"Christians in the Workplace"
Nov.2/08 Eccles.2:17-24, 5:18-20
Workday Despair or Delight?
One of the Bible's more philosophical books begins by questioning the value of work in the grand scheme of things. Ecclesiastes 1:3 asks, "What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?" 2:20 adds, "So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour under the sun." Is that the best we can say about work? When we have a tough day on the job, we may begin to wonder why we do what we do. What's the point? For Christians, the question is especially poignant. Does our work bear any relation to God's Kingdom - or is there a disconnect between Sunday and Monday as if they're two different worlds?
Often in church jargon the word 'calling' has been used primarily in regard to recognized paid-accountable positions in church or mission organizations. But is it only those in full-time Christian work that have a calling or 'vocation'? An engineer became a believer and was sobered by the realization all the bridges and structures he'd built would be burned up at Judgment. That prompted him to quit his job and become an evangelist with a Christian organization. Does new birth relegate normal everyday endeavours to some kind of sub-spiritual status?
What about the artificial categories we create to designate 'work' from all the unpaid constructive tasks we do? Alistair Mackenzie in Thinking Biblically about Work writes - "I stood at the kitchen sink finishing off the family breakfast dishes. Glancing at the clock I realised I needed to move faster. So I pulled the plug and swung around in time to shout out to my wife - 'Can you finish off here, dear. I need to get to work.' Work? What did I mean? I was already sweating from doing 101 tasks around the house. If that wasn't work, what was?"
Let's begin by looking at some of the unhealthy notions that have developed about work over the centuries.
Destructive Distortions about Work
In Vocation: Historical Survey of Christian Understandings, Mackenzie writes, "In the Greek world work was considered to be a curse. Aristotle said that to be unemployed was good fortune because it allowed a person to participate in political life and contemplation...For the Greeks, society was organised so that a few could enjoy the blessing of "leisure" while work was done by slaves. Everyday work was a demeaning occupation that one should try to avoid. Certainly there was nothing spiritually meaningful or uplifting about everyday work."
By contrast, Jewish teachers were expected to have a trade through which they could support themselves. Work was to be embraced as part of God's purposes in creation. Jesus was known as a carpenter and the son of a carpenter. Paul the apostle continued in his trade as a tentmaker during his church planting ministry.
But later in the church, distorted views about work developed. Mackenzie notes, "Gradually the Church Fathers began to draw more heavily on Greek and Roman motifs in their theology and the more positive view of work gave way to a much lower view. This is reflected in the view of Eusebius who wrote about his doctrine of two lives about AD300. He says: 'Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, child-bearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone...such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other, more humble, more human, permits man to join in pure nuptials, and to produce children....it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion....a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them.'" [emphasis added] "In a similar way Augustine distinguished between the 'active life' and the 'contemplative life'." This came to dominate Christian thought until only monastics or priests were said to have a truly 'religious' vocation.
The Protestant reformers tried to correct this. But the Puritan work ethic came to be replaced by other distortions - capitalism or Marxism. Mackenzie says, "the concept of vocation became so closely associated with a person's occupation or career that these words became synonymous and secularised without any reference to the calling of God. So the pursuit of a vocation became an end in itself. This is true for both capitalism and Marxism. Both encourage us to look for personal fulfilment through the work of our own hands. Once people worked to live; now they are living to work...Whereas once the medieval church threatened to divorce faith from work, now they are so closely fused that work has become idolised. It is this distortion that deprives the unemployed person, or the person engaged in unpaid domestic or voluntary work, of status, security, and satisfaction, by emphasizing that these are primarily associated with employment. Work once degraded, is now worshipped, and demands great sacrifices."
He notes some destructive consequences of these wrong views of work: "(a) Ordained pastoral ministry or missionary service is elevated by Christians above other vocations and they feel the need to pursue these even when they don't seem to fit (medieval monasticism). (b) The Sunday-Monday Gap: The world of the marketplace is seen as 'secular' and depraved: the world of the church as 'spiritual' and divine. They are two unconnected worlds (Greek dualism)...(c) Workaholism and the devastating consequences of unemployment- employment is seen as necessary for a true vocation and the source of fulfilment (Marxism and a distortion of the Protestant work ethic)." (source: http://www.faithatwork.org.nz/godswork/vocation.htm)
So those are some poisoned or destructive views of work. What was God's intention? What does the Bible have to say about this topic that consume so much of our living hours?
God's Word on Work
The Bible begins with a very positive description of God's work creating the universe. Genesis 1 is full of our Heavenly Father's activity. Eugene Peterson notes, "The Bible begins with the announcement, 'In the beginning God created..' - not 'sat majestic in the heavens'. He created. He did something. He made something. He fashioned heaven and earth. The week of creation was a week of work." And throughout Scripture, a variety of images are used to describe aspects of God's work - shepherd, potter, builder, architect, weaver, gardener, farmer, musician, and artist. Genesis describes humans as 'made in God's image'; "We are workers because we are made in the image of a God who works.We need to be engaged in creative and purposeful activities.It is fundamental to the essence of who we are." (Mackenzie) God mandates Adam and Eve to share in His work; He entrusts the garden to humans. The command to 'till the earth and subdue it,' to 'have dominion' over living things, to till the garden and keep it - this means we're to work with God in a stewardship role. "The value and significance of our work is directly related to how connected it is with God's work." (Mackenzie) Naming the animals, man is invited to add his creativity to God's creative work.
Surveying all the occurrences of the word 'work' and 'labour' in the rest of the Bible, certain themes begin to emerge; so I've gathered the verses in various groups.
1) Work must be CONNECTED to God: Jn 6(29), "Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'" It all starts with belonging to Jesus, trusting Him to be Saviour and Lord for us personally. Number 1 job on this planet!
Colossians 3:23, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men..." Work is to be "for Him" - regardless of who our immediate employer may be. Paul's talking to slaves here, yet he can go on to say, "It is the Lord Christ you are serving." He's boss! All we do is for Him.
1Cor 15:58, "Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain." That doesn't just mean 'church work' if we're devoting all we do to Christ. A coworker with whom Jeffrey Leever had earlier had a conversation about truthfulness said to him, "I've been bummed about having to work on Sundays, not able to go to church. But working with you actually ministers to me."
2) Work is COMMANDED (so it must be good, God's intention for us, right?): Exodus 20:9, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work..." Jesus said, "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me."(Jn 9:4) Paul wrote to the Ephesians (4:16) that the body of the church grows from Christ the head "as each part does its work." Some of the Thessalonian believers had slacked off, waiting around idly for Jesus to come back. Paul rebuked them: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody." (1Th 4:11-12)
3) Work is EXEMPLIFIED BY JESUS, who said in John's gospel, "My food...is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work...My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working...the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me...[and just before His death] I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do." (Jn 4:34; 5:17,37; 17:4)
4) Work is HONOURABLE: (Note Jesus said doing the work brought glory to God.) Proverbs 22:29, "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men." The Proverbs 31 woman is so renowned largely because of her work - "She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks." (Prov 31:17) Jesus acknowledged work has its own worth when He said, "the worker is worth his keep" or as Paul quotes it to Timothy, "the worker deserves his wages" (Mt 10:10; 1Tim 5:18). Paul again to the Thessalonians: "Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work." (1Th 5:12-13) The New Testament reminds us in several places that God will judge the work of each of us - so it has eternal significance (1Pet 1:17; 1Cor 3:8; Php 2:16; Rev 9:20).
While work is honourable, by contrast, sloth (or laziness) is shameful and destructive. Proverbs 18(9), "One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys." Later (21:25), "The sluggard's craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work." Paul is very strong on this - "we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat.'" (2Th 3:10) How much simpler can you get?
5) Work ALLOWS US TO BE GENEROUS and so express real love to our neighbour. Deuteronomy 24(19), "When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands." Paul closes his tearful farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20(35) saying, "In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" Work isn't just for us; it's for the Lord, and FOR OTHERS - so we can have a surplus, something to share, rather than being a drain on society. 2Cor 9(8) talks about 'abounding in every good work'. Paul commands, "He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need." (Eph 4:28)
6) Work makes us PRODUCTIVE AND INDEPENDENT in a self-supporting sense: Proverbs (12:14, 14:23) says, "...the work of [a man's] hands rewards him"and "All hard work brings a profit..." Paul prayed the Colossians (1:10) might "live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work..."
However work may become pointless and empty if it's either disconnected from God and from helping others, or if it's idolised. Ecclesiastes talks about the futility of leaving everything to someone who hasn't worked for it; or the meaninglessness of labour that springs from envying one's neighbour (Eccles 2:20f, 4:4). Speaking of unbelievers who worship idols, Habakkuk prophesies, "Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people's labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?" (Hab 2:13) In the book of Haggai God sabotages Israel's labour as long as they ignore His house; "I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me,' declares the LORD." (Hag 2:17) Their efforts were disconnected from God's priorities.
The Bible also cautions against work becoming an idol. Jesus gently rebukes Martha for fussing in the kitchen rather than paying attention to His teaching like her sister Mary was doing (Lk 10:40). He teaches us not to work for food that spoils "but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." (Jn 6:27) Work's not just to feed ourselves. Trusting God is foremost, like the lilies that don't labour or spin (Mt 6:28). In Revelation 9(20) many don't repent "of the work of their hands" or the "idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood" - is that our materialistic society?
7) Finally, work can be ENJOYED and satisfying in relation to God. Ecclesiastes concludes, "...there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot...when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work-- this is a gift of God...then joy will accompany him in his work..." (Eccl 3:22; 5:19; 8:15)
Principles in Practice: The Interviews
In an attempt to try to understand how Christians integrate their faith and work, and the challenges this presents, I interviewed five people in a range of occupations - owners and workers, agribusiness and merchandising and the service industry. Their answers to 5 questions illustrates how Christianity can be integrated with the work world.
First I asked, "In choosing this line of work, what if any Christian values or motivations may have prompted you? Why did it appeal to you?" Connection was a factor: one said they were lucky to be able to join with family members in what had always been a Christian business. Another said spending more time with family, having a more stable home life without commuting taking time away was important. Also serving others was a big motivation. A merchant said, "There's gratitude when you help someone pick out a gift and they're pleased." Someone in transportation said the product 'has to be moved' - that's service. Helping people out with their pressing needs, said another. A hairdresser said she enjoyed 'making people feel good about themselves, no matter what's going on in their lives."
Next I asked them to single out the top 2 or 3 character values that would be most important for a person carrying out their role. Three of the five interviewed said "Honesty" right off the bat! "There's nothing worse than a sales clerk saying that looks so nice on you, then you get it home and others say, 'Why did you get that?!'" Two mentioned patience - knowing how to deal with people so that even though they may be riled when they come in, they're understanding when they leave. Two said Fairness: looking at both points of view; reasonable pricing, making costs affordable to the customer. Two mentioned Loyalty to the firm - "leaving can cause problems for your boss."
Third I asked for examples of something a client or employer did that frustrated them, that sprung from some moral flaw. Various ones had had people be very rude or swear at them. One client was never satisfied - "nothing you ever do seems good enough" but she kept coming back! One businessman said price-shoppers were the worst - it was frustrating 'to be used as a bargaining tool' comparing with other companies. Others found laziness of fellow employees a problem - "When other employees don't complete their work, take too much time, having to re-schedule to cover for their laxity." Or other fellow-employees who preferred a large corporate environment "because they can hide in it; go along for the ride" rather than perform. Some co-workers "happily sacrificed their values to meet the boss' expectations (increase in wages) to the detriment of their family"; they were "a slave to the corporate dragon". That would be work as idolatry.
Next I asked in what ways they felt they had opportunity to be a witness for Christ in their interaction with clients or management; whether faith came up in the course of conversation or was avoided. A merchant noted various signs with sayings and articles for sale seemed to give people permission to talk about angels and spiritual subjects. All five interviewees said faith does come up in conversation. One woman referred to "a lot of girls who've had marital problems; for example, one needed to feel Christ did love her, that she wasn't alone. Also day-to-day dealing with people; e.g.one recently lost a brother in an accident, being there to listen to her concerns." There's that connecting again; and being generous, sharing. Two noted their firms reflect Christian teaching in practice - by praying before company meals, and by closing on Sunday, though that's getting harder all the time. But "employees certainly appreciate that."
Finally I asked if there was anything Christians could do that would help make their job easier or more satisfying. A merchant said by being supportive - not necessarily buying, but being "happy to have you open in the community". Another noted their church small group provided a place to 'relax with friends' after 'a hard day at work'. One said she'd had problems herself but at those times experienced her employers being "very understanding, listening, to be there for you; the employees pick up on that." And one person said, "If everybody understood the core values of being a Christian, it would be a whole lot better - eg dealing with customers; would be a win-win situation. It could be like that if everybody followed the same rules as far as managing people - honesty / integrity. You'd know what to expect."
When Work becomes Worship
May the Lord help us integrate Sunday with Monday, our worship with our work. The whole of life is a stewardship for those who belong to Jesus.
In closing, here are two quotes and a prayer. The first quote is by Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer from the 1500's who said, "When a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework, because God's command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service to God far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all the monks and nuns."
In the 20th century, another reformer shared that name and sentiment - Martin Luther King Jr. He urged, "If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo carved marble. Sweep streets as Shakespeare wrote pictures. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven will have to say, 'Here lives the street sweeper who did his job well.'" Even street-sweeping can become an act of worth - and worship!
And the prayer is by Christian author and guide to spiritual disciplines Richard Foster. Let's pray:
"The day has been breathless, Lord. I stop now for a few moments and I wonder:
Is the signature of the holy over the rush of the day? Or have I bolted ahead, anxiously trying to solve problems that do not belong to me?
Holy Spirit of God, please show me:
How to work relaxed
How to make each task an offering of faith
How to view interruptions as doors to service
How to see each person as my teacher in things eternal
In the name of Him who always worked unhurried. Amen."