Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)
Even if you’re not known to steal to make ends meet, this passage still offers a lot of wisdom for our work. The key is found in Paul’s choice of the word “useful.” If the only reason for our work was to generate enough income to “share with those in need,” then why would it matter if our work was useful to the world? It wouldn’t. We’d be free to do any work so long as it generated enough financial resources to serve the poor. But with just one word, Paul is reminding us of one of the main themes of all his letters: That the work you and I do today has many God-glorifying purposes.
We have been exploring some of those purposes throughout this series. In Ephesians 1, we learned that our work is a means of pointing to the marriage of heaven and earth. In Ephesians 2, we learned that our work is a means of doing “good works” for others and glorifying God in the process. In Ephesians 3, we learned that our work is a means of demonstrating God’s “immeasurably great” power working through us.
All of these are purposes for work beyond sharing with the poor. In other words, a theology of work exists independent of a theology of charity. That said, we simply can’t ignore the fact that one of the purposes of work is charity—to “share with those in need.”
When we do our most exceptional work, we will often be rewarded with financial excess. One God-honoring use of that excess is to share it generously with those who have none—an especially timely message given the terrible economic times we are living in. The poor need our help, and we the Church are called to give it. We can debate what form that help takes, but we can’t argue Scripture’s command that those who are gainfully employed are to care for the poor.
But again, we must be careful. Too often we fall for the lie that charity is the only way to “do ministry” through our work. The context of Ephesians and the rest of Scripture show us that that’s not true. While caring for the poor is a wonderful, God-glorifying purpose for our work, let’s never forget that our work is “useful” in and of itself.