In the face of such lies, we have to reaffirm the simple truth that God made us to work, to exercise dominion over the earth and all that is in it and, beyond that, to labor to spread the gospel to its farthest reaches. We have to clarify in our own minds and hearts that God does not expect we will all leave behind world-changing legacies that will some day be the subject of entire biographies. Rather, we are called to live ordinary, quiet, but diligent lives right where we are and using the skills, the gifts, and the passions he has given us. A simple life of quiet diligence is a life that is pleasing to God and worthy of his name.
The Danger of Diligence
Yet even something as good as diligence can be misused. Religious hypocrites may emphasize hard work at the expense of morality, hoping that the sheer quantity of their accomplishments will mask their depravity. Many false teachers thrive in the church because their followers are easily impressed with accomplishments. Meanwhile, religious deceivers may be diligent and hard-working, and yet their diligence is only for storing up treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven. They use their hard work and ministry to benefit themselves, not others.
Even genuine Christians may misuse diligence when they tacitly see it as a means of self-justification, as if their diligence merits the favor of God. Pastors and other church leaders may especially face this temptation, convinced that they deserve more of God’s blessings or favor because of their hard work. When they encounter difficulties or suffering, they may plead their hard work, as if God owes them ease because of it. While God calls us to be diligent, that diligence is an expression of our justification, not the means to it.
The Duty of Diligence
God has placed us on this earth so we can work, so we can be diligent in carrying out his will. Any failure to be diligent is a serious transgression. Thomas Watson refers to idle people as “Satan’s tennis ball” whom he whacks up and down with temptation until he at last sends them far over the fence. Similarly, Charles Spurgeon compares idle people to a target and Satan to an expert rifleman who rarely misses. He warns, “Idle men tempt the devil to tempt them.”
Idleness is a grave temptation, but so too is diminishing the value in every form of lawful work. God has placed us on this earth so we can live ordinary lives filled with ordinary tasks. It is important to remember that Paul followed his own instruction, laboring with his own hands in the simple vocation of tentmaking, convinced that through such work he was “walking properly before outsiders and being dependent on no one” (4:12). It is more important still to remember that for the first three decades of his life, Jesus was a carpenter, diligently carrying out a simple job, so that when he at last stepped out into public ministry his neighbors asked, “Is not this the carpenter” (Mark 6:3)? There is value and dignity in all labor. We honor and serve God through the simple, beautiful duty of diligence.