One Christian's Perspective on Work:
A Personal Testimony

Prof. Stephen Long
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of California, Santa Barbara

A talk presented to Faculty and Staff Christian Forum
February 29, 1996

One of the areas of my life that I have found most difficult to place in God's hands has been my work, especially since becoming a faculty member here at UCSB. This has led me to study and seek wisdom to understand the Christian view of work and its application in my life. Since we are called to glorify God in whatever we do, our work must also be excellent. In this reflection, I will present my current understanding of work and excellence and address the questions: can Christian faculty serve the Lord through work alone? Can one find a balance between the demands of work, home, and church?

First, to begin to set the stage, I would like to share a few verses that partially describe the biblical perspective on work.

From these verses we can make two important observations.

1. Work is set aside for the Lord. While most of us must work to support ourselves and our families, work goes beyond providing just physical sustenance. It provides an opportunity for us to bring glory to God.

2. The type of work is not specified. That is, secular work is sanctified when we serve the Lord. All work can become full-time Christian work if our motivation is to serve the Lord. Given the choice, we should seek work in which we can best use the gifts or talents that God has given us. Remember the parable of the talents. If we do not have the choice, then we should seek to serve with integrity and to bring glory to God through our labors whatever they may be.

Are you good at Languages? Then serve God through your talent.
Do you enjoy science? Be a scientist with a Theistic world view and dedicated to serving the Lord.
Can you write? Then use your gift to be an excellent writer who brings glory to God.

Working as faculty on a secular campus puts us right in the middle of a potential mission field. We do not have to feel that our work is less glorifying to God because it is secular if we have been called by God to our labors. As a Christian, I know that my work should be in service to the Lord, flowing out of my deepening relationship with him.

In addition, if we are responsible to students or staff as a supervisor, we also have a responsibility to treat our employees and students with righteousness and fairness.

Clearly, work is one area where we can serve the Lord, but does our responsibility to bring glory to God end with our work? Or do we have other responsibilities that are on the same level?

Certainly, work is a part of this, but these verses and many others seem to speak of a life that brings glory to God not only through work but through a service to the Lord that extends over all of our life: demonstrating an excellence of character, commitment to personal relationships, and by demonstrating integrity in our interactions with others. In short, the call to serve the Lord requires a life where faith and career and faith and relationships are integrated, not isolated.

Having described some aspects of a biblical view of work, let's consider the application to the university. In particular, I would like to reflect on work as a faculty member at a research university that is avidly seeking external recognition of its excellence. What does being excellent mean to the Christian? Do we direct our efforts to maximize the recognition of excellence or should we strive to lead excellent lives in a broader sense? This naturally leads to two interpretations of excellence. [1]

1. Excellence is defined as being better than others - superiority - the competitive model. Verification of this excellence comes from comparison between people, things, or institutions using some external standard.

2. Being of the highest quality. Exceptionally good. Here, the standard is still external, but is non-competitive.

I would say that the first definition is predominantly secular and the second is closer to the biblical perspective.

Also, recall that 1 Cor 12 which speaks of the many parts of the body, of spiritual gifts, is followed by 1 Cor 13, the famous love chapter, which is introduced by "and now I will show you the most excellent way."

These verses do not speak of being better than everyone else, but to seeking an integrated excellence in one's life as defined by God's standards, not those of men.

So, there is an inherent tension for the Christian, working for an institution that measures its value in terms of opinion surveys of university deans and presidents or corporation executives. Excellence of this kind is a competitive measure, and the work most highly valued is that which brings the greatest public recognition followed closely by that which brings the most money. Excellence in teaching or mentoring students is expected, but not highly rewarded.

The secular competition or sports model of excellence also applies to the search for research funding. Funding of research is highly competitive in today's economic climate, with many excellent university research groups often in direct competition against each other for a limited supply of funds. Being the first and the best, of highest quality, are required to sustain stable funding. Can we honestly hope to achieve or sustain this condition? Should we?

There are problems with attempting to achieve the number one position or stay in that position. It involves absolute commitment of effort, for how else can you remain on the top? Its sort of like you are constantly training for the Olympics. How do you ever know when you have done enough? There is always a program that is running out of funding soon, or another research group hot on your heels. This relentless pursuit leads to dissatisfaction with high quality work and to exclusion of other important aspects of our life.

There is a principle of available effort that applies to the pursuit of excellence [1]. In general, our available effort gets spread between the various activities that we commit ourselves to pursue. At the university, the possibilities are almost unlimited, but include research, teaching, departmental and university service, and service to the professional community. At home, this might include your relationship with your wife, children, family and friends. At church, it might include serving in a ministry, as a teacher, or possibly a deacon or elder, and edification of your fellow believers. Also, we all are called to be heralds of the gospel to those around us. As Christians, we have many responsibilities. We can possibly increase the available effort somewhat by working more efficiently, being smarter, or better organized, or hiring more students or assistants, but eventually we reach the limits of our energy or our need for sleep.

So, how can we cope with all the demands? We are forced to establish priorities and make choices on how we are to best spend our time so that we can be excellent in the most important areas of our life. If we focus our effort on remaining number one in research alone, a nearly infinite task, we are likely to observe other areas at work or in our lives that are anything but excellent. The Christian should be careful not to sacrifice relationships for ambition. People are more important than things. We must establish a balance in life to best serve the Lord.

It must be clear that we can neither neglect our work, as we are working unto the Lord, not unto men, nor become one-dimensional perfectionists at the expense of the rest of our responsibilities. We must never use our Christianity as a rationalization for poor quality work. Also, we should never use our work as an excuse for neglecting our relationships with family, friends, and students.

Do we see our students as people whom we can inspire, whom we can teach how to learn and create new ideas? Do we see the classroom and research as the tools to accomplish this? Is our life an example for them to emulate? Or do we view students as slow to learn or nuisances when they are undergraduates or an inexpensive set of hands if they are graduate students? Are the students the end product or are the papers, conferences, research grants or the opinion polls? Can our students tell that there is something different about the way we view our work? Do they know why we have a different perspective on work?

Regarding the sports or competition model, Paul said: "Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last." (1 Cor. 9:24-25). Are we laboring for a crown that will not last? He goes on to say: "but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." He then reminds us of the Israelites who passed through the sea and drank from the spiritual rock who was Christ. But, God was not pleased with them and they lost the prize.

In conclusion, the Christian should see excellence "as the state of being of the highest quality as measured by the standards of God. There is no necessity for superiority of one person over others and no particular virtue in being labeled No. 1." [2] We need to see our lives as the integration of faith with work and relationships. Being No. 1 in one area alone does not justify being a zero in everything else.

Acknowledgment. I would like to acknowledge Prof. Richard Bube of Stanford University, Dept. of Material Science for his thought provoking insights into the consequences of the excesses in the pursuit of excellence in one's work.


[1] Richard H. Bube, "Pursuit of Excellence: Pitfalls in the Effort to Become No. 1," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 39 (2), pp. 67-76, June 1987.

[2] R. H. Bube, op. cit., p. 75.

[3] John White, The Fight, Chap. 10, Intervarsity Press, 1976.