by Esther Vandiver
Work is the gift of creative expression and purpose which was given to man in the Garden of Eden and meant to be wholeheartedly undertaken by man’s complete being: his body, soul, and spirit. God considers work so important that He commands us to do it six days each week (Exodus 20:9). Although the Fall brought about difficulties and challenges, work is still the proper outlet for man’s energies, offering him potential adventure, fulfillment, and delight. All good work is holy, and we offer its fruits as a love gift to God.
Perhaps we Christians need a doctrine of work—a principle we teach and believe about this gift which occupies the majority of the time in our lives. Have we been sold a bill of goods about work that leaves us empty and resentful? If we wrote a doctrine of work, what would it say? Would what we say and what we live be consistent, or would one contradict the other? By our words, attitudes, and actions, what do we teach our children about work?
The doctrine of work commonly taught to students is this: work hard in order to make good grades because good grades are necessary to get into college. Work hard in college in order to get a good job so you can make lots of money and fulfill the primary goal of life which is to have leisure time and great purchasing power. Notice that the importance of work in this scenario is only as a means to something else. As long as work is seen as only a means to an end, we will resent it as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of extracting what we really want out of life. This leads to the pitfall of wanting to get the most for the least effort, resulting in an attitude that society—whether parents, teachers, employers, the government, or God Himself—always owes us more. This attitude results in a society loaded down with financial burdens and oppressed with a grudge against life itself.
Is this the doctrine we want to believe or teach to our children? God did not offer Adam and Eve wages for dressing and keeping the garden: the work itself was the reward. Dorothy Sayers writes,
The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. . . . A very able surgeon put it to me like this: ‘What is happening,’ he said, ‘is that nobody works for the sake of getting the thing done. The result of the work is a by-product; the aim of the work is to make money to do something else. Doctors practice medicine not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living—the cure of the patient is something that happens on the way. Lawyers accept briefs not because they have a passion for justice, but because the law is the profession that enables them to live.’
‘The reason,’ he added, ‘why men often find themselves happy and satisfied in the army [in the middle of WW II] is that for the first time in their lives they find themselves doing something not for the sake of pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the thing done.’
We should ask of an enterprise, not ‘will it pay?’ but ‘is it good?’; of a man, not ‘what does he make?’ but ‘what is his work worth?’; of goods, not ‘can we induce people to buy them?’ but ‘are they useful things well made?’; of employment, not ‘how much a week?’ but ‘will it exercise [all of my] faculties?’. . .” (Dorothy Sayer, Letters to a Diminished Church, 69 and 132-133.)
When teaching our children, we should ask not what grades did they make, but is what they turned out worthwhile; not, can we get them to do this project, but is the project useful and well-made; not, how many assignments can we give them per week, but will this assignment exercise, challenge, and develop their faculties? An awareness of the amount of homework and handiwork that is trashed after a grade is awarded can give us insights into what kind of questions are being asked. When we see an attitude of hurrying through work to get to the really important part of living, we should reevaluate the doctrine of work being taught. How much better it would be to foster an attitude that views leisure as an enjoyable time of rest that refreshes us so that we can do a better job of accomplishing our purpose: the work God has given us to do.
Jesus, our Lord and Master, said an incredible thing: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Are His words true, or is it just a lovely Scripture often memorized? Does this mean that we seek to do “Christian” work only? Does it mean that we seek to do “Christian” work first and “secular” work second? And, what is Christian work, any way? Jacques Maritain once said, “If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.” Here is a definition to contemplate and wrestle with: Christian work is any good work done wholeheartedly by a follower of Christ. This may or may not be the best definition. After struggling with these ideas, write what you think should be the definition of Christian work. Whatever it is, it is not something that we do in order to live; it is what we live to do. The work God gives us—all of it from the most menial task to the most complicated assignment—is our purpose for living!
The Church has temporarily forgotten the sacredness of all good work. When vocations outside of the four walls of a church are considered second-class, non-sacred work, it should not be surprising to see the majority of labor operating on a purely selfish and destructive basis and many workers failing to see how Christianity has any relevance to their lives at all. Another result of this misguided thinking is that we find ourselves tolerating many “Christian” works that are so poorly done, so insincere, so pointless, or so zestless as to disgust any true craftsman. It is vital that the Church rediscover the beauty and sacredness of all good work done well!
No amount of Christian talk can turn slip-shod, half-hearted work into that which brings glory to God. And yet, in God’s gracious economy, every attempt at wholeheartedly working alongside our Creator is a joy and glory to Him, regardless of how many times we fail to reach perfection in our attempts.
Serving money with our work makes for a poor, greedy, tyrannical god. Rather we choose to serve God through the work He grants us, knowing that work is an expression of the meaning and purpose of our lives. (Who we are is not a function of what we do, but what we do is a function of who we are.) Then we read Jesus’ summation of the Law and the Prophets: love God devotedly and love your neighbor as yourself. And we read Christ’s “new commandment”: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34) This, He said, was how the world would recognize His true disciples. Oh, we think, now we understand: we are supposed to do our work for others. But, how did Christ love us? By working to please our human desires? No. He loved us by saying and doing only what God gave Him to say and do. Love for God compels us to do wholeheartedly what God says. True love of others must also compel us to do wholeheartedly what God says. If we forget this and begin working to please others, we will fall into the trap of working falsely.
You cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it. Work that is not good serves neither God nor the community. The moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community. You will begin to bargain for reward, to angle for applause, and to harbor a grievance if you are not appreciated. But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and gives nothing but itself. . .a labor of pure love. (Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church, pp. 142-144)
We must gain a firm understanding of what Christian work is because we want to work truly. However, before we accept the idea that Christian work is any good work done wholeheartedly by a follower of Christ, we must define some of our terms: A follower of Christ is a person who inquires of Christ what he ought to be and do and say—and then follows the Lord’s leading. He will not merely say “Lord, Lord”; he will do what the Lord asks, and if he fails, he will arise and try again.
Good work is any inner or outer manifestation of the truth, goodness and beauty that God has planted within us. Outwardly, it is observed in any work that 1) reflects or clarifies truth, 2) strengthens man’s ability to live rightly before God and to be a good steward, and/or 3) enhances or creates true beauty. All work God gives us to do—whether preaching to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost or washing someone’s dusty feet, whether being martyred for Christ or giving one of His children a cup of cold water, whether building efficient machinery or painting a picture, whether running a company according to His directions or washing dishes—is of utmost importance in the Kingdom of God.
Wholeheartedly signifies being fully present with the adventure of the moment and working with every part of our being: our physical body; our minds, will, and emotions; and our spirit. (see II Chronicles 31:21 NIV)
When Christ was asked what one should do to do the works of God, He answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:28 and 29) In the first few verses of his gospel, John reveals this One whom the Father has sent:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
What does it mean to believe in this incredible Savior—the “Word of God”? Perhaps it means that we believe Him so much that we eagerly and diligently listen to and study the Scriptures, His creation, and His providence to uncover every bit of truth we can find, trying to think like He thinks! Perhaps it means that we unashamedly take His Word as truth, whether we understand it perfectly or not, whether it fits our desires or not, or whether it puts us at odds with the world’s wisdom or not. Perhaps it means that we apply His Word to our work, knowing that He, of all counselors, knows how to do every work best. To believe in Him like this will change the very core of our being. When our core is changed, so is our work. Our work is always an expression of who we are. Christ providentially orders our lives to perfect us, helping us to take on His characteristics, so that our work can express the Kingdom to this world! We discover our specific work through Scripture, through calling, through gifting, but very often through what God circumstantially sets before us.
Success is often tied to meditation in the Scriptures. Scriptural meditation is not an emptying self; it is a filling of self with the eternal truths of God expressed in His Word. Meditation is somewhat like a cow chewing its cud. As the cow brings the food it has eaten back up again and again in order to glean every bit of nutrients possible, so we should continually chew His Word, extracting by use and practice more nourishment each time. There are two vital parts of meditation: (1) discovering the patterns of God’s thoughts in His Word and (2) thinking His thoughts after Him, applying those thoughts to what we think, say, and do. Through this process, God has promised us success in our work. (See Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3, and I Timothy 4:15)
Psalm 119:97-100 Oh how I love your law! [All His laws!] It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
Fulfillment in our God-given work is found as we develop and utilize our body, soul (mind, will, and emotions), and spirit (I Thessalonians 5:23 gives us this three-fold division). In Scripture, we are told that we find God’s will by (1) offering God our bodies as living sacrifices, being willing to do whatever He opens up for us to do, (2) by renewing our minds through His Word, and (3) by following the Holy Spirit’s leading with our spirits which must be reborn before we are able to know God’s will. What do we do if our work does not obviously utilize all of our being? We ask God to reveal how to exercise our complete being in the work that He sets before us. We will experience fulfillment in our work to the same degree that we utilize the total capacity of our body, soul, and spirit.
Our bodies, including our senses, need to be active in doing a good work well. They were meant to be used and exercised. Our society suffers many adverse consequences because of our unhealthy avoidance of physical labor. Utilizing God’s design can include something as simple as rejoicing in climbing stairs to our classroom or workplace!
Our souls (mind, will, and emotions) should be exercised in our work, as well. We are each purposely created with a different lens to view life, bringing a unique perspective to the table. Although our thinking, reasoning, and memory should be renewed by lining it up with God’s truths, our Father God accomplishes this renewal without making us carbon copies of each other! Our will should be refocused by meditating on God’s revelations of cause-and-effect sequences. Our emotions are usually generated by what we believe to be true. If we believe a lie, our emotions will not reflect reality. If we are struggling with our emotions, we need to backtrack, find out what God says is true in the situation we are facing, and consciously think His thoughts after Him. God does not do away with our minds, our wills, or our emotions: He gave them to us! He wants us to properly use, experience, and delight in what He has made. A holy soul is not a non-thinking, indifferent, unemotional soul, but one willing to enthusiastically act on the truth. A holy worker is not one who is so heavenly minded he is no earthly good; he is one who has God’s ways of thinking so embedded in his soul that he is of great earthly good!
Our reborn spirits must also be active in our work. With our spirits, we begin to comprehend God’s essential nature, to discern between godliness and evil, to understand the basic meaning and purpose of life, to be sensitive to other people’s spirit, and to direct our body and soul according to God’s Spirit into the wonderful imagination and creativity that reflect the God in whose image we are made!
How fascinating to contemplate! Satan is so small that all of our evils are alike. We all are tempted and struggle in basically the same areas and in very similar ways! But God is so huge, that each of us can be conformed to the image of Christ and still be a completely unique individual with a unique purpose accomplished through the unique work God gives to us each day. We discover our work when we truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; we prosper as we meditate on His Word and ways; and we find fulfillment as we learn to use our whole being in the tasks with which we are presented. The ways our bodies, souls, and spirits reflect the glory of our Savior in our work are infinite in their possibilities!