Wise Work

LWC July 30, 2023
Wise Work

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3.23-24)

Our question for today: What is wise work?  For starters, I’m hesitant to assume I know what comes to mind when I say work. Do we mean any effort or enterprise? Or more narrowly, do we mean a role or a job? We’d probably want to define it as both, work being: the initiative we take when we put our mind or hands to anything, including (though no limited to) our daily roles in the home, workplace, school, you name it. To borrow from Paul’s language a moment ago, “whatever you do”.

I also wonder about the kinds of feelings dredged up when we say work. We may enjoy work or a kind of work. We may dislike working on the whole, occasionally entertaining the fantasy that if we could just sit on a beach all day we’d be alright. For most of us, and here’s where I will speculate, the experience of our work is a mixed bag. We know the upsides, the downsides, the necessary challenges, the fulfilment that comes with work, the let down when our work is disappointing in small or significant ways. And we also have inklings about how work plays into our sense of self. Sometimes people say things like, “you’re not what you do”, a sentiment which can be helpful at times, but unhelpful at others because of how tied up working is with being me. I know I am not my role or job, but it becomes very hard to tell sometimes as to where what I do ends and where who I am begins. And should I even attempt to categorize things with such sterility? Isn’t my role as a caregiver, or my job as a nurse or a mechanic bound up in how I’m shaped and at least part of who I am? So, the cliches about work and how we’re to relate to it often fall short. Working and work is both deeply important and complex, and so needs deep wisdom if we’re to go about our work with any shred of integrity or fulfillment. So as our theme verse for this series says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God…”

With all that in mind lets talk about wise work. We’ll start with how work is framed in the Bible’s early vision of creation, and then move to how it’s framed later for some of the first Christians trying to understand work in relation to Jesus. Because we’re covering wise work over two weeks, today we’ll start by asking: how do we frame and relate to work from biblical perspective?

Genesis 1 – 3
In the Bible we’re introduced to work right away in Genesis 1 – 3. Says one scholar, “The Genesis week is a workweek. God creates. God is not described as a force, an energy, an idea, a principle, an abstraction. He simply goes to work.”[i] When you read those early chapters in Genesis, you don’t meet inactive or un-purposed humans, just as you don’t meet an inactive God. God goes to work, and creates humans in his image who follow suit. In other words, God makes humans and then gives them something to do. It’s fair to say that one of the first things the Bible says about humans is that they’re made to work, even if that’s not all they’re made for, and in that Genesis 1 and 2 work is first good and purposed. So the idea that all work is trivial or wrong or something to be escaped, is not the picture in Genesis. Humans are made with a capacity and power, given dignity in overseeing the creation project under God’s eye. Humans have a point of origin (the Creator God we meet in Genesis), and humans have point of purpose (the oversight of the creation project set in motion by God). This means that work, all work, is on some level baked into our humanity, our intended purpose. This is why the rhythm of work and rest (or residing) are inseparable in the Bible. Work and rest, together within the context of God’s design, are perfectly natural and fundamentally human. And, if you’re working, you’re already doing something God does.

The question, of course, is then: if work is so godly, why is it also such a pain in the neck? Why do we sometimes want to avoid it, or loath work? Or on the flip side, why do we obsess over work to an unhealthy degree; why do we overwork; why does the necessity of work sometimes threaten the health of other branches of life, our love of work suffocating our other loves? The answer to why is there is a downside to work comes in Genesis 3. This is the moment humans push God’s wisdom to the side, decide they know what’s best for themselves and the creation project is torn. The simple answer to why work has a downside is the same reason every experience of being human has a downside, and that’s because of sin. It was all good until humanity tried to go it alone without God, and when they did work was tainted and torn along with everything else. In fact, in Genesis 3 you hear where the two primary modes of working are set on a course of painful exertion because of human rebellion: childbearing and working the land. So between Genesis 1 to 3, the Bible tells us that work is now three things: it’s purposed within human design, it’s good along with the rest of creation, but it’s also tainted because of sin. Work, one of the central parts of being human, is exactly as we all feel it is. We can enjoy the goodness of work, feeling a sense of purpose or dignity which comes with work. And every day we taste the pain of work because it needs to be redeemed and renewed along with the rest of creation. So if work is a mixed bag for you the good news is that you’re not out to lunch or doing it wrong. If we were to set up a relationship with work on Facebook, in the dropdown menu it would be entirely reasonable to select: it’s complicated.

Let’s cut now to St. Paul’s early instruction to some of the first Christians. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” In this part of Colossians Paul’s getting practical about marriage, working, and relationships in this first century church. At one point he writes to slaves and masters, the primary working dynamic in the ancient world, but it’s entirely applicable for us now because Paul’s getting at a core framing of work in relation to God. If some in the Colossian church are doing their jobs with motives outside of their relation to God first (which is the early intention in Genesis), their motivations will let them down, and expectations will go unmet (the same goes for us). So Paul reframes their work, along with all work, taking them back to their humanity and origin from God. Whatever work they’re doing they are first to see themselves in relation to and responsible to God before anyone else. They shouldn’t first think about work horizontally, person to person, but vertically, from person to God. In other words, their work is reframed as worship. Whatever they do, Paul says, they are to remember that we are first humans created in God’s image, given the dignity and capacity to contribute, and to let those efforts rise as worship to the one who gives then life. With that in mind, none of us are ultimately answerable to our boss, or our clients, our children, ourselves, or our anyone else connected to our work. We’re first answerable to a God who made us as overseers of his created order. And that’s a framework where our work is redeemed and renewed, because it’s been reoriented back towards God. God sees it all, and as Paul points out, our “rewards” truly come from a place beyond human hands. That was a pretty radical thing to say to slaves in the first century, that they were even noticed by God, that their work mattered, and that God was not only tracking with them, but was ready to reward even if their bosses weren’t. Paul’s words to how masters should treat their slaves was equally as radical, shaping our views of dignity and rights today. 

The message of the Bible is that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the new creation project is underway, and so a reorientation must take place in every area of life. Even though we’re living in a Genesis 3 world (tainted, torn), the Genesis 1 and 2 designs are still on the table. Each day of work with God as a point of origin, of God being the one we’re ultimately answerable to, is realigned and finds life. When work is reoriented to God rightly, it becomes renewed. So someone like me, doesn’t work as a parent for myself or my children or even my spouse, ultimately; I parent my children as part of my life’s service to Jesus, in partnership with my wife. I don’t work as a pastor for Living Waters Church, ultimately; I serve the community as part of my life’s service to Jesus, together with the community itself.

I once went to a Christian dentist who had this knack of using a needle in the gums so you barely felt it. One visit she said to me, “Do you know why you feel so little pain? It’s because you are worthy of respect and dignity, and I do my work in service of God. So when I serve God you are being loved through my attention and feel as little pain as possible.” It was a strange thing to hear in the dentist chair (I think she thought the pastor could use a sermon), but I was grateful for the insight and the experience. And she was right!

Work as Worship
This framework draws out the question of worship and its relation to work. We can see right away the two paths in front of us, and this discussion is more open than ever in our fast-paced western view of work. The Christian has a choice to either worship God through their work, or possibly end up worshiping work itself, or another boss (material or otherwise). Without glossing over the complexities, we can break that down. When we worship work we are motivated by a false God, an idol, likely becoming enslaved to the definition of ourselves entirely bound up in work, driven by unhelpful or unhealthy expectations of ourselves or others. When we worship work we are wrongly and unwisely oriented. Alternatively, when our work is worship we are motivated by our devotion to and origin from God, defining our sense self from God’s vantage point first, before our relation to work, and deriving our sense of fulfilment in our answering to God before anyone else. I would suspect this is feeling you encounter after a good days work when you’ve done your best to be integral, humble, helpful in your work. As up and down as the day may have been, for all the ways you got it right or wrong, all my work has been seen by someone over it all, and each day can end with “well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your rest.” When work is worship we are rightly and wisely reoriented.

[i] Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire“He Spoke and it Came to Be”, p. 12