A THEOLOGY OF WORK
Karen and I took a trip to Japan in the 80’s. One thing that impressed me was the way Japanese people worked. When we pulled into a gas station, we are greet by happy faces and bowing bodies. They started right in on the windows. They bowed after they pumped the gas and brought the change. Then they went out to the curb to help direct us back into traffic. As we passed, they bowed of course. We got the idea that they enjoyed serving us.
Attribute the modern day miracle of a war-torn Japan becoming a major economic power to its peoples’ attitude toward work. It trumps our American work ethic, in which most folks put in their time, but when the weekend comes, “TGIF!” Most Japanese show pride in their work and their company and are quick to pull out their “meishi” (business card). Tokyo garbage men scour and shine their trucks every morning before work. Coffee breaks in the afternoon often include ten minutes of calisthenics with piped-in music.
Japan needs to learn how to relax. They play tennis and golf with the same seriousness that they work. But young Americans raised by “easy does it” baby boomers need to learn how to work. Japanese companies tell us no new secrets. They are simply preaching the value of hard work. We had it, but we lost it. Our country was birthed by people who knew the dignity of duty. Many of our early politicians came out of shops and farms to help run a young nation. A proper outlook toward work would go a long way to help bring restoration.
What if what you are doing on Monday is just as important as what you do on Sunday? What if the two hours you spend at church is invested in the thirty or forty hours you spend in the workplace? What if Sunday impacted Monday so much that Monday impacted Sunday? What if we saw no difference between “full-time ministry” and full-time work? What if there wasn’t any? What if we didn’t over-emphasize ministry and under-emphasize the value of work? What if work was a form of worship? What if the people who spent five to eight hours a day with the same people were able to see that job as ministry and went to work with the goal of letting their lights shine? They would quit saying TGIF. What if the workplace carried as much glamor as ministry? What if we heard testimonies of people who had a dramatic call to the marketplace as much as people who had a call to ministry?
Do you view work as a necessary evil or as a holy calling from God? I am writing to share a theology of work, either to hopefully change your outlook or to bolster your Biblical view.
WHY DO WE WORK?
It is godly. That means that it is like God. Scripture reveals that God works hard. He rested on the seventh day because He had finished six days of work. The Bible pictures the Creator as a manual laborer: “The heavens are the work of your hands” (Ps. 102:25). We might think that when He finished creation, He sat back and has not worked a day since. Jesus taught otherwise: “My Father is working still and I am working” (John 5:17). The Ancient of days did not wind up the world like a watch and observe it tick away. He stays personally involved in its preservation. If you like to work, credit God, who has worked from creation on. In fact, when He turned to His great redemptive plan, He laid bare his arms. Sounds like He rolled up His sleeves and went to work (Isaiah 52:10).
Jesus worked. The carpenter labored in the family business for eighteen years and an itinerant ministry for only three. That should say something significant about the value of work. He called men from the laboring class, not the easy aristocracy. He told them, “We must work the works of him that sent me while it is day. Night comes, when no man can work” (John 9:4). As evening approached He was able to say, “I have accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Now He directs the work of the Church from His throne in heaven and sustains the universe by His word.
If Jesus showed up at our meeting, where might we find him? I’d say praying in a side room with a broken-hearted person. Or maybe in the kitchen doing the dishes. You might think that someone as important as the Son of God would naturally be served while on earth. Not even close. After serving His family for almost twenty years, He served the poor for three.
Paul worked. The famous missionary mended tents. He worked so he would not burden people to provide for him (I Thess. 2:9). He told the Ephesian elders, “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me” (Acts 20:34). He did this, as he wrote, “…not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow” (2 Thess. 3:9).
We were created to work. Work did not come with the curse. Adam was employed before the Fall. God’s first command was to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Then God played a game with him called, “Name that beast,” and God did not micromanage. He gave us the earth, but it would need to be worked to sustain human life. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). God made work for man; then He made man for work. The curse meant that work just got more difficult.
We work to eat. A man once said, “God gives every bird its food, but he does not throw it into the nest.” The Psalmist wrote, “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth” (Ps. 104:14). God told Adam, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian saints, some of whom were leaning on their hoes and waiting for Christ’s return: “If any man will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). Try that in today’s America! We reward people for not working. We demoralize millions by not teaching the dignity of labor.
We work to help others. Many Christians do not understand this. They have adopted a capitalistic outlook that says, “What’s mine is mine? I worked for it.” Paul said differently, “In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). He had already written to them that each man should do “honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need” (Eph. 4:28). I know people who work to give away to the needy. Scripture promised the generous heart that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).
We work to grow. Work teaches us Christ-like living. Jesus said that “whoever would be great…must be servant of all.” He came “not to be served but to serve…” (Matt. 20:27,28). Some young adults show reluctance to work or to serve because they are “looking for their ministry.” One’s calling, however, is as likely to be found in the shop as in the sanctuary. Dwight L. Moody pointed out that the people God called were busy at work: “Saul was seeking his father’s donkeys and David his father’s sheep when called to the kingdom. The shepherds were feeding their flocks when they had their glorious revelation. God called the four apostles from their fishing and Matthew from collecting taxes, Amos from the horsemen of Tecoah, Moses from keeping Jethro’s sheep, Gideon from the threshing floor, Elisha from the plows. God never called a lazy man. God never encourages idleness and will not despise persons in the lowest employment.”
HOW DO WE WORK?
With diligence. I was jogging through a park when I passed some workers plodding along. They were attacking the weeds like they were senile, and I wondered if they would ever finish. Twenty minutes later I passed them going the other way. They had progressed about a foot. Irritation turned to pity as I thought, “They probably had no father to model the joy of work.” My father taught his children, “Always leave a place cleaner then when you found it,” so we did. He rose early and he worked hard. The elders in the church where I served bemoaned the fact that they could no longer find good workers to hire. Fathers are forgetting to teach their children the wisdom of diligence.
Solomon wrote, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccles. 9:10). The apostle Paul spoke similarly when he said, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men” (Col. 3:23). Successful people work hard. They don’t simply live for quitting time.
With responsibility. Those who work better when the boss shows up forget their accountability to the ultimate Employer. He reviews what the manager misses. He knows whether good work has been done for the paycheck. Those faithful with the little will be rewarded with much in the world to come. Paul exhorted believers to do honest work. He told employees to serve their bosses “with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5). The apostle had a high view of work
It does not take effort to cheat an employer in time or efficiency. Those who look through their bosses to Christ are less likely to cut corners or time. Hard work guards against dishonesty. Those without work are more likely to go after easy money wrongly acquired.
With thankfulness. Work comes as God’s gift, so we give thanks for it. A friend complained about his job—until he lost it. Then he realized his ingratitude. Working beats not working. We can thank God for health, for good backs and brains, for food on the table. TGIF really means, “Thank God I’m functioning.”
With joy. We need more Christians exuding joy as they go about their work spreading the fragrance of Christ. When God completed creation, He “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). A job well done brings personal fulfillment. Joy during brings joy after. Goethe said, “It is not doing the thing which we like to do, but liking to do the thing which we have to do that makes life blessed.”
Three stone-cutters at work were approached by a stranger. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” The man replied briskly, “Cutting stone. Can’t you see?”
He inquired with a second man, and his answer reflected only slightly more joy: “I’m making a living.” When he asked the third man, he raised his head and said with dignity, “I’m building a cathedral.” Thomas Carlyle said, “Blessed is the man who sings at his work.” And Jesus said, “I delight to do your will.” Productive, self-fulfilling work brings joy and fights off depression.
SOME LIABILITIES OF WORK
Working too hard. Those toiling in the fast lane need to remember that even God took a rest. Vocation without vacation brings stress our bodies ought not carry. God did not command Sabbath rest for His sake. And it wasn’t one of The Ten Suggestions. While in Japan I heard a man brag that he had not taken a day of vacation in thirty years. He might be working toward an early retirement! The Christian psychologist, Archibald Hart, author of a book on stress, encourages workaholics to look at faces of those around them. Do other people, like their children, also have goals, desires, and aspirations that call for attention?
Working too little. The Wisdom literature speaks poignantly about sloth: “He who is slack at his work is a brother to him who destroys” (Prov. 18:9). Scripture doesn’t take laziness lightly. I would not use wickedness and laziness in the same sentence. Jesus did (Matt. 25:26). One of the sins that destroyed Sodom was “careless ease” (Ezekiel 16:49). The prophets of Israel denounced the indolent: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1). Isaiah wrote, “Tremble, you women who are at ease…” (32:11).
In Rome the patricians had slaves to do their work. They considered labor below their dignity. The Greeks were better thinkers than workers, enjoying bull sessions more than work parties. Into this Graeco-Roman culture, the Master-Workman of the universe, sent His Son, who “took the form of a servant.” The Carpenter invited the lowly to walk with Him and change their world! A European who came to the States was struck by the parting statement, “Take it easy.” He had seen a whole nation taking it easy and thought another salutation might fit better. Japan could profit from such a farewell, but not an “easy does it” culture.
Working for self. Self-indulgence threatens hard workers. Whether we are pursuing more strokes, more bucks or another car, the focus points home. Jesus told a parable about a man whose work morphed into idolatry. After building bigger barns, he said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” The party was cut short. He dropped dead that night. We might have commended him for planning ahead and working hard; God didn’t. He didn’t call him a capitalist; He called him a fool (Luke 12:20).
A custodian worked at our church for over thirty years. Everyone loved this hard-working, cheerful servant. No job was beneath Henry. He didn’t wear clothes from Macy’s or live in a fancy home (some would have called it a shack), but he often gave money away to people more needy than himself. Henry not only worked to stay alive. He helped others stay alive.
Separating the secular from the spiritual. By working as a laborer, our Lord sanctified common toil for all time. The veteran apostle set an example for manual work. God’s grace gives divine value to any job done as unto Him. The plumber with his wrench and the secretary with her pen fulfill a needed service. I’d like to preach a sermon sometime called, “Engineers, Teachers, and Other Full-time Ministers.” Pastors would do well to give people vision for their jobs, so they turn work into worship and use eight hours to connect with people in life-giving ways.
I smile at the hype of the mission trip letters. This junior missionary is going to change the culture and come back tattooed with the cross. I rejoice at the new vision of the world, but “radical” does not mean flying to Mexico and doing VBS for two weeks. It is working hard for decades to the glory of God the Worker!
I admit that when I am sitting under a pile of assignments with deadlines screaming at me, retirement looms as a joyful relief. My dad, however, failed miserably at retiring. Bored with the option of ease, he returned to work, starting a new church at the age of 75. Now he rests from his labors—and prepares for more assignments. We will work in the new earth. In fact, we are rewarded for faithfulness with more responsibility. I thank God for a dad who modeled the delight of duty. Parents who so instruct their children are increasing their earning power, but more important, are teaching them how to live.