What does vocational faithfulness look like when there is a gulf between our daily work and our sense of calling? How can Christians embrace a holistic vision for work, and every aspect of our economic activity? In this seminal talk in the Economic Wisdom Project Talks series, J. Michael Thigpen casts a vision for faithful Christian witness rooted in the creation narrative and in our identity as bearers of God’s image. This witness comes from an understanding that our economic activities flow out of our identity, that economic activity is worship, and that God intends a flourishing society, not just flourishing individuals.
This talk is a classic installment of the Economic Wisdom Project Talks, which recently unveiled a brand-new website. The Economic Wisdom Project engages some of the most challenging issues in Christian life, integrating innovative thinking from theology’s leading voices with practical interdisciplinary resources for the classroom. The EWP Talks series is categorized by topic and speaker to help classrooms find the ideal resource for their studies. We encourage you to explore the entire library on our new website, and consider assigning these resources in your classes!
Thigpen, the outgoing executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, describes in this talk the experience of working a job to support himself and his family through graduate school. Thigpen thrived at his banking job and quickly found opportunity after opportunity opened to him there, yet continued to feel profound discontent and questions of purpose. As he described it: “My banking career was taking off. But I was a teacher without a teaching job. I wasn’t who I was supposed to be.”
This feeling of not being who he was supposed to be as a result of his employment revealed to Thigpen his overly narrow understanding of ministry, and his need to develop a vision for vocation that was not so tied to his source of income. This realization drove Thigpen to rediscover a sense of identity out of which to engage his economic activity, rather than the other way around.
This identity is found, among other places, in the story of creation, where we find the true purpose for our work. Yahweh’s declaration in Genesis “let them have dominion” ought to be understood as a purpose clause, pointing to the reason behind our labor as God’s co-creators. Word choices in the text indicate that we are made in God’s image for the purpose of having dominion, commissioned with carrying out a representational reign. “We are supposed to rule the world as a reflection of our creator. This truth is found in the creation narrative, and this is where we find the truest truth of our identity.” As we see in Genesis, God created us to flourish and to experience the shalom of living under his rule, but we can only experience this if “our economic activity flows out of our identity as made in the image of God.”
Another fundamental truth that ought to give shape to our work is that our economic activity is worship. In the Old Testament, worship is often described in work language. This includes false worship, for idols are the the work of our hands. Scripture reminds us that “we become what we worship.” As Thigpen emphasizes, “there are ways for us to succeed in ministry and succeed in our resources and to succeed in our communities and to still be dying inside.” This is because it is so easy to take God’s gracious provision and twist it into a self-seeking source for satisfaction. Instead, God invites us to approach our economic activity as an intentional act of worship in response to God’s gracious provision in our lives.
Finally, Thigpen challenges us to remember that God intends a flourishing society, not just flourishing individuals. As the New Testament describes the experience of the early church, it bears witness that it is through our work together that we will advance God’s plan. Our economic activities are not separate from our Christian lives or from the ethics of the kingdom of God. Rather, “an economically flourishing society is a natural result of what God is doing in his kingdom now.”
This and many other timely resources can be found at the Economic Wisdom Project website. We hope you will consider assigning this resource to your class!
EWP Talks on Old Testament