Will things ever be the same again? Are you struggling with the impact of this pandemic on your normal working routines? Has work become impossible or just much more stressful?
One of the things causing so many of us distress is the effect of the coronavirus on our working lives. You may have had a job you had been loving. It may have been a source of constant stress. Perhaps you have struggled for a long time now without work. Or maybe in recent years, since retirement you’ve been coming to terms with life beyond your career. As we think these things through, I wonder if we sometimes conclude that God is relatively silent on the world of work and our place in it. Of course, we should be seeking to honour God in the way we do everything. And our working life for so many of us is the primary context for our engagement in mission, but is there more than this? Certainly, for many, our work normally demands the majority slice of the cake in our lives whether we measure by time, energy expended or on the impact it has on anything else we might do.
A couple of weeks ago Miles helped us to understand how relevant God’s rest is to us at this time of unrest. Here I want to explore the importance of work and some of the ways the Bible can help us to think about it in such uncertain times.
- Work Blessed
It’s at the Heart of God’s Good Purposes
Though work is often tiring and wearisome – something of an enemy. It is also true that many have known a surprising joy in aspects of our working life and certainly we are discovering in these days just how much of a sense of purpose we were taking from all those very normal aspects of our work. It shouldn’t surprise us that work can be a blessing. I’ll never forget some years ago (having found myself unexpectedly without work) the sense of joy and elation when I secured another full-time job. I took great encouragement from the successes that God gave me in it. The enjoyment of a job well done and seeing the positive impact of others on my labours was something that often helped me get out of bed in the morning. Work can be a blessing, not because we’ve worked hard to make it such, or because we’ve been ‘lucky’ enough to secure an enviable role. No, work can be a blessing, first and foremost, because work is a gift from God. And in it we can have the privilege of walking in his footsteps.
Turning to the opening pages of the Bible we are introduced to a God at work. His work is creative and purposeful. What he calls into existence is described as ‘good’. Clearly, he derives joy and satisfaction from standing back at the end of each day and surveying the fruit of all his work. Repeatedly the opening verses of Genesis 1 chime, ‘God saw that it was good.’ Then, at the apex of all his creative work God makes man, and invites both Adam and Eve to follow in his footsteps into the world of work. They were created to be his image bearers here within his creation and one way in which they would do this is to work – just like him!
Even after the fall (which we will get to in a moment) God’s good purpose for his people would be that they would work in his world on his behalf and do so just like him. It was one of the reasons why he had redeemed them. Having set them free from slavery in Egypt for worship at Sinai, they would now discover that as God’s ‘treasured possession’, set apart as his ‘kingdom of priests’, his ‘holy nation’, they would now represent God on earth as his very own. They would become again more effective image bearers as they lived out his commands in his world. ‘On six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God’ Ex 20:9,10. Their very patterns of work and rest would now reflect the pattern laid down by God in his creation of the world.
So, work is by God’s design and given as a blessing. Even a brief survey of some of these blessings reveals God’s goodness in this gift to us his image bearers. Work enables us to be productive like God as we take from what he has made and seek to make it more fruitful (Gen 1:28) like Ruth who was commended for the fruitfulness of her labours (Ruth 2:17). Through it we can become providers, giving to those in need, supporting those who depend on us and generating wealth for our communities. In our work we hold out God’s protection as we care for the sick and look after the vulnerable. Not only this but God intends for work to be pleasurable and a means of giving pleasure to others (Song of Songs 1:9-2:17). It’s something in which we are supposed to find joy in collaboration and fellowship. This bible word itself, koinonia, speaks of the active endeavour characterised by partners in business or active members in a sports team. It’s more fellowship of the ring than fellowship of tea and cakes! In other words, God has intended for us to find much that is fulfilling in working together to achieve ambitious goals. And so, any thoughts that God is not particularly interested in our work can be dispensed with. No, God is enthusiastically positive about the work he has given you to do for him today. Not only so, but in Christ he has opened up an eternity of work that we will engage in with each other in his presence in the new creation.
Before we step further, it’s worth pausing to reflect on why we might feel a measure of distress in the dislocation of our working patterns and the fears associated with redundancy. God made us as workers and we feel it when we can’t. The distress and discomfort that you may be feeling in these days is a whisper, pointing you to another Bible truth in this arena…
- Work Damaged
It’s All Tainted by The Curse
I can still remember watching young 11yr olds, still wowed by the world of science, watching a diffusion experiment. Apologies to those for whom I’ve already strayed into unfamiliar territory. My background is in Science teaching and a simple experiment to show this phenomenon is to drop a tiny crystal of potassium permanganate into a large bowl of water. This highly coloured salt dissolves quickly and starts to spread. In just a few moments, from a speck of solid smaller than a grain of sand, this bowl becomes completely purple! This provides at least one illustration of the impact of the fall on the whole of creation. Genesis 3 charts the fall of creation from God’s good design to the total destruction of sin. God’s response touches everything – work included. He says to Adam “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” (Gen 3:17-19) Just like that purple stain spreading through every part of that water, so the curse would touch every aspect of work.
Work Becomes Wearisome
The ground that was created to produce an abundance would require painful toil and sometimes yield nothing at all. The exalted purposes of work would be exchanged for monotony and the mundane. I can still remember feeling something of that the first time I worked in a research lab. The outcome and the analysis may have brought a measure of excitement, but no-one had warned me of the mind-numbing repetition that would have me spending hours scraping white powder out of glass flasks! Under the curse, work has become hard, frequently disappointing, and sometimes we discover, a complete waste of time. Some have constructed buildings that never get used. Others preparing meals that are never eaten, lessons that are never taught or at least not appreciated! And the work that was designed to bring us together in joy-filled corporate endeavour can so often result in division, envy, back-stabbing and destruction. Relationships breakdown – teams fight. Projects fail – scape goats often carry the blame unfairly. Pressures rise – anxiety and stress has put plenty in hospital. Injustices flourish –many still suffer as wealth generation multiplies. Work was never intended to be like this, but we should not be surprised. The curse frequently renders work wearisome. And for some, these days of lockdown, have served to magnify this all the more. The crippling pressure of responsibility on bosses who cannot pay. The rising demand for a small number of vital resources that forces many to flex way outside their normal comfort zones. The incessant demand on key workers where the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be retreating fast. And what for you? For your family? For God’s family here at Lansdowne? These days are not easy, but they are far from new.
Many in our world have been living with the wearying nature of work in acute and crippling ways for generations. Whether it’s the day wagers in Delhi or the desperate farmers in Malawi – these days are difficult but nothing new. As we begin to feel the increasing bite, let’s seek to remember those who’ve never known anything else.
Work Becomes Worship
The weariness of work is not our only challenge with it. This gift from God also becomes a curse as we take this good thing and make it a God thing. This is multifaceted and complex, for the work itself may not be what we truly worship. That may be our own hunger for triumph or success, our appetite for power, or the longing for praise. Whatever the case, work can easily become the temple in which we worship at many shrines.
Perhaps most scarily of all, the one thing at the heart of work- doing so for the blessing of others, creation, fellow creature and Creator – has been replaced with work as the means of self-definition. It has all become about me. Our whole education system now rests on this foundation.
This is a universal challenge. It affects us all. The response of our sinful hearts is to take God’s good gifts and worship them in his place. This was Paul’s point to the bustling centre of the world in his day. In Rome, the people needed to know that the heart of the problem was the problem of the heart. ‘They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.’ (Rom 1:23) When work becomes more important to us than the God who blesses us with it, that work has become the god we worship. This god has an insatiable desire. It traps all. Ensnaring us with the belief that any sacrifices made will prove worth it in the end.
We’re all tempted by such worship of work. The danger of expressing our identity in relation to our role. The folly of placing our hope in the satisfaction of a job completed. The risk of building our security in the results of our labours. Such worship is subtle. Tricky to detect. Like carbon monoxide, a gas with no odour. Yet making itself known when finally, we struggle to breathe! You see, we truly discover the things we worship when those things are tugged away. Have you noticed it during this time? I have to put my hand up to this one! Some aspects of this lockdown experience have left me profoundly challenged. And in some ways, it’s not the big things. The daily adjustments, they are enough to reveal an unease that is showing me the extent of my dependence.
Do you feel the battle? Paul certainly lets us see his own experience of this when we get to chapter 7 in Romans. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” v15. Being quite honest with you, I have become more and more aware of my inner battle too. I love working, I gain so much from throwing my heart and my energies into the things that I do. I really do set out to do it all for the Lord but somewhere along the line it shifts. The things themselves become defining. I start to make sacrifices that dishonour God and tend to withhold love from the very people I claim to be doing all of this for! The more I see of this operating within me, the more I can relate to Paul’s conclusion in v24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
On one occasion I asked God specifically to deliver me from this work idol. And – along with a number of others – he allowed me to taste something of my dependence on them when he took it all away. I found myself standing in a queue waiting for the job centre to open, praying that no-one would see me. And yet, in those moments, by his grace, God was reminding me again of his kindness in turning my heart back toward him. In tearing me away from the worship of work and setting me free to worship him again. How does Paul put it? “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Rom 7:25
What I have been slow to learn but am keen to share is that the deliverance of God in Christ never stops at forgiveness. There is more to the gospel than being set free. His deliverance restores us to sonship, recreating us to do the work he prepared in advance for us. There is huge privilege outside the prison.
- Work Redeemed
Work AS worship!
I have come to love Paul’s description of gospel transformation in Ephesians 2. Perhaps because I have had the privilege of seeing him open so many blind eyes through it. But also, I think, because it blows away any possibility of small thinking about the scope and impact of the gospel. It frames God’s good news in cosmic dimensions and reminds how much more we receive in Christ than we could ever have imagined. Go on – spend some time reading and meditating hard on Eph 2:1-10. I say this, because here I’m limiting myself to just one result of this glorious gospel. In v10 we discover that as a result of God’s matchless grace to us in Christ, which raises us from the dead and seats us with him in the heavenly realms, we have been recreated for work! “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” These good works are as varied as the creatures he creates to do them, but they all share one thing in common. They are for the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:14) You and I can rediscover the joy of worshipping God for all he is worth by doing the work that he has prepared for us to do. The gospel is not just about God forgiving you. It’s about you giving him glory, through the death of Christ, in everything you do – especially your work. And in every part of it – at every moment! Do you really believe this? This is perhaps more relevant than ever because your work for him today may have changed beyond recognition. So, I’ll ask again. Do you really believe this?
I have to ask because there have been too many times when I’ve doubted it. When God moved me, most forcibly, out of Christian ministry and back into the classroom I spent quite some time struggling. Having tasted the great privilege of being set apart to give all my time to ministering the gospel, preaching his word, building up his people and equipping them all to do the same, I grappled with the value of my work in school. Was it really that important to be helping children to understand Science? Was there anything eternally significant about preparing them for exams? Time doesn’t allow me to unpack this in any great detail so let me bring you straight to my personal conclusions. I discovered that the real goal in all I could ever do was to glorify God. I knew that they only way any of us can ever do this is through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. What I discovered in those years is that God could glorify himself in and through any aspect of my work, as I trusted Jesus to transform the way I approached it. This gift of him in me, was never deserved – just look how quickly my heart turned to worship my work – especially the moment he started to bring evident blessing through my labours! No, this undeserved gift meant that the Spirit of God could dwell in me and transform me into the character of Jesus in absolutely everything. My thoughts, my words, my responses and actions. Whether I was being seen or completely unnoticed. And every moment I fell short of his glory in this, his blood not only forgave but his righteousness covered so that my worship was a delight to my Father in heaven every moment! It’s hard for me to express how completely this transformed my work. It really became the place in which I found I could worship God more than ever. And the best bit of all? I got to worship God by speaking of him more than ever too. How so? People started asking why I seemed increasingly happy and free from the judgements of others. They could see Christ in my worship of him. All I had to do was explain what they were seeing.
The great news of the work of Christ is that it frees us from our worship of work, setting us free from the weariness in work and making it possible for us to worship through work!
The blessings of work as worship
Just think of the transforming impact on every part of your working life. The freedom from fear. Whether this arises from the anticipation of failure or the disdain of others. When your need for affirmation is from God alone, these fears, and the anxious thoughts that so often accompany them, are undermined. We are set free from the slavery of idolatry. Freed from the normal shackles of career climbing, acceptance in the peer group, and the pressure to conform whatever the cost. We are delivered from the collateral damage to family and church life, as well as the physical detriment of workaholism. Instead, as we step out with work as worship, we find a new joy in the drudgery. A renewed sense of purpose even in the pain, and a hope that brings light even in the darkest days.
As I write this, and draw things to a conclusion, I’m realising afresh. The challenge for me in this Covid world is very real. Will I let my struggles be God’s instrument to show me where my work has become worship again? Will I come to God in repentance for this crying “who will save me from this body of death?” And will I trust in Christ to make every conceivable aspect of my work in this time a sacrifice of worship as I declare “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Your working patterns during this pandemic may have become unrecognisable or non-existent. Could this be your opportunity from God to learn to worship him in today’s labours more than ever? Will you trust Christ in the most insignificant of your actions today to give significance that will be recognised in eternity? Will you trust him to make you more like him? I can’t think of a better opportunity to change the way you work in the future when restrictions ease, than to learn in the present, how to worship God in everything.
A word for all who’s work this world has yet to recognise. Those described as retired or redundant. Those who’s work is in the home. Those who’s labours can no longer rely on physical ability or mental stability. Your work – whatever engages your time, energy and thoughts today – can become a pleasing aroma of worship to God through Jesus Christ and his sacrifice alone. And I’m looking forward to making the most of eternity to praise Him for that work that he will have done in you today. I reckon that’s what you can call eternally significant. Don’t you?
Mike Smailes | Associate MInister