The last ten years have seen a renewed interest in the value of work among evangelical Christian scholars and pastors. Churches and universities are reaffirming the goodness of a variety of vocations, and they are beginning to chip away at the sacred/secular divide in work — thanks to the effort of organizations like the Kern Family Foundation; the Acton Institute; and the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.
In particular, excellent books on this topic have flooded the market — Chad Brand’s Flourishing Faith, Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Steven Garber’s Visions of Vocation, Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, Tom Nelson’s Work Matters, Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling and Gene Veith’s God at Work, to name a few. With all of these outstanding books, has the field hit saturation point? Do we need yet another book on work?
These were my first thoughts when I was introduced to Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses & Astronauts Tell Us about God by John van Sloten (NavPress, 2017). Yet within the first few pages of this book, it became clear van Sloten provides a unique perspective on work that will inspire us to reconsider how we do our work.
Van Sloten uses the concept of parable to frame his discussion of work. His premise is that every job is “a kind of parable—a lived out story within which and through which God speaks in multiple ways” (x). Many books focus on ideas like common grace and human flourishing, both of which are important aspects of work. We should work for the common good, but van Sloten argues the real purpose of work is to know and experience God. Therefore, the book is about “understanding how Jesus is speaking directly to you (via your personal experience of work) and how he is speaking through you (to the broader world)” (xi). All work matters. Because God is in even the most ordinary jobs, he knows the real value of everyone’s work and he reveals himself through that work.
Summary of Every Job a Parable
Like most books on faith and work, the first section provides a discussion of the image of God in the worker. Human beings made in God’s image represent God and mimic him in their actions. Thus the author continually asks the question, How are you like God in your job? (11). He provides examples from different professions like that of an electrician, language translator, florist, cleaner, judge, geophysicist, emergency room physician or asphalt company executive to show how every job serves as a parable or metaphor for how God acts and who God is. God serves alongside us in our jobs (34), and the author challenges us to consider that what we love about our work might be a reflection of what God loves (42). In this way, the author proposes that people are like the artistic icons throughout church history that helped people think theologically; our work demonstrates God to others (59).
Van Sloten spends another major part of the book tracing the Creation/Fall/Redemption/New Earth narrative of Scripture and shows how work relates to each stage of the story. Just as God created in the beginning, he continues to create through people (85). Just as the fall corrupted the whole earth, sin disrupts people’s communication with God and distorts how people perform their work (88). Just as God saves lost and dying people, workers in the helping professions save the lost and dying. And just as God will restore the earth and build a new creation, people bring about restoration in their work today.
Finally, van Sloten closes by encouraging you to image and know God through your work. He emphasizes the importance of demonstrating gratitude to produce intimacy, discovering how to know God through rest, developing relational knowledge rather than merely cognitive knowledge of God and trusting in God that work is meaningful even when the experience of work is dull or fragmented from the greater picture.
Reflection on Every Job a Parable
Every Job a Parable is an encouraging book that provides greater depth to the meaning and experience of everyday work. It challenged me to think about my own work and how I imitate God in what I do every day. We often think about the instrumental value of work. For example, we work to make money so we can meet our families’ needs or provide financial support for kingdom work. We also might identify how our work contributes to more important jobs—like how a medical supplier distributes instruments so a surgeon can do the “more important” job of performing life-saving surgeries, or how a construction worker hangs drywall in a new school so teachers can educate children.
But we do not always think about how the immediate actions of our jobs reflect God, too. Manufacturing companies reflect God’s work as creator. Recycling centers demonstrate how God makes things new. Daycares imitate God as caregiver. As we serve in our professions, we reflect God not just in what we do but in who we are. Every Job a Parable shows how we will use our vocations in heaven (as other faith and work books do), but it also shows how our vocations reflect, honor and connect us with God now.
Van Sloten is an engaging writer, and his book is a joy to read. He incorporates the writings of theologians and philosophers like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Cornelius Plantinga, Alvin Plantinga Jr., N. T. Wright, Jürgen Moltmann and Esther Meek, revealing the all-encompassing significance of work and faith. The theology of work is not a niche study; it touches every branch of theology and philosophy. The stories he tells about different professions encourage you to find God in your work. And because of the variety of stories he tells, you can find assurance that God is present in your job too, no matter what that job is. With almost every page I read I said, I have never thought about work this way. The author’s idea of vocation as a parable teaches us to know and experience God in all of life, even the places we least expect to.
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