ARTICLES

On Work

One of the things I love about the Bible is that when we are told what to do, we are also told what we can expect from our obedience. In this passage, Paul tells us to do our work expectant of reward. God often appeals to us with the promise of reward. In fact, Jonathan Edward noted that throughout the Bible, we see the theme of God’s glory and our good bound up together in one. Reward is all about giving us something good while God gets the glory. And when we obey God, it brings glory and joy to God and reward and good for us.

Biblical commentator James D. G. Dunn notes in his commentary on Colossians 3:23 that Paul’s words indicate that work is to be “done from the vital heart of the person, with all the individual’s life force behind it” (The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon) In short, this means you are to do your work passionately as though you are working for the Lord! Or as we often say around Calvary, do it with all your might. Imagine for a moment how our work would be transformed if we first and foremost recognized that we are serving the Lord.

Do your work reverently to please the Audience of One. In other words, endeavor to please God first. In the Greek, the phrase “not only when their eye is on you” is summed up by a word that literally means “eye-slave.” Don’t be the slave of your boss’ eye and only seek to be pleasing when the supervisor is watching. (The next phrase “to curry their favor” is formed from a Greek word that literally translates “people-pleaser.”)

I like the phrase “earthly masters.” The guy who is your direct report is just the guy you answer to. He’s middle management in the grand scheme of things. You have a “heavenly master” who sees everything you do. He knows what your paycheck looks like and what you have to deal with and put up with. You work for him, and he will reward your work. (More on this on Friday.) But still, that middle management guy (or lady) is to be obeyed. And not just when it’s convenient. Paul is pretty clear in the text: “obey your earthly masters in everything.” That’s huge! It means we shouldn’t argue, talk back, make a scene, or gripe in the break room.

We were made to work. In our work, we serve others, which ultimately serves Christ and brings glory to Him. The pilot is serving passengers. The stay-at-home mom is serving her family. The carpenter is serving people who need cozy homes. The engineer serves us by designing bridges that work and roads that get us safely to our destination. A paycheck is not our primary cause for working; our primary reason for working is to serve and make the world a better place for those we serve.

Sometimes our work feels meaningless, frustrating, and painful because we live in a fallen world. We have ALL felt that, haven’t we? It comes our way in so many forms from a cantankerous boss to a lazy co-worker to a downturn in the economy that cuts our company to pieces. God’s beautiful creation has experienced a fall—the fall, to be exact—and it affects our entire lives, even our work.  

I once had a rather odd conversation with a young man fresh out of college and headed to seminary. During the course of our talk, he asked, with considerable frustration, “How do I get an invitation to speak at a leadership conference in Africa?” I couldn’t believe my ears. Since I didn’t want to be a jerk, I didn’t say what I was thinking, which was that he needed to learn something before he tried teaching anything. What I’ve discovered is that if you go to grad school for a million years; learn Hebrew and Greek; study theology; write lots of papers; prepare and deliver about 3,000 sermons, lectures, and Bible studies; stay with two churches for 25 years through good times and bad times; and work really hard everyday, then occasionally someone will invite you to say something. What I think this young man was missing is that our work life takes some, well, work. And there is a right and wise way to go about working.

We have all heard the medical benefits of sleep extolled, and warnings about the health consequences of too little rest: stress, weight gain, anxiety, headaches, memory loss, and many others. But what about the spiritual effects of too little rest? There is little doubt that many aspects of our contemporary culture and the pursuit of the American dream wage war on a solid theology of rest. The idolatry of work, the equating of work and self-worth, and the pursuit of material abundance have made work for many of us an all-consuming obsession rather than a part of our calling. Until recently, Western society carved out times for rest and wove them into the pattern of the week and the year. On Sundays, most people enjoyed a day free from work and commercial activity, free to spend unhurried time in worship, sleep or with family. Intense periods of work in certain seasons of the year were balanced with periods of leisure and recuperation. Weddings, holidays, parties, and festivals were often multi-day events, opportunities for protracted feasting, conversation, and lingering in one another’s company.

Theologians have developed the concept of vocation—the idea that people are called by God to certain kinds of work—through passages in Genesis 4, and Exodus 35, and 1 Corinthians 7 among others. Vocation encompasses our calling as husbands, wives, and parents, as well as our calling to be masons, ministers, managers, and mechanics. We can be devoted followers of Christ wherever God has assigned us while doing whatever he has called us to do. (That’s the message of 1 Corinthians 7 in a nutshell.)

I was reading an article in The Atlantic this week that provided some cultural commentary on the messages in animated movies. The point was that perhaps we’re overreaching a bit in our effort to convince kids that they can be anything they want to be. In the Disney universe, yes, an overweight panda can become a kung fu master (Kung Fu Panda), a sewer rat can become a French chef (Ratatouille), a common garden snail can win the Indianapolis 500 (Turbo), and a crop duster can challenge jet planes in a race around the world (Planes). However, in the real world, we have to ask the question: Is it true that we can do anything we want to do? Moreover, is this a good message for our kids? (Note that this isn’t an anti-Disney rant. I love animated films, including some of those listed above.) The answer to both question is no, so let me provide a biblical alternative to the ubiquitous statement.

There is a story about a crew of medieval stonemasons working on a new building project. A curious visitor asks what they’re doing and receives vastly different replies. “I’m cutting a stone,” says one. “I’m making a living,” answers another. However, a third responds, “I’m building a cathedral for God and for his people.” All three masons were doing the same job, but they certainly had very different habitudes.

Holy Leisure (Latin - Otium Sanctum) – an expression used in the church since the early medieval period – has been lost today.  Americans are workaholics.  We take less time off each year than any other developed country in the world.  We average about 13 paid days off per year - near the bottom of the list - compared with countries like Italy at 42 and France at around 38.  And worse, every year about a third of us do not even use all of our vacation time. The worship of work is one of those “acceptable sins.”  I do understand.  I like to work.  (We were created to work.) I’m usually thinking about my work before I get there, sometimes before I get out of bed.  Often my wife will say to me in the morning, “I can tell you are already at work.”  (That’s my cue to try to “turn things off.”)  I will confess that my pace has not always been good.  I think ministers are more prone to this dreadful disease than just about anyone.  (It is one reason why pastoral life is often very challenging for pastor’s kids – few people see the strain that ministry life can put on a pastor’s family.)  We like to be everywhere and involved in everything, because we truly care about the people we serve. 

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