The Bane and Blessing of Work
Most of us spend the best 40 hours of each week for the best 40 years of our lives working. There are mixed emotions when we speak of work. Some infer that work is a necessary evil; a harsh necessity imposed unfairly upon them. They live for Fridays, long weekends, vacations and retirement, and all of life is hurried along to arrive at those workless destinations as soon as possible.
But on the other hand there are those who glorify work as the chief goal of life. They are the workaholics. They say “Work is good, and more work is better.” Getting a good job is the most important thing in life.
Let me suggest instead that we look for a happy medium between the hatred of work and the worship of work.
God the worker
Genesis gives us our first introduction to God. And it is very interesting. It begins with God in overalls. It does not start out with God seated upon His throne in tranquility and inactivity. Our first introduction is, “In the beginning God created….” and as the rest of that first chapter is read, we see God speaking worlds and creatures into existence, organizing the creation, gathering, separating, naming, making, forming, and setting things in place. Then the writer of this account has the gall to say: “And on the seventh day God finished his work which He had done and He rested on the seventh day from all his work which He had done.” He almost makes it sound as though God worked hard. Perhaps He did!
Humanity as co-creator.
When God created humanity, He also wanted them to be sharers in the work of creation. He made man and woman in His own image and in His own likeness. He made them to be co-creators with Himself. Genesis goes on to tell us, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till and tend it.” Humanity had a part to play in the ongoing creation. We were to be workers with God, bringing order out of chaos. We were intended to be workers from the very first moments of our creation. This does not mean that the chief purpose of mankind is to be a worker. Work is only a means to an end, but a very important means. Work was intended to move the entire created world to its completion. But it was also intended to enable us to be creative, to be responsible, to work side by side with the creator and to help Him in the completion of the creation of the world. All of this, by the way, before there is a whisper about sin. Work was not punishment for human evil, but a way to participate with God in creating a great work of art.
The curse of work
But when sin and selfishness enters the picture, work takes on another dimension. Work was intended to be a joyful participation with God in the symphony of creation. The work was to be done as a part of the celebration of being a co-creator with God Himself. But when selfishness entered into the picture, work becomes “cursed”. Listen to the words of God: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you… by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food...” (Genesis 3:17-19)
It is interesting to note the reading in the KJV. “Cursed is the ground for your sake…” The original curse is also a blessing in disguise. God is not the vindictive punisher of his people. The curses of God are, to quote C. S. Lewis “His severe mercies”. The curses of God are like the surgeon’s knife: on the surface it creates hurt, but is intended to remove disease.
And in the fall of mankind a terrible selfishness found its place in the center of human life. God must now do a new thing to help compensate for this evil. And so He adds a dimension to work that will enable work to be redemptive in the life of a self-preoccupied race. Work is one of the few things that makes everyone of us givers as well as takers. Each of us is required to put something of value back into the creation, at the cost of denying ourselves. If we will not work for the joy of it, we shall still need to work for the money of it. Working even with low motives may at least cause us to serve the needs of others rather than merely ourselves.
The Dignity of Work
The Shaker community had a credo. It read: “Dignity in Work, Serenity in Spirit, Excellence in Everything.” Work has dignity because it is a way of serving the creation and helping others. Work has dignity because it returns something of value back into life. Work has dignity because it can be an act of high worship. Work can be a sacramental thing where we can meet and serve God. The place of work may become the place where we offer up daily sacrifices from the altars of our desks, workbenches, and kitchen counters. It is the place where we can give of our best to the Master. Giving the best 40 hours of our week and the best 40 years of our lives need not be the doing of a necessary nuisance, but one of the chief ways of giving worship to the God of our creation.
It has often been inferred that what we give to God and the church are the really important things. We give our energies, money, talents and time to the volunteer activities of church work. We think those are our crucial contributions to God and His Church. But I suspect that God views our contributions to the world as our primary gifts. We are not merely to worship God in a religious setting, but to worship Him in the middle of his world. To work is to pray and praise. To do bad work is to offer God garbage. To do good work is to honour Him.
In the movie “Chariots of fire” the story is told of Eric Liddle the Olympic Runner turned Missionary. There is a scene on the hills of Scotland where he and his sister are arguing. She knows he is called to go to China. He knows it too. But he also wants to run. And he says in those memorable words “He made me for his purpose, and he made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure!” And there is a truth about that for us all. When we work at the thing we are gifted for and good at, we too may feel His pleasure.
There is an old story told of a man visiting the building site of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He found himself among the stonemasons. He asked one man, “What are you doing?” He replied, “I’m chiseling blocks of stone.” He approached another doing the same task and asked him the same question. “I’m building a wall” was his response. He asked the same question of a third man who was doing the very same work. That man rose from his knees and with a note of excitement said “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build a Cathedral!” Many of us will be heading back to our normal work routines on Monday morning. It would be a good thing, upon getting up, were we to say to ourselves, “Today, I’m going to help God build His Cathedral.”
Think it through
Is any job so meaningless that it does not have value? What would happen if the person who collects our garbage did not turn up for work? Dorothy L Sayers in her book Creed or Chaos has an essay entitled “Why Work.” It is well worth reading.
To whistle while we work may not be the best solution to the sense of the meaningless that often pervades our attitude towards our work. But we would be wise to start each day offering to God the work that we will do, as an intentional act of worship.
Small Group Leader
Discuss with each member of the group the question “How can you turn your specific work into acts of worship?”
Published in Light and Life, September-October, 2003.