We spend a majority of our time (in fact of our life span!) at work. Yet, the Church and its leaders – such as myself – have spent very little time giving any spiritual direction to laity as to how they should relate to their work. This is not because the bible has nothing to say about God’s people and their work. References to work can be found throughout the bible. For whatever reasons this lacuna exists, I hope to fill it now with some – I hope – helpful propositions for you to think about when you next work.
But before I carry on a note to you retirees, housewives or househusbands. Work is not just something we do to make money. It’s also something we do in our homes such as when we do the laundry, work in the garden, or fix something, and as volunteers in the community. Therefore, what I am about to say is as relevant to you as the person who is financial reimbursed for her work.
Work is often looked upon as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money so we can enjoy ourselves to the max on weekends and holidays. Recent pressures to work longer days and weekends are making work even more unpleasant. Although I agree forcing people to work more is not helpful, I am not so sure that simply a call to working less is the answer. Deeper questions need to be asked about the nature and purpose of work. Therefore, I propose the following thesis to guide what I will say in this article.
Work should be a way of life not a means to an end. Work is a creative activity we should undertake for the love of work itself. Thus, we should make things or perform our tasks for the sake of doing something well and because it is worth doing.
To unpack my thesis I will argue the following propositions. First, work is not, primarily, something one does to live, but something one lives to do. We should be able to find spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction when we work and see it as a medium in which we can offer ourselves to God. Work is not a means to an end but an end itself. Work should be a loving and satisfying enterprise that looks upon what one has made or done as very good.
What are the consequences of this proposition? First, if we work for its own sake because it itself gives us pleasure and satisfaction we do not need to persuade others that our work is valuable. All work is valuable whether it’s planting begonias in your garden or engineering a bridge. Being a doctor or a lawyer is not more valuable than being a carpenter or a bricklayer. All work is equally valuable, at least in God’s eyes, irrespective of what that work is or what society thinks is more or less valuable.
Second, all work is valuable but not all work is valuable to a worker. In an economy in which finding cheap labor and maximizing your incomes is supreme, employees and their natural gifts are often mismatched with the tasks they perform. When certain types of work are considered more valuable to a society than other types, pressures inevitably arise, often from parents and friends, besides society as a whole, to seek training in those highly valued employment opportunities irrespective of whether or not the individual is suited for that type of employment. Maybe that is why there is an overabundance of university-educated people in Canada today who cannot find work in their fields of study, while a demand for people trained in the trades and technology cannot be met.
Third, if work is not a means to an end but an end in itself, then we should no longer think of work as something we hasten through so we can enjoy our leisure; we should look on our leisure as the period of changed rhythm that refreshes us for the delightful purpose of getting on with our work. I am not suggesting we should not have holidays nor delight in them. Far from it! But when work is an end and delight in itself, our happiness no longer depends solely on our time of leisure.
Furthermore, working merely so we can take leisure negatively affects the way we spend our money. How so? Since the maximization of our leisure is paramount in our society it is no wonder a considerable amount of our income is spent purchasing vacation homes and all inclusive vacation packages. Imagine how much more we could give to the poor, the needy, and maybe even the Church if we did not feel the need to maximize what we get out of our vacations by spending a disproportionate amount of money on our leisure?
Fourth, if work is an end in itself that depends upon matching work with who we are and what we’re good at, we should fight, not for mere employment, but also for the quality of work we perform. We should strive to seek out work worth doing that we can take pride in. We should want to be responsible to produce good products or services that furthers the well being of humanity and alleviates the disposal mentality of our production that leads to so much waste and environmental pollution. The greatest insult our commercial age has robbed the typical worker of today is all interest in the end product.
My second proposition is Christians recognize that secular vocations as such are sacred. Just as the vocation of the clergy is a religious calling, so is any work a religious work. The Church, in particular its leaders, have allowed work and faith, in the minds of many Christians, to become two separate departments in their lives so that selfish and destructive ends often shapes how they approach and do their work. For instance, the Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisurely hours and come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: the very first demand Christianity makes upon him is that he should make good tables. What use is Christianity to the carpenter – and his customers – if he is insulting God with bad carpentry? I doubt very much bad carpentry came out of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. No piety in the worker will compensate for the work that is not true to itself. Every professional and worker is called to serve God in his profession or trade – not just outside it.
The Apostles were right to say it was not meet for them to leave the Word of God to serve tables; their vocation was to preach the Word of God. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare meals beautifully with equal justice must also protest: It is not meet for them to leave the service of their tables to preach the Word.
Furthermore, the beauty and excellence of any work needs to be judged by its own, not just by Christians. If you are a Christian and seek to be the best carpenter you can be, take your directions from whomever can best direct you, whether they are Christian or not. If you are a Christian and want to be the best musician you can be, turn to the person who can best instruct you whether that person is a Christian or not a Christian. What glorifies God is not that it is Christian music but ‘good’ music. I believe that is why some contemporary ‘Christian’ music is below the bar. Music should not be judged good just because its lyrics are Christian but because its good!
My last proposition may sound counter intuitive but is true. The worker’s first duty is to serve one’s work not for whom the work will ultimately benefit. Why? What does the summary of the law say? First love God and then your neighbor. The second commandment, love your neighbor, depends upon the first, love God. It depends upon the first so that our love of neighbor does not become an act of idolatry. Only if we first love God for His own sake can we then love our neighbor properly. Likewise, only if we first love our work for its own sake, will it rightly benefit others.
Consequently, do not take your eye off your work to see what everyone else things of it. I am not saying that we should not be accountable to others for what we make, offer or produce. Still, it’s important to beware that not everyone is in a position to judge your work. Not everyone knows what it means to be a good doctor, police officer or salesperson. I don’t look to society in general (as unfortunately many clergy in the Anglican Church do), to tell me what it means to be a good priest and the Church because my Lord and the head of the Church, Jesus Christ and his teachings do not condition their judgments. How can someone who is has no idea how to brick a wall tell me how to be a bricklayer?
The moment you think of uncritically serving whomever in your work irrespective of their expertise, you begin to think of what claims they have on you and what claims you can have on them. You will begin to bargain for a reward, angle for an applause and harbor grievances when you are not appreciated, which will detract you from doing good work. But if your mind is set on serving your work for it’s own sake, the only reward your work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. When the bricklayer is satisfied that the fireplace he has built is done well and beautiful others will follow suit and appreciate and enjoy his work.
From a Christian perspective, the focus of our work should be the way in which we do it, not the ends to which our work may take us. The work itself needs to be source of our joy and pleasure. When we engage our work in this way, it will be an expression of what we are as God’s people and glorify God. Put simply, if work is to find its right place in the world, it is the duty of all Christians to see to it that our work serves God and the best way to do this is to serve our work with delight.