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Faith, Work, and Economics: An Interview with Hugh Whelchel

December 1–5, 2014   |   Vol. 121, Week 10

Martin Luther once said that “the work of a milkmaid is just as important to God as the work of a priest.” This week on Home School Heartbeat, our guest Hugh Whelchel talks about why our jobs have value, no matter how humble they may seem.

”To have a meaningful life, you’ve got to work. You have to understand the importance of work. But you must not make your work the meaning of your life.“—Hugh Whelchel

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Did you enjoy this week’s program on the real value of our work? You can learn more about Hugh and his Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics by clicking on the link.

Martin Luther once said that the work of a milkmaid is just as important to God as the work of a priest. Today on Home School Heartbeat, our guest Hugh Whelchel helps us find the real value of our own jobs.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Hugh Whelchel, the executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. Hugh, welcome to the program today!

Hugh Whelchel: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

Mike: Hugh, you believe that all of our work—whether in the family, in the church, or in our day jobs—is significant to God. Can you tell us more about that?

Hugh: Yeah, that’s right. I think one of the big problems in the evangelical church today is we’ve separated work into two groups. We have secular work and spiritual work. So what we think is that the spiritual work is much more important. For example, the work of a pastor or a missionary, we say that’s really important to God, whereas the work of a lawyer, or somebody who works in a factory, is not. And that’s not what the Bible teaches.

We need to break down that barrier and understand that all work is important to God. Martin Luther, one of the great reformers, talked about this a lot. He said, “The work of the milkmaid is just as important to God as the work of the priest.” And that’s something we need to embrace. How many times have we heard someone say, “Did you hear about John Smith, he quit his job at the bank to go into full-time Christian service?” We’ve got to understand that all work, whatever God’s called us to do, is full-time Christian service. And our work should do three things: it should glorify God, serve the common good, and further God’s kingdom in the here and now.

Mike: Hugh, sometimes we get a job that isn’t very satisfying. Maybe it seems like menial work. Or maybe we have a boss that we just can’t get along with. How should we face these kinds of jobs?

Hugh: Yeah, I get that question an awful lot when I go to talk to people. I think the first thing we have to realize is there is no perfect job this side of heaven. So you start there, right? The other thing I hear from people all the time, they say, “Well, you know, work is a curse.” I say, “No no no, go back and read Genesis. Work was founded before the Fall.”

Now the fact that work is hard, the fact that work is difficult, is part of the curse. So we can assume going in, because we live in a fallen world, our work is never going to be easy. But as Christians, God wants to redeem work, and I think as we work He gives us a glimpse once in a while of what good work is really supposed to be and what it’s supposed to look like. And we find fulfillment and satisfaction when we work according to God’s rules and to His design and His desire.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Paul tells us that our work is not in vain. In fact, he goes on and tells the Colossians, in chapter 3 of the book of Colossians, he says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working unto the Lord, not for human masters.” That’s the bigger picture we need to see. And when we understand that, the mundane things, even the things we don’t like to do, that what my work does serves God in this bigger sense, it helps with those things are sometimes difficult to do.

Mike: Hugh, you’ve talked about why our jobs matter. How does that apply to someone who’s actually lost their job?

Hugh: Let me say first of all if there are people out there in the audience that are looking for, that are unemployed, I sympathize with you. I’ve been in that situation many, many times in my career, and it’s difficult. But one of the reasons we actually make it more difficult than it should be is because in our culture, we put such an emphasis on our identity coming from our jobs. Actually, what’s the first thing you ask somebody when you first meet him? If it’s not the first thing it’s usually the second thing, and it’s “What do you do?” In our culture, we find our identity in our work.

Now, as Christians, we should find our identity in Christ, not our work. So when you’re out of work, when you’re looking for another job (and my wife would always tell me when I was out of work, “Your number one job is to find a new job”), but during that period of time, we can focus sometimes a lot more on some of the other things God’s called us to do, some of the other work God’s called us to: our work in our church, our work in our community, our work with our family. He gives us a chance to focus on those while we continue to find out what it is God wants us to do next.

So I think it’s very important to once again shift that understanding that our identity doesn’t come from our job. And this is really true for those of you that are working, realizing that this is not a problem. What you have to do—you have to realize that, to have a meaningful life you’ve got to work, and you have to understand the importance of work. But you must not make your work the meaning of your life. Christ is the meaning of our lives.

Mike: Hugh, what would you say to our homeschool graduates who are starting to search for a job? What should they keep in mind as they go through this process?

Hugh: Yeah, I talk to a lot of young people that are in the exact same place, and I think there are some misunderstandings on what they should be looking for. So let me give you some suggestions that I give to young people all the time.

First, understand that you’re not going to find your dream job right off of college. In fact, your first three or four jobs are really to teach you A) what work is all about and B) to teach you who you are and help you really find what your gifts and your strengths are. I have a friend that went to law school many years ago, and he said he was surprised when he came out that law school did not teach him to be a lawyer. They just taught him about the law. He had to go work as a lawyer for five years to really learn how to be a lawyer.

So you need to understand that, given that, the first thing you should look for is a job that will give you lots of experience. And realize that it’s not going to be something that you’re probably going to do forever. In fact, really I would encourage people to look for three or four jobs over the first four or five years of your career, and do different jobs where you can get exposed to different things, to begin to learn what you like to do as well as what God has gifted you to be good at.

Mike: What advice would you give to homeschool students who are trying to find God’s calling for their lives? Are there any practical things they can do while they are students?

Hugh Whelchel: Yes. In fact, one of the things that we instruct people all the time in this realm is that this is the perfect time to do some soul-searching, to look inward, to really understand who you are in Christ. And we tell people that you should go take a personality test like the Myers-Briggs to understand what your personality is, because God made you that way! You should go take some things to find out what your strengths are. There’s a great little book called Strengthsfinder, put out by the Gallup Organization, and it gives you an idea of what are your top five strengths. You should go take that.

You should think about what has God made you passionate about. Look back at your time in high school, your time in college, and even beyond. What did you do that you really loved doing? What did you do that you’re really good at? All these things begin to give you clues as to who God’s made you. And once you begin to understand that, then the next step is understanding what He’s called you to do. But He has called you to do something that He’s already equipped you to do. So this is the perfect time in your life to really do some soul-searching and look inwardly at who you are in Christ.

Mike: Hugh, thanks so much for joining us this week! And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Hugh Whelchel

Hugh Whelchel is the executive director for the Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics. He brings a unique combination of executive responsibility, creative educational administration, and technical innovation from over thirty years of diverse business experience. Almost a decade ago, Hugh left a successful business career in the IT industry to share his experience in turning around unprofitable companies with Reformed Theological Seminary’s struggling Washington, DC campus, where he served as executive director and guest professor.

In addition to his business acumen, Hugh has a passion and expertise in helping people integrate faith and vocational calling. He is the author of How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work, published in May 2012. Hugh has been published on The Gospel Coalition and ByFaith Online. He has also been a guest on Moody Radio Network’s “In the Market with Janet Parshall,” Salem Radio Network, IRN/USA Radio Network, and Truth in Action Ministries’ “Truth That Transforms,” and the “Jack Riccardi Show,” among other shows.

In addition to serving on the boards of several Christian non-profits, Hugh has served as executive director and board member of The Fellows Initiative, an umbrella organization supporting and establishing church-based fellows programs which are designed to help young adults understand God’s vocational calling on their lives as they enter their careers.

A native Floridian, Hugh earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Florida and a Master of Arts in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. Hugh and his wife Leslie now live in Loudoun County, Virginia. As an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, he serves in leadership at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia. In what little spare time he has, Hugh enjoys hiking, golfing, and restoring old sports cars.

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