A Theology of (School)Work for Teenagers

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Discovering a theology of work changed my life.

Not long after I graduated from college, I started working at an entry-level service industry job. The work was monotonous. It required little skill and offered even less status. I was not proud of what I was doing, but it paid the bills. I thought I needed a more meaningful job. What I really needed was a more meaningful understanding of work itself. Thankfully, I began to discover that very thing through sermons, books, and a more careful reading of Scripture. Grasping the value of work in light of the Bible’s storyline helped me to see that my labor was not a waste.

Now, as a pastor to students, one of my goals is to share with them the biblical vision for work before they start their careers. But how do you make a theology of work clear and compelling to students when they are not yet working themselves? One way is to give a theological account of school itself so that students begin to apply biblical categories to the job they are already doing. Here are five building blocks for a theology of schoolwork.

  1. Schoolwork exercises dominion.

The Bible’s story of work goes all the way back to Genesis 1:28, where God charges his image-bearers with the task of exercising dominion over creation. Work unlocks the potential God has embedded in his creation. It does this by the operation of human creativity and effort upon the raw material of the world. The task of learning is just such an operation, taking as its object the raw material of human knowledge. Students are internalizing, grasping, organizing, and synthesizing all kinds of information. In doing this, not only are they preparing to exercise dominion in the future, they are beginning to do it right now. For many young people, learning is a means to an end, a necessary evil, something to be endured. We can encourage them that learning itself is honoring to God, a critical aspect of bearing his image.

  1. Schoolwork fuels worship.

Psalm 19:1 says “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Creation is proclaiming the dazzling perfections of its Maker. Everything a student learns in school is about God’s creation, in one way or another. The more students see of God’s creation, the more they apprehend God’s glory. We can urge students to ask this question of any subject, assignment or reading: “What does this area of knowledge show me about God?” Biology unveils the intricacy of living things, testifying to the wisdom of the one who gives life. Literature captures the artistry of language and human experience, conveying something of the profundity of bearing God’s image. Chemistry, algebra, and economics can all provide fuel to make a student’s worship burn more intensely.

  1. Schoolwork informs wisdom.

Biblical wisdom—skillful living in God’s world—is cultivated by making observations of the world and then letting the fear of the Lord govern the practical implications of those observations (Prov. 1:7). D.J. Estes writes, “Wisdom uses an inductive approach as it observes carefully the natural and human world. As it detects general patterns of cause and effect, it derives from them lessons that can be applied to other situations.”[1] We can see this in Proverbs 6:6-11, where the reader is urged to consider the ways of the ant, and so become wise. School informs wisdom by helping students better understand how God’s world works We can help students see connections between their studies and a life of wisdom, then encourage them to keep looking for more. For example, history and economics help people gain wisdom for being a good citizen. English composition sharpens the skills needed to convey an idea from your mind to someone else’s. Wisely managing money requires proficiency in math.

  1. Schoolwork prepares for vocational service.

As defenders of the liberal arts are quick to point out, education is more than vocational training. However, it is never less than that. Either directly or indirectly, school is preparing young people to contribute to the common good through their work (see Gal. 6:10). It is not necessary that students see the specific relevance of every topic or assignment to their anticipated career. It is enough for them to view the time they are investing now as an act of service to the world, or to be more precise, as an investment in their capacity to render fruitful service in the future. For a student who has an idea of what he wants to do “when he grows up,” parents and youth workers can brainstorm with him all the ways school is preparing him for that very thing. For the student who has no idea what her vocation will be, we can encourage her that school is a necessary step toward figuring that out and moving toward it.

  1. Schoolwork equips for ministry.

As we disciple students to share the gospel, we want them to be able to contextualize the gospel. Tim Keller defines contextualization as “giving the Bible’s answers…to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”[2] A well-known example is Paul’s citation of the Greek poet Aratus in Acts 17:28. He quotes approvingly that all humans are God’s offspring, and then proceeds to show how this concept should lead people away from idolatry to the risen Christ.[3]Education equips Christian students to speak intelligibly to the culture in which they are ministering. Whether or not the teachers, administrators, or curriculum writers see it this way, all learning can become Contextualization 101 if approached as such by the believing student. Students can ask of a class or assignment, “How does this resonate with the gospel? In what ways does the gospel fulfill the longing exhibited here?”

Work Restored by the Gospel

Students often approach school as either a drudgery to be endured or an anxious proving grounds for self-validation. Both tendencies are prevalent in the attitude of adults toward their work. And both tendencies come from the same source: a failure to keep in step with the gospel. Work—academic or otherwise—becomes an anxious proving grounds when we look to our performance to save us—to give us security, meaning, and identity. Work becomes a drudgery when it gets in the way of some other would-be savior. In either case, the work itself becomes restless, a toilsome striving after wind (Ecc. 2:18-23).

Jesus restores work to its proper place by stepping in to be the faithful Savior that nothing else ever could ever be. His perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection have secured for us all the security, meaning, and identity we will ever need—so nothing else in our lives needs to fill that role. Work can become restful as we carry the easy yoke Jesus offers (Matt. 11:28-30). The good purposes of work seen in Genesis 1 and 2 begin to be recovered as the risen Christ rolls back the curse of Genesis 3.

If teenagers can apply the grace of the gospel to their work while they are still in school, they will not only flourish as students now, they will be well on their way to a life of fruitful service as attorneys, mechanics, doctors, and farmers.

 

[1] D. J. Estes, “Wisdom and Biblical Theology,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, eds. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008), 854.

[2] Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 89.

[3] David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 500.

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