Work in the Bible
Where did work come from? Who invented it? Or is it just a consequence of the Fall? Perhaps it was a punishment God laid on sinful humans?
There are certainly times when we all feel that way. Particularly when work seems so hard and frustrating. However, the biblical reality is quite different.
God is a worker
The Bible leaves us with the unmistakable message that, right from the beginning of time, work is good. Why? Because Genesis 1 is really an account of work – embarked on by God, and obviously very satisfying to him. As Eugene Peterson writes:
The Bible begins with the announcement, “In the beginning God created.” Not “sat majestic in the heavens”. He created. He did something. He made something. He fashioned heaven and earth. The week of creation was a week of work. 
An interesting exercise is to read through the first two chapters of Genesis, highlighting all the verbs that describe activities engaged in by God or others. You’ll soon discover the breadth of God’s work habits and the range of his creative genius.
Think of the fun God must have had dreaming up and making stuff that never existed before. What a wild imagination! God is intensely innovative and his development of Planet Earth (to say nothing of the rest of the universe) is thoroughly ground-breaking. In making the land and sea, a million varieties of living creatures, night and day, trees and plants by the score, and much more, God shows himself to be the ultimate trailblazer. A master craftsperson.
Now here’s an important point: if being creative is core to who God is, then it’s clear that God did not stop creating after Genesis 1 & 2. His creative energies are still being applied. For example, we know from scientists that the universe continues to grow. There are galaxies being added all the time. And we must assume there are countless other ways his creativity is being expressed, even as you read this – like all the totally unique babies being born around the world right this minute.
In fact, it’s interesting to observe, as Robert Banks notes in his book, God the Worker, the number of images used throughout Scripture to describe aspects of God’s work, such as shepherd, potter/craftsperson, builder and architect, weaver, gardener, farmer, musician and artist.
So here in Genesis, right at the very beginning of the Bible, we are faced with the truth that God himself is a worker. Purposeful activity is an intrinsic part of God’s character and nature.
Creation – born to work in partnership with God
God’s creative work tells us much about who he is and what he is like. The picture may not be complete, but it does give us a glimpse of his character. This is particularly so in God’s act of creating men and women – the ultimate expression of his creativity – a point well captured by the Psalmist, who congratulates God for making us so wonderfully unique and complex – both inside and out (Ps 139).
In fact, God states in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” This tells us much about ourselves. We have been made to resemble and reflect who God is. Therefore, because work is part of God’s nature, he clearly intends it to be part of ours as well. In other words, we are workers because we are made in the image of a God who works. It’s in our genes. Like Father, like sons and daughters; we too need to be engaged in creative and purposeful activities. Deprived of this opportunity we are robbed of something essential for our wellbeing. Think how you feel when you have nothing to do and time lies heavy on your hands!
But our involvement in work is not simply for our own benefit. God has a job for us – he wants our help in achieving his purposes. His intention is for us to become his co-workers. The mandate God gave Adam and Eve was to share in his work. At the very beginning God was prepared to entrust the garden to humans.
Having been “made in God’s image”, we are called to be God’s representatives. We are God’s hands and feet working in partnership with God in his world.
In the Creation narrative of Genesis 1, this is expressed in God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “have dominion” over all living things. This stewardship role is a call for humans to work with God using our abilities, time, and possessions to further God’s purposes. Because of this, the value and significance of our work is directly related to how connected it is with God’s work.
We find further expressions of this partnership in Genesis 2, in the story about the planting of the garden and the naming of the animals. Here God is the landscaper who designs the garden and plants trees that are both economically functional ("good for food") and aesthetically pleasing ("pleasant to the sight"). Clearly the value of work should not be measured by economic criteria alone.
Then we are told that God placed a person in the garden to “till it and to keep it” … to cultivate and to conserve. Thus God’s creative work is linked with our creativity – a creativity that is designed both to preserve what God has given and to build on it through further creative ventures, using the resources that God has provided. The “tilling” suggests that we have a role to play in helping prepare things so that the potential for growth which God has placed in them can be realized.
In the story of the naming of the animals we find God creating animals and birds, then parading them past the man so that he can name them. The man is invited to add his creativity to God’s. "Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name". Given the significance of naming in Hebrew culture, clearly the man is delegated both real responsibility and great freedom.
In summary then, we can say that:
- Work is good. If God does it, it must be okay.
- We are meant to be God’s co-workers and help bring about God’s purposes.
- God intends for us to share responsibility and exercise our creativity.
- The value and significance of our work is directly dependent on its connection with God’s work.
Up Close and Personal
- Read through the first two chapters of Genesis, highlighting all the verbs (“doing” words) that describe activities engaged in by God. Make a list of them. Describe the range of God’s work.
- Now read through the first two chapters of Genesis again, highlighting all words that talk about human work. How are these tasks related to God’s work? What similarities or connections can you see between these tasks and the work you do?
- Is all work good?
Look back over the list of work – tasks and roles – you made at the end of the Introduction.
- Can you see any of the activities engaged in by God reflected in your work?
- What opportunities do the tasks you undertake give you to be creative?
Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (IVP: Downers Grove, 1980), 104.
Robert Banks, God The Worker (Albatross: Sutherland, NSW, 1992).
Clearly, work is not the sum total of what God is “into”. Genesis 2:2 tells us that “…God…rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” This is not because he exhausted himself, but rather to enjoy what he had created. Rest complements work and indeed work only makes sense in the light of rest.
It’s interesting to note that God creates Eve to be a helper to Adam. She is to help Adam fulfil the responsibilities God had entrusted him with.
Corrupted computer files are a sad reality of digital technology. After working hard to craft a document, it can be devastating to open the file sometime later and discover that things are no longer as they were created. A virus has worked its way in and while we may still be able to decipher the basic shape and outline of the document, it’s no longer what it was meant to be.
As we know, the story of Genesis is a bit like that. God’s vision for his creation – and for humanity, was stunning and beautiful. The first humans must have been in their element.
The events of Genesis 3 have had a profound and lasting effect on work. It’s no surprise that this damage shows up so clearly – and so painfully – in the area of work.
“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 until you return to the ground…” (Gen 3:17-19)
Hardly a pleasant prospect. No wonder so many of us avoid spending time in the garden!
However, the negative impact of the “Great Rebellion” had much wider implications than just growing food. All four fundamental relationships and their connection to our work, were significantly corrupted – our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the rest of creation.
Our Relationship with God
In the pre-Fall days, Adam and Eve were at one with God the Trinity. Not only did they enjoy absolute intimacy, but the tasks they were given were full of value and dignity. They worked as partners with God. Consequently, everything in life was sacred because everything had something of the touch of God on it. Nothing was “disconnected”.
Since the Fall, we humans have struggled to discover the connection (and therefore significance) between the work we have been commissioned to do, and God. Because we have rebelled against God, the fulfillment and purpose of our work is seriously eroded. The problem is that we yearn to work in partnership with God, yet we insist on doing our own thing.
No wonder then that what happens on Sundays is frequently so “unreal” and even irrelevant to our lives during the rest of the week. Many of our friends notice the divide more and more as they grow older. Several of them have left the church altogether, because they couldn’t see the point. For them religious activities, especially the “worship service” on Sunday, felt so totally out of touch with “real life”.
Others of us have lost sight of God’s role for us in his world. We may thrive in the “church atmosphere”, but simply “put up” with our paid employment – treating it only as a way to make a buck and get on with “really living” in the company of our fellow believers.
Losing touch with the church God calls, or losing touch with the world God loves – which is worse?
Our relationship with ourselves
The Fall also directly affects our relationship with ourselves. In the early days of creation Adam and Eve were at peace with themselves, confident in the roles entrusted to them. There was a sense of dignity and fulfillment in being God’s co-workers. The work they did was a part of God’s blessing and enabled them to flourish.
However, now we constantly find ourselves battling to discover where we “fit”. This is no longer automatic and it is hardly surprising that being out of step with God, we struggle to find our identity as workers. Tasks don’t effortlessly fit our unique mix of motivations, giftings, and temperament. We often even have little understanding of ourselves – how we are made and what tasks are best for us.
How many times do we catch ourselves (or others) saying, “This job is just not me,” or “I really like my work but it would be so much better if I didn’t have to do this or that task”? We’re rarely satisfied and fulfilled in what we do. Those who richly enjoy their work are very much the exception to the rule – and if they do they often end up consumed by their work. For most of us our work often seems futile or just plain hard work and toil. In a word: far from life giving.
As a result, some of us become compulsive workers, while others find every day a dreary treadmill. Workaholism or meaninglessness – life often seems to oscillate between these two extremes, as we desperately search to find the balance. Too often this confusion dictates the way we value ourselves. Rather than our identity being rooted in our relationships with God and others, it becomes bound up with our work. We’ll look more extensively at these two tendencies in Chapter 9 (Work as Worship).
Our relationship with others
Honesty, transparency, care, and compassion were all marks of relationships before the Fall. Work built friendship and community. However, since then our working lives have become contaminated by all sorts of distractions – blame-shifting, power struggles, deceit, greed, dishonesty, selfishness, stress…
Relationships in our work have been deeply affected – particularly by the lack of trust between people. For it is trust and respect that is the oil in working relationships.
And this trust has been subverted further in recent decades through the economic rationalizing that has taken place to increase productivity. This has often resulted in the erosion of trust between employees and employers. Unfortunately, in this less secure environment employees frequently find themselves competing with each other to bolster their own job security. As these pressures increase, workplace relationships come under more stress. Trying to get along with a diverse group of people is challenge enough without these additional pressures.
This problem of relationships complicates the issue of work. Often our discontent is not with the job itself – but with the people we have to work alongside! Their personal struggles (and our own), and the inter-personal conflicts that inevitably follow, are yet another result of the Great Rebellion.
Our relationship with the rest of Creation
The Creation story speaks of a world where harmony between created beings was the norm. In this environment, humans were commissioned to care for and steward the animal life and natural resources. The Fall dramatically disturbed this equilibrium. Our greed and ignorance have led to all manner of ecological disasters – and the mistreatment of countless other living species.
The result is everywhere to be seen. Pollution haunts our communities. We waste limited resources. When we strip the land of trees for farming we find the result is erosion and floods. When we introduce exotic species we upset the balance of nature in a different climate. When we factory farm, over-fish, and generally treat the birds, sea life, and animals with whom we share the Earth, with such contempt, the damage is immense.
We were commanded to conserve and cultivate; too often we abuse and exploit.
Finding the balance
Much (though not all) of the damage created by sin is repairable – particularly if people have the will to co-operate with others and with God. Nevertheless, this does produce a built-in tension between frustration and satisfaction. There is the potential for work to be deeply satisfying, but also for it to be full of despair and futility. We’ll look more extensively at this in Chapter 6.
We should be neither resigned to toilsome work … nor triumphalistic. It’s only too easy to sideline ourselves from the rest of our fellow-workers, fooling ourselves that we don’t have any problem. This form of super-spirituality can lead us to understate the ongoing struggle that we all go through as we try to discover meaning and significance in what we do.
Up Close and Personal
- How has the Fall (or Great Rebellion) impacted on your work (think about more than just paid employment)? For example, how disconnected is your faith from your work? What about your Sunday/Monday connection?
- If you could change one thing about your employment, what would it be?
- How dependent are you on work for your sense of self-worth? If you were suddenly unemployed, how would you cope? What other areas of your present life would give you a feeling of self-esteem? Or are there other areas you should seriously cultivate, in order to balance your life?
- How much stress do you feel is caused in your places of work by poor relationships? In what ways does this impact your capacity to do your tasks well?
- What examples can you think of where greed, blame-shifting, deceit, dishonesty, selfishness, power struggles, lack of thoughtfulness for others … have been in evidence in your places of work?
- What factors foster trust and respect between people in a workplace? Can you think of particular examples where there has been a breakdown of trust and respect between people? What difference did this make?
- If you work in a relatively warm and friendly environment, what do you think are the key ingredients that make it that way? Do good relationships influence productivity? Or are there advantages in competition between workers?
Refer back to the list you made at the end of the Introduction.
- How well do you feel the tasks you are asked to do fit your own particular mix of personality/temperament/giftings?
- What tasks do you revel in and which ones do you find unappealing and frustrating?
- Are there any aspects of your work or work environment, where Creation is abused or exploited in some way?
A good friend of Wayne’s is a classic hoarder – but with a difference. He takes great delight in recycling used engine oil and discarded plastic containers, producing in the process new objects, items, gizmos, gadgets and doohickeys! His creativity and vision is amazing. Material that would normally end up at the tip, most of it not biodegradable, is “redeemed”. This person’s industry transforms some items into things of beauty, others into articles of usefulness. In a small way he is participating in God’s intention to redeem his creation.
“Redeem” is a word that early Christian writers quickly adopted. In its original sense (the Latin verb redimere – one of its forms is redemptum) it means “to buy back, release, ransom”, and is used of prisoners, slaves, etc. This was the perfect metaphor for the way God saved us while we were still sinners, through the sacrifice of Jesus.
Many of us have been taught that redemption refers only to people’s “souls”. But the Bible makes it clear that God is in the business of putting right the whole Cosmos. As Paul states in Colossians 1:
He (Jesus) was supreme in the beginning and – leading the resurrection parade – he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without overcrowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the Cross.
You yourselves are a case study of what he does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence.
God’s program for restoration is already in place. He intends to transform and redeem everything and everyone – all that he brought into being. God wants to bring order out of chaos, resolve conflict and restore relationships, and work for justice and just solutions in all situations.
In fact, God’s redeeming work involves the restoration of all four foundational relationships – with Him, with ourselves, with each other, and with the rest of creation. Paul also addresses this in his letters to the Romans (8:18-23) and Ephesians (1:9-12).
God has no intention of disposing with Planet Earth after this age comes to a close. Like Wayne’s friend, he’s just not the throwaway type!
Everything we do to counter or reverse the effects of the Fall is a participation in God’s redeeming and transforming work and looks forward to the completion of that work. We are invited to become agents and examples of Christ the Redeemer.
How should this affect our everyday work?
As we have already seen, work is a part of our humanity especially impacted by the Fall. It figures then, that it is also one of the things most in need of redemption. Some industries and professions leap to mind – the selling of cars or real estate or insurance, the spheres of politics and law and advertising. However, what about the more “caring” fields of work such as education, health, and social work? Do they also need redemption? Absolutely.
A curious feature of present-day Christian life is the way we treat certain industries or parts of society as “unclean” – as if we daren’t get involved in them. We fear that our reputation might be tainted if we come too close. Much like the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized so severely.
Yet without getting our hands dirty and taking some risks, how can we hope to effectively partner God in his work of redemption? Jesus showed no such squeamishness when he purposefully involved himself with the undesirables of his time. His deliberate practice of associating with them earned him the accusation of being “… a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).
Yes, the real estate sales industry (for example) is often highly unredeemed. Maybe that’s a good reason for Christians who have an authentic kingdom vision to get involved in it. The more unredeemed an area of society may be, the bigger the difference we might be able to make.
What kind of transformation is required?
Redemption though, from what? The best way to get a perspective on this is to think about any area of work and imagine what it would look like if God were able to have his way with it. Both on the macro and the micro level.
For example, when Wayne worked as a school trustee, he was responsible (along with a group of others) for the governance of an elementary school. The kind of questions he found himself grappling with were ones like: What might this school look like if God was able to make all the changes he wanted? How would it affect the attitudes of the staff and students, the “culture” of the school, the physical environment, the values and educational philosophy, teacher relationships, involvement of the wider community, the learning process, the sense of fulfillment of staff, times of celebration within the school community…?
The vision of a school community being redeemed by God inspired Wayne, as a parent and a trustee, helping him see where he might put my efforts. Of course, he had to learn to recognize the limitations of his “power” or influence to work for change. There were many factors outside his orbit – attitudes within the community, government policies and funding, quality of management and staff, etc. But this didn’t need to lead to discouragement. For there was much change that Wayne, in conjunction with God and others, could work toward. And it was, after all, God’s work of redemption. Wayne was just one of God’s partners!
In all our roles and tasks we need to be prayerfully discerning. How can we (among other things)…
- Steward resources well
- Serve others with joy
- Employ God-given creativity
- Witness to God’s truth
- Tell the truth and encourage such habits as honesty and integrity
- Bring healing, understanding, and reconciliation
- Build community, and promote peace and harmony
- Preserve and conserve
- Work for justice and peace-making
- Nurture and encourage others’ gifts and character development?
These are all clear expressions of the character and on-going work of God.
Redeeming our own attitudes
However, it’s not just what we put our hands to that requires transformation. Clearly, before we attempt to work with God towards redeeming the areas of society that we are involved in, we need to begin by allowing our own attitudes and values to be redeemed.
Do we really see the potential for good in what we do? Perhaps we should begin further back and ask, do we see any value and purpose in it at all? Many Christians regard paid employment as no more than an opportunity to earn money so that they can “do important other stuff”. Others, while accepting the need for honesty and integrity, see the value of a job mainly in terms of the opportunity to “witness” to their non-Christian workmates or customers.
We do not want to diminish the significance of values like honesty and integrity, nor undermine the importance of witness. God is all for these. However, we believe that God intends to do more than simply “save souls”. It is also his plan to transform those souls – and the world they dwell in. More to the point – he wants to transform us. And he wants us to be his partners in transforming his world. (This is a matter we’ll look at in more depth in Chapter 10.)
It is often our attitude to our tasks and roles, which limits God. We are too ignorant of God’s plans for his cosmos. We put little effort into thinking about his intentions for both us and the work we do. No wonder little connecting and transforming really takes place.
Try adopting the attitude that there is value and significance in every one of our roles and tasks. They are part of God’s agenda for both us and his wider kingdom. God will use our involvement to transform us and others, and redeem the circumstances. He uses them to transform our attitudes, values, expectations, and relationships. Our gifts and abilities can be stretched, our character refined, vision enlarged, new possibilities discovered.
Limits to our role
We’re not suggesting that each of us can hope to transform a whole industry or area of society by ourselves. Paid employees, for example, are often more limited in what they can change than employers.
Even so, we often underestimate our ability to make a significant difference in our small corner of the world. The data entry worker may not by herself be a force to be reckoned with in redeeming the banking industry, but she certainly has an opening to help grow community in the office, inspire others with her acts of compassion and love, push for better working conditions, build strong and trusting relationships between management and staff, and speak the truth in love. That’s a whole lot of challenge for anyone’s working week!
So while not all of us can bring about change on the macro level, we most certainly can at the micro. Unfortunately, few Christians are challenged or inspired about their role in either. So many missed opportunities! Often it’s because we struggle to have a vision for what God could do, through us. For example:
A truck driver may easily belittle his own trade. What significance is there in trucking frozen goods from one place to another? But the truth is that transporting goods to where they are needed is a critically important service. Countries without a good transport infrastructure are plagued by shortages, famine, and suffering.
That, however, is just the beginning. If he thinks through his daily work, our truck driver may also be able to see the value in driving courteously, driving efficiently to conserve fuel, expressing God’s care and love in the way he relates to people during the day, raising ethical issues with management such as accidentally unfrozen food that’s resold, etc.
This is not simply an exercise to help the truck driver feel better about his work. Rather it helps make sense of how our daily tasks fit into God’s call, how what we do contributes to his work of sustaining and redeeming the world.
Or think of parents. The task of parenting is a wonderful opportunity for both the discipling of children and for the parents’ own growth. What is God’s intention for family life, and for the development of children and teenagers? How should that change the way that the family relates, is disciplined (parents too!), does duties, celebrates, and has fun together? What can we do to give our children the best spiritual, emotional, and cultural growth? How can we prepare them to follow Christ and to make responsible decisions for themselves? How can we encourage them to grow in personal wholeness and in relationships – knowing that this will dramatically improve their role as people, and eventually as parents themselves?
These are just some of the issues of what we might call “redemptive parenting”.
We hope these examples help you to gain a glimpse of the immense possibilities in working with God. When we capture a vision of the breadth and depth of the transformation God wants to bring, it will make a huge difference to how we work. We’ll come back to this very important matter of redemption in Chapter 10.
So what’s God’s “end game” in all this? It’s that his work of redemption will be completed. Everything and everyone will eventually be as God intended.
This raises an interesting question or two. What will the role of work be then – in the renewed earth? And what does the Bible mean when it talks about eternal rest?
At first glance, we might think of rest as simply refraining from work. But perhaps that is primarily because of the “toil factor” which exists as a result of the Fall. If work has been tainted by the appearance of sin, then we may feel we regularly need to escape it!
The real function of rest in our lives is to help us recover from times of toil … and to prepare us for further work. Rest and recreation (or re-creation) are positive ideas, restoring us when used appropriately, but undermining us when over-indulged in. We’ll look closer at the role of rest in Chapter 6.
The picture of the afterlife that most of us have involves permanent inactivity – reinforced by images of a non-stop church service, or even an endless feast. However, there are indications that the eternal rest we are promised will involve work. For example, Isaiah, in writing about the new heavens and new earth, says:
“They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit… They will not labor in vain … for they will be a people blessed by the Lord…” (Is 65: 21,25)
Here we are given a brief glimpse of a much more active and fulfilling eternity – not the passive role we are traditionally taught to associate with life beyond the grave. Work, but work of a quite different kind.
It’s true that the scriptures contain only brief references to work in the next life. But think again about the nature of God. The need to create is hardwired into us, because that is how God is. The need to extend ourselves and to achieve, to improve conditions and to perfect our surroundings – these are an integral and essential part of who we are, made in God’s image. And the commission right back in the Genesis story, to “till and keep” – to manage God’s creation, remains. We can be confident that work will continue to be part of our brief and that whatever the work God challenges us with, will be supremely invigorating and energizing.
Isn’t this an encouragement to grow and prepare ourselves for that future … here and now, in our present work? God grant us the vision and courage to partner him in bringing about transformation in this life. For it is a taste of things to come.
Up Close And Personal
- Why do you think we often have such a truncated or reduced understanding of “redemption”? Are there other biblical words or concepts that might help to enlarge our understanding of what needs to be transformed?
- Are there any industries/occupations that you think are un-redeemable? Make a list of them and then explain your reasons for thinking this way.
- What industries do you think it would be particularly challenging for Christians to work in and attempt to transform? Why?
- Take some time to read Isaiah 65:17-25 (Isaiah’s description of the new creation). What impacts you most about this?
Look back over your list of tasks and roles at the end of the Introduction:
Identify the ones that offer you opportunity to:
- Steward resources well
- Serve others with joy
- Employ God-given creativity
- Witness to God’s truth
- Tell the truth and encourage such habits as honesty and integrity
- Bring healing, understanding, and reconciliation
- Build community, and promote peace and harmony
- Preserve and conserve
- Work for justice and peace-making
- Nurture and encourage others’ gifts and character development?
List features of your weekly work that are personally enriching to you.
Eugene Peterson, The Message (NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1993), 422. Emphases are ours.
Wayne’s upstairs home office has a splendid vista looking out over trees to the hills beyond. And when he goes downstairs, the view is even better – a backyard full of beautiful gardens, trees and grass. He often marvels at the creative genius of God and his co-workers (such as his wife, Jill!) who have created such beauty and inspiration.
But nothing ever stays the same. The splendor of the view also reminds him of things that need doing – lawns to mow, trees to prune, fences to rebuild or paint, a house to wash and gardens to weed. If he could just get the benefit of the great surroundings without having to constantly tidy up, things would be perfect!
This, of course, is the reality of living in God’s created world. A world full of beauty and wonder is also a world of both growth and decay. Maintenance is part of the deal.
And that’s true for God as well. Sometimes we assume that God’s work ended the day the cosmos – his great creative masterpiece – was finished. But his responsibility did not stop there. He is still hard at work sustaining life in our universe. Much like the work required in order to maintain a beautiful garden, God’s ongoing attention is required. He is not some remote creator who has lost interest in his universe.
For many centuries Christians have used the word “providence” to describe this involvement. Simply put, the universe continues to depend on the continuing touch of its Creator every moment to maintain its existence. If God stopped working, our universe would disintegrate. His providence is what allows our world to continue.
Alec Motyer, in his exploration of the meaning of Isaiah 42:5-6, puts it this way – “The power which called everything into being keeps it in being”.
The Bible backs this up. For example, the writer of Hebrews states in 1:3 that the Son is “… sustaining all things by his powerful word”, while Paul comments in Colossians 1:17, “In him [the Son] all things hold together”. Peter expresses this same thought somewhat differently when he writes, “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment …” (2 Peter 3:7).
Job 34:14 and Psalm 104:29 also say in different words that if God ceased to breathe his life into us we would immediately return to dust. A sobering thought.
Of course this activity of God’s does not appear nearly as dramatic as those initial acts of creation. This is more like God’s housekeeping work. But nevertheless without his continuing involvement in this way, life would cease, chaos would reign, and the universe would disintegrate.
This sustaining work is different from the redeeming work that we considered in the previous chapter, though they inevitably overlap. Redeeming work seeks to transform a negative situation and make it better, never settling for the status quo. Sustaining work maintains life by preserving the status quo. Both are important.
Practicing God’s presence
One of the main ways God maintains life on this planet is through our work – tasks such as cleaning, painting, repairing, even putting out the rubbish! These often boring, routine chores hardly seem like spiritual tasks. But they are – even if practicing the presence of God in the midst of the mundane does not come automatically.
We all find it easy to see God at work in miraculous events, but less so in everyday ones. Unfortunately, as a result we end up with a much-reduced vision of God and his work. And sadly, it’s also a very limited vision of the significance of our own daily work. We fail to see it through God’s eyes.
Cultivating, growing, picking, preparing, cooking, parenting, nurturing, educating, collecting, counting, administering, distributing, transporting, testing, preserving, cleaning, serving… all of these activities, and many more, are examples of our sustaining work. They are, therefore, part of God’s maintenance work too.
These tasks all have value and significance. If I don’t mow the lawns, repair the fences, paint the house and trim the trees, our backyard will soon become overgrown and our house will rot and decay. This work is an important part of my role as a steward of God’s creation. And it’s only as I begin to recognize the role these tasks play in sustaining life that I am able to infuse them with the dignity they deserve.
If I’m really going to recapture a sense of God in the midst of the mundane I will need to develop a new kind of everyday spirituality, and a new sense of awe in the ordinary. I’ll need to recognize God at work in every set of circumstances, with no part of life untouched by his presence, or excluded from his purposes.
God’s work of restraint
There’s another aspect to God’s sustaining work. It has to do with restraining evil in our world. We looked briefly at the impact of the Fall on the world of work in a previous chapter. But part of God’s work is also to hold evil in check and to limit the extent of harm and destruction it causes.
Here’s where the command of Jesus to his followers to be salt in the world, makes real sense. Salt is a preservative and its presence enables food to remain good and wholesome for considerable periods of time. As God’s co-workers, this is one of our roles.
Some ways in which our work is linked to this restraining aspect of God’s work includes exercising discipline, developing legal restraints and rules, monitoring and enforcing laws, peacemaking, and holding things together when they threaten to fall apart.
To some people the extent of evil seems already too awful to contemplate and actually becomes a barrier to belief in the goodness of God. However, for others the mere fact that life continues with as many good experiences as we enjoy is witness to the restraining power of God at work in a world that would otherwise disintegrate. The chaos and anarchy in our world would be so much worse without God’s restraining hand.
Up Close and Personal
- How do you understand “providence”?
- In what ways do you see God working now to sustain his creation?
- Make a list of as many tasks and occupations as you can think of where the sustaining role of work is foremost.
- In what ways do you see your personal work connected to God’s sustaining work?
- In what ways can you see your work and involvement as preservative (salt)?
- “To some people the extent of evil seems already too awful to contemplate and actually becomes a barrier to belief in the goodness of God. However, for others the mere fact that life continues with as many good experiences as we enjoy is witness to the restraining power of God at work in a world that would otherwise disintegrate.” What do you think about this?
Refer back to the list of tasks and roles you made at the end of the Introduction.
- Mark the ones that are primarily maintenance tasks.
- Now mark the ones that are mundane tasks.
- Which tasks have you marked twice?
Spend some time reflecting on how you can value these the same way God does. How might you be able to view these tasks as spiritual exercises?
J.A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 321.
The biblical writers are very realistic in their appraisal of what work can be like as a result of the Fall. Take Ecclesiastes, for example:
“I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to someone who has not toiled for it.
“…And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Eccl. 2:18-21; 4:4).
Depressing stuff. Unfortunately, work can be incredibly tedious, frustrating and meaningless. And it is so for countless numbers of us. If we’re honest with ourselves, who hasn’t at some time asked the question, “What on earth am I doing this for?”
Deep down all of us want to be reassured that what we are toiling away at is going to count for something in the long term.
Meaninglessness can drive us to despair, and ultimately to insanity. The frequently told story of a Nazi concentration camp bears that out. A shrewd and sadistic camp commandant had a group of men toil all day long to shift a huge pile of dirt from one spot in the camp to another. The next day they were ordered to repeat the process – in reverse. On this went, day after day. The sheer meaninglessness of the task quickly wore those able-bodied prisoners down. It deeply affected their pysches and eventually destroyed their reason to live.
Often, unfortunately, we inflict this tragic fate on ourselves. Some of the world’s richest men and women have ended life despairing of all they have achieved. One even summed it up by saying, “I am the most miserable man on earth!”
Or what about Ramses II, perhaps the greatest of the ancient Egyptian pharoahs. His building program was one of the biggest and most extravagant of any ruler’s. The British poet Shelley wrote a poem about him, entitled “Ozymandias” (another name for Ramses).
This is what remains of all that Ramses invested his life in…
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Asking the Difficult Questions
Reading Ecclesiastes forces us to ask the difficult questions about the meaning of life – and of work. The writer, reflecting on his experience, has come to the conclusion that so much is frustrating, futile and meaningless, without a God-centered worldview.
Within his depressing honesty, there is clearly a warning for readers on the subject of work.
Investing in people, not things
The first warning is not to count on building monuments that will last forever. Neither great wealth nor great possessions will last the distance. The only thing worth investing in is people. If the writer of Ecclesiastes is indeed Solomon, then he certainly was writing from personal experience. Like Ramses, Solomon put a huge amount of energy into extensive building programs, and his wealth grew enormously throughout his reign. In chapter 2, verses 10 & 11 he concludes:
My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Contentment and dissatisfaction
The second warning is to not look for easily quantifiable value in every task we do and every moment we spend. Solomon’s counsel is very down-to-earth. In Chapter 3 he suggests that God’s people will always live with a tension. God has put eternity in our hearts and so we are always hungry to know more than this life can ever offer. We want to enjoy an intimacy with God and with each other, and a satisfaction in our work that, in the here and now, we cannot fully achieve. To be sure, in God’s presence we will at last find such total fulfillment, but in this life we must accept the tension.
We will never be able to figure out exactly what God is up to or why he seems to choose such roundabout ways to accomplish his purposes. These are mysteries we must learn to live with.
And so is the tension between contentment and discontentment – particularly in our work, where the conflict between our ideals and reality seems most intense. But Solomon suggests (in chapter 3:14) that this is just how God intends it. This is what makes us dependent on him. This is why we have to rely on his grace. If it was easy we would start thinking that we’d accomplished it by ourselves. It may be frustrating that all is so mysterious, but it’s designed that way in order to push us back to reliance on God. And to remember his presence in the midst of the mundane.
Thirdly, Ecclesiastes warns us that if we work only for ourselves, it will seem pointless in the end. We have been made for community, and to serve others. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Eccl. 4:12)
In our present society, money and status are held up as important motivating factors, and a reason why students should apply themselves to the demands of study. But the writer of Ecclesiastes says it is better to settle for a handful of goods and live with contentment than be forever working our butts off for two handfuls; for we will discover – too late – that it just isn’t worth it.
Jesus too, cautioned against rampant self-focused ambition. In Luke 12 he tells the parable of the rich fool – a wealthy landowner who, in a fit of greed and selfishness, decided to build bigger barns to house his bumper crop, so that he could enjoy the “good life” without ever having to work again. God, seeing his heart, labels him a fool and takes his life away.
Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’s punch line (verse 21) as: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” 
Of this parable, Craig Evans writes:
“The man is implicitly selfish. He does not see this abundance as an opportunity to help those needing food. Rather, he hoards his plenty and then relaxes under the assumption that his troubles are over. Herein lies his folly. The day will come, often sooner than expected, when all persons will have to stand before God and give an account. All that the fool will have to show for his life will be bigger barns crammed with food, food that will be enjoyed by others now that he is dead. Rather than giving away his surplus, and so laying up treasure in heaven, he has selfishly and greedily hoarded his worldly goods with the result that in the end he does not even benefit from them.” 
There is real meaning and significance in work that serves others and God. This is what we were made for. Our culture’s promotion of the self-centered good life is a dead-end and will bring no lasting satisfaction.
Conversely, when we seize the opportunities presented to us every day to serve others and build friendship through our work, genuine fulfillment can come. Each task. Each transaction. Every relationship. All these can become an expression of care and concern for someone. If you are in touch with God, every action can become a living reminder of his love and grace for others.
The book of Ecclesiastes certainly invites us to be honest about the frustrations and struggles we experience. But don’t make the mistake of letting those frustrations grow out of proportion. Don’t think that God is not with us in the struggles. For quite the opposite is true. Because God is in the struggle – that’s why we feel the tension. At the very moment when we’re tempted to run, God is calling us to stand. We need to be awake to see God at work in places where we have previously been blind to his presence.
Our daily work is part of our service for God. And our daily work (as we’ll talk more about in Chapter 9) is part of our worship of God… for worship is not just something we do on Sunday. It is our gift, of ourselves and of our creativity, to our Father.
With penetrating skepticism Ecclesiastes probes the underside of life and exposes the futility of so much that the world encourages us to pursue. But the aim is not to leave us depressed and discouraged. Rather, it should help us live with a new liberty – released from the anxiety and fears so many have when they are preoccupied with the need to build bigger barns, or to make more money, or to push harder for promotion.
Up Close and Personal
- What kind of “legacy” are you hoping to leave with those who know you? Are you confident it will stand the test of time?
- Personal meditation: Reflect on your dreams and ambitions? Are they self-focused or primarily other-directed? Short-term or long-term?
Refer back to your list of tasks and roles at the end of the Introduction.
- What tasks/work do you find frustrating or meaningless? Why?
- What tasks/work do you find fulfilling and purposeful? Why?
- How is the work you’re engaged in able to serve others?
- In what ways are you investing in other people?
E. Peterson, The Message, 151.
Craig Evans, Luke (NIBC) (Hendrickson: Peabody, Massachussetts, 1990),196.
What do you think of when you hear the word “rest”?
Do you dream of quiet days in a deck chair on a deserted beach? Or perhaps time with family and friends, completely free of the prospect of work?
What the Bible says about rest
There is much in the Scriptures about rest – almost as much as about work. This is not surprising when you consider that work and rest are two sides of the one coin. You can’t have one without the other. And their relationship to each other is modeled in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2 … within the story of Creation.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Gen. 2:2-3)
What exactly did God do when he rested?
He took a break. He refreshed himself. Was God exhausted so that he needed a rest? Or did he just want to stand back and enjoy what he had made? If we hope to appreciate the worth of something, we need to take time to enjoy and evaluate it, to catch a glimpse of the big picture and gain a new sense of perspective.
Early in the history of the people of Israel, a “sabbath” was established, based on the example of the Creation story. It was a sign of the covenant. The fourth commandment is one of only two that are given in a positive form – “Remember the sabbath, to keep it holy”. For the sabbath was intended by God to be a day of delight. An opportunity to celebrate life and anticipate the future. It was also a day to be set apart, consecrated and dedicated to God.
Like the other commandments, the sabbath was given in order to keep the people of Israel liberated. For the call to “lay down the tools” for one day a week was a discipline which was intended to break the relentless demands of work. In this sense, it was not so much a “commandment” as a kindness, an example of God’s care.
In the Gospels the sabbath plays a prominent role. Not surprising, since many of the run-ins that Jesus had with the religious authorities sprang out of sabbath-keeping. The legalism of the day had tied the sabbath into a highly negative command – with laws against all kinds of trivial activities. This was consistent with the “ethics of avoidance” predominant among the Jews at the time. Their effort to “avoid sin” missed the point of sabbath rest entirely. The response that Jesus made was to demonstrate mercy, healing, liberation and restoration. In doing so he made a dramatic point about the true meaning of the sabbath.
Sabbath then is, viewed biblically, a day of pause, a time of physical rest and renewal, an opportunity for spiritual refreshment. It is a gift from God.
Rest – not leisure
It’s important to note the distinction between rest and leisure. Rest and sabbath are not the same as leisure, though they may certainly overlap. Rest is all about recovering our equilibrium – with God, with ourselves, with others and with creation. The goal of leisure is personal enjoyment – which may well be a by-product of rest, but not its primary purpose.
In fact, leisure can frequently divert us from rest. For many people it either becomes so dependent on frenetic activity that it is just another form of work (like the old “work hard, play hard” maxim) or so caught up in personal pleasure that there is little room to reconnect with God, our inner selves, and others.
A further complication is the place consumerism has come to play in our culture. We are constantly being asked to buy this or that gadget, or take this overseas holiday or that thrill-seeking adventure – as if filling our lives up with more and more pleasurable experiences will somehow lead to greater happiness.
Unquestionably a Christian needs to discover a place for leisure. However leisure is not the biblical opposite of work – rest is. For it’s as we seek to be renewed and re-energized that we are able to re-enter the rhythm of work.
Rest is a dirty word
In spite of the clear biblical mandate to rest, life is increasingly so full that few people take the time to rest well. Alvin Toffler’s prophetic words of the ‘70’s have been confirmed with remarkable accuracy. Life is dramatically faster now than it was a generation or so ago. Little wonder that the reply I expect most when I ask friends how their week has been is, “I’m just so incredibly busy,” or “Flat stick!”
Why have we allowed the treadmill of life to speed up? Why do we have to live faster and faster, so that our lives seem to be spent just trying to keep pace? No doubt there are many factors, but three key ones Gordon MacDonald identifies in his short article “Rest Stops” are:
Rest is not “productive”
Efficiency and productivity are virtues in our society. And productivity means efficient activity. Our narrow definition of productivity excludes any concept of strengthened relationship, often with unfortunate results. For example, in an efficiency drive in orphanages, staff numbers were reduced. However, it was quickly discovered that when there were not enough staff to handle and hug the babies, the babies simply died.
We can even make ourselves feel guilty if we’re not working or being “productive”. It’s our “productivity” which generally feeds our sense of value and worth.
Obviously rest doesn’t fit too well into this equation! It’s not productive, it doesn’t feed our self-worth, and therefore it’s a distraction from what is seen as really important in life.
Our culture is fixated on standards of living. We even measure the economy by how much it has grown each year – through the lens of productivity and consumption. Unfortunately the church has largely bought into this. We are very much products of our society. In the incessant drive to possess more, we have laid a real trap for ourselves. For as Gordon MacDonald says, “The more we want, the more revenue we must produce to get it. The more revenue we must produce, the longer and harder we have to work. So we build larger homes, buy more cars, take on added financial burdens and then find ourselves having to work harder to pay for it all. More work, less rest.”
In fact, under these conditions, rest becomes the enemy of work.
The role of technology
Technology is a wonderful thing. During the writing of this book several years ago, one of us travelled extensively overseas, yet we were able to continue the process of writing and developing the content via a laptop and email, passing the text backwards and forwards around the planet.
It has never been so easy. But the same benefits of technology are also responsible for very negative consequences. Smart phones, wi-fi, social media, supersonic travel, and the like, mean that life is now actually more hectic than ever before. Virtually everywhere on earth is easily accessible. And our wireless devices have conditioned us to desire continuous “connection”. As a result, our work and rest have become so intertwined that many people live most of their week in a confused milieu, unable to concentrate 100% on any one activity, constantly distracted by texts, emails, and Facebook. Not able to truly work. Not able to truly rest.
Far from liberating us, digital technology has enslaved us. It has become our master, we its servants.
The call to simplicity
Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, the gospel calls us to simplicity. Because of the intense pressure exerted to speed up life, to be more “productive”, to accumulate more, to experience this and that, to “connect” with everyone, we need to take deliberate action if we’re to fight against the current.
Some practical forms of simplicity
All of us live in our own unique circumstances. What I face weekly may well be very different to the challenges you face. However, each of us can develop habits and routines that help us grow a work/rest rhythm in our lives. Here are some things we, the writers of this book, have consciously worked at.
Dropping our lifestyle expectations
We’ve noticed that an enormous amount of stress and effort is given to appeasing our appetite for an increased standard of living. Many of us can actually live on substantially less with very little pain. Buying a house in a cheaper area of town and then resisting the desire to “upgrade”; buying a second hand vehicle that has already depreciated substantially but still has good life in it; settling for mainly secondhand furniture; eating out only occasionally; keeping one’s wardrobe to a minimum and wearing clothes till they are well-worn; choosing cheaper forms of entertainment and holidays – all these are some of the practices we have pursued over the years. And they have reduced the cost of living substantially.
During the years of greatest expense (teenage children!), simplifying our standard of living meant much less financial pressure on us than on many of our friends. We were content to live on a lower income and therefore have more time and energy to give to other matters – including rest.
Walking rather than driving
One of the great technological marvels of our age remains the motor vehicle. It enables many of us to live and work in very different communities, and to visit family and friends hundreds of miles away in a short period of time.
One of the downsides of my car, I discovered, was that it “upped” the frenetic pace of my life because I was able to get to more places, do more things, and see more people in a day. Plus, city traffic being what it is, my stress levels often increased while in the car.
One of the habits I have developed to counter this hectic pace, has been to walk where I can, or even take public transport. (That’s a challenge for me. I happen to be an ex-car dealer!) Walking slows me down. It fills my lungs with air, my nose becomes sensitive to the smell of trees and flowers, I see things that I miss at 50km an hour, and I meet people I would normally drive straight past. It gives me time to think, to reflect, to pray and to relax. Unhurried, I build a rhythm into my daily life, which makes me better prepared to face the times of busyness.
Not becoming a slave to being “connected”
Modern inventions have changed the pace of life, and the ubiquitous telephone is one of the clearest examples. Whether landline or cellphone, its insistent ring has become one of the great compulsions of modern life – even more so with the advent of the smart phone.
I base most of my work from home. There are tremendous advantages to working from home. I don’t have far to commute each day (the traffic is very light on our stairwell!), I keep overheads to a minimum, and there is great flexibility in my day for mixing family, friendship and community responsibilities with employment.
However, with all upsides there are downsides. One is the accessibility people have to me via the phone. They know that I can be reached all times of the day, night and weekend. The interruption this can cause to family life, let alone rest and recreation, is potentially enormous.
I experienced a real breakthrough when I realized that I wasn’t obliged to answer the phone every time it rang. I did not have to be at the beck and call of everyone.
When I am in need of some time for reflection, rest or writing, or when we have visitors, I will frequently just let the phone ring. Visitors sometimes get quite unnerved about this – their faces seem distraught as I continue listening or talking while the phone rings! Almost an, “aren’t-you-going-to-get-that?”plea.
Since writing the initial edition of this book, there has been a monumental shift in digital technology – away from the fixed line telephones, televisions, and stereos, to mobile devices that can go wherever we go. Smartphones, MP3 players, tablets – these are now so dominant in our culture that for many people they act kind of like a prosthetic – an extension of who they are; something they simply can’t imagine doing without.
Being wired (or connected) is now a 24/7 experience. Public and private spaces, work and recreation, have within a short space of time become thoroughly colonized by screens. Texting, social media, email, downloadable music, movies, video clips, and TV shows, online video games, avatar personas, Skype and Facetime – these are the things that fill our lives.
There are some benefits to all this new technology. However, such a constant connectivity has also come at great cost. It has blurred the lines between work, rest, and leisure. It has shortened our attention spans so that most of us are now distracted and have swallowed hook, line, and sinker, the lie that “multi-tasking” is more productive than focusing on a single task. Our relationships at work and at home have become significantly mediated through the media we use – fundamentally changing the very nature of relationships (and in fact, the way our brains function). This has resulted in the human need for face-to-face, undistracted, intimacy becoming harder to find.
And…our capacity to desire and find genuine solitude and silence, so we can think, pray, reflect, and be renewed by our relationships with God and ourselves, has been deeply diminished.
If we are to be freed from the tyranny of 24/7 connectivity, most of us will need to take very deliberate, intentional steps to restructure our lives. This will inevitably include carving out spaces and times where we disconnect from the digital world.
The biblical rhythms of life
Not only did God intend for us to experience the regular rhythms of the day (day and night) and week (six days working, one day sabbath), but there are other laws he laid down for the people of Israel. These include regular “religious festivals” (some lasting several days), the sabbatical year (every seventh year when the land was rested) and the year of Jubilee (the 50th year – after seven sets of seven years).
All were intended to structure into the normal schedule of work a balancing rhythm of rest. How we do this in our modern and largely urban context is a personal challenge we all must face. But rest we must – not only because our weary minds and bodies need a “breather”, but also because of the constant need to realign ourselves with our Creator and his creation.
Up Close and Personal
- If you grew up in the church, describe what part the sabbath played in your early life – how was it expressed in your family and church context? Then think about how this has changed now – both in your understanding and practice of sabbath.
- What are some of the changes in our society that now make rest and sabbath more difficult to keep than, say, thirty years ago?
- Do you agree with the distinction made between rest and leisure? What forms of leisure do you think are also restful? What type of leisure works against sabbath?
- Productivity, consumerism, and technology have been mentioned above as factors that have contributed to the speeding up of life. How have these affected your life? Are there other factors?
- Spend some discussing the section on connectivity. Do you agree or disagree? Share your own experiences and reflections of its influence on your life. What kinds of practices might help you to be freed from the tyranny of 24/7 connectivity?
- Have you ever had the opportunity for a sabbatical? Share your experiences, the lessons you learnt, or the things you would do differently next time. Discuss creative ways of making space for sabbaticals.
Gordon MacDonald “Rest Stops” in [email protected] Journal, Vol 2, No.4.
I’d had a difficult year. Despite my intense commitment to working with unchurched young people, I was feeling tired and drawn. Everything was an effort. And the challenges I was presented with just served to overwhelm me. At the end of the year I sat with the other leaders of the organization I served and discussed my predicament. Conversation was well meaning but didn’t really touch me, until one of the leaders – a middle-aged man – spoke about the need for sabbaticals. I had heard the term before – mainly used by my old university lecturers, but it was a totally foreign concept in the environment of our organization. As he talked, the penny dropped – not that this would be the golden answer to my woes, but the timing was right to experience a break.
Six months later my wife Jill and I, along with our eight-month-old daughter, found ourselves travelling into the deep south, to a small isolated community. It was the beginning of a four-month adventure that not only restored my sagging energy levels, but more importantly helped set the compass of our lives for the next “season”.
During those delightful few months we explored beautiful Fiordland, I worked ten hours a week for a small Baptist fellowship – preaching, leading, pastoring – we developed rich and deep friendships, and I studied (a correspondence paper from a North American college).
Being enveloped by a caring community and appreciated for what we could contribute to them, having freedom to be a family without the usual demands on our time, studying church history, regaining a sense of spontaneity and of awe – all these elements combined to refresh and renew me. They were some of the key ingredients that made those few months a watershed in my life.
Sabbaticals frequently result in directional changes. I have seen this time and time again with my friends. My one was just that for me. I came back convinced that my time in youth work was close to an end. I was still completely unaware of what lay ahead, but the direction of my compass was already changing. I discussed this feeling with my fellow-workers, and we agreed that I would serve another 15 months – long enough to pass the baton to others.
As it happened I ended up going overseas to study at the college I had previously done the correspondence paper from. A new organization was also in its infancy – and with my colleagues I was able to develop some fresh material and trial new ideas. It was an exciting time. The energy and confidence to explore and change was largely due to the invigoration of the sabbatical.
Sabbaticals can be for everyone
Often I hear from people, “Oh, it’s okay for you. You can take time out. But I can’t. My boss would never allow me to take an extended time and he certainly wouldn’t pay me for it! You’re lucky.”
Of course there’s truth in these sentiments. Many of us aren’t in the position where we can just take a break from our employment. And yet it may not be as impossible as at first appears.
For some there may be an opportunity to make use of long service leave. Others may be able to apply for leave without pay. Others again may be able to accumulate holidays. Perhaps alternative low-stress employment for a period. A friend of mine took a year off from youth work and drove buses. “The most enjoyable year of my life,” he tells me.
The critical thing is not so much the length of time – but the intention and purpose of the time.
Even if the ideal of a complete break is not physically possible, there is still the opportunity for opting out of an aspect of our work for a period of time, in order to rest and consider where we are headed. For example, this could involve taking a year-long sabbatical from church responsibilities or community activities. While this won’t provide all the opportunities that a complete break from work does, if it’s well structured it can certainly give space for plenty of rest, reflection and re-evaluation of priorities.
I realize that the idea of a sabbatical seems risky. It’s not easy to abandon the security of our regular life and work commitments. Yet my experience, and that of several friends, is that it’s a richly rewarding exercise. Forgoing it means that you’ll miss out on a wonderfully refreshing opportunity.
There will often be a cost – lost wages or a lower income. One sabbaticaI I took resulted in my small business suffering, as I had no one to replace me. And there was some inevitable dislocation in the commitments and relationships I was involved in.
But at the end of the day, as with our God-inspired call to take time out each week, we know the cost is worth it – because it’s an investment in our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health, and a re-creation for the next phase of our work.
I’m not indispensable
My experience of a sabbatical has taught me one invaluable lesson. None of us, no matter what our gifts, positions of responsibility, or contribution to church and society, is indispensable. God is capable of achieving his purposes without us. I know this might come as a shock to some – but it’s true!
We are valuable to God, not primarily because of what we can “do” for him, but because of who we are. Sure, he delights in using us, but none of us is indispensable.
This truth has the potential to set us free from our activism and our desperate longing to feel needed. It can cause us to allow our relationships with God, with others, and indeed with ourselves, to become genuinely renewed.
This, I’m convinced, is one of the great benefits of the weekly sabbath – and of sabbaticals.
In the Christian world there’s a perception that we could be doing more for God if only we could free ourselves from the distractions of “the world”. The thinking goes something like this…
- I have a simple faith. I distinguish between “spiritual” and “secular”.
- By spiritual I mean anything related to God, anything that’s holy. This is really the most important sphere of life.
- By secular I’m referring to the everyday things that have little or nothing to do with God. These are much less important and significant than the spiritual.
- You can see this clearly in the area of work. “Secular” employment is work “out there in the world”. Its main purpose is to allow you to earn some money so you can get on with real life, and of course it provides opportunities to witness to your non-Christian workmates. Mind you, some forms of secular employment do have what you could call a spiritual value – I’m thinking of the serving ones, like medicine and teaching.
- But the ideal form of employment is unquestionably “fulltime Christian work”. That’s where you have the opportunity to devote all of your time and energy to the Lord’s work, unencumbered by the demands of secular employment. It clearly rates as a much more spiritual occupation than a “normal job”.
- Becoming a fulltime Christian worker is my personal dream. This is because it’s the ultimate way of serving God. In fact, I long for the day when I’m no longer distracted from real service for God by having to work for a secular firm. My real dream is to give all my time and energy to ministry.
- What is ministry? Well, it’s anything that deals with the spiritual task. Leading worship on Sunday mornings is ministry. So is teaching Sunday school, leading a home group, preaching, going on an outreach, praying for someone, or being a missionary.
- To be “in ministry” is to be taken up with the spiritual task of building God’s kingdom. Of course, once you have experienced being in ministry, it’s difficult to return to secular employment with any degree of passion. Nothing is more significant than doing ministry. Which is why fulltime Christian workers are highly esteemed in the church – and rightly so. After all they have sacrificed much (particularly those on the mission field), they’re at the forefront of God’s work in this world, and they’re making a bigger difference for God than you can in secular employment.
- Ultimately, secular work doesn’t really count for much. Things of the world will all pass away. Sure I do my best at my daily job, but what we do for the Lord is what really counts. Our secular employment is simply a means to an end.
Is that right? Is certain work more “spiritual” in content? Should it be valued more highly? Many of us certainly live as though it is, but … is it biblical?
Examining the spiritual/secular split biblically
What light can the Scriptures shed on the way we view various tasks and jobs?
This strange habit we have of splitting life into spiritual and secular boxes just doesn’t appear in the story of God’s creation of work. In fact, as we’ve already noted, God begins by doing some very “earthy” work himself – creating the universe! God acts as designer, builder, gardener…
Then God takes the bold step of giving to us humans a role in this universe-work of his, by commissioning Adam and Eve to be stewards of his creation. Does that sound like a second-rate call? Did Adam really think, “Oh, no – I really wanted a more significant role, God. Not a farmer! I mean, isn’t there some spiritual task I could do? A priest maybe…?”
The Creation account allows no room for a spiritual/secular split. In fact, the writer consistently states “And it was (very) good,” as if to emphasize that God’s original intention for his creation was the ideal. Yes, it’s tainted and corrupted now – but that is the result of the Fall.
Biblical characters at work
So what about the role of people in Scripture? What light can they shed on the spiritual/secular split?
For a start, many leading figures in the Bible story were not “professional religious” people. God spoke to them in and through their everyday working lives. Though they were “believers”, most were not told to leave their employment in order to follow God’s leading – people like Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah and Esther, to name a few.
For example, Nehemiah is extolled as a prayerful person, a dynamic and effective leader, even a justice-maker. And he was. But it is rarely pointed out that these attributes belong to a man whose primary role was to manage a very difficult and demanding building project. His strengths were developed within the pressures of his construction deadlines.
The same was true with Joseph, Daniel, and Esther. They were high-level public servants in somewhat anti-Jewish environments. Consequently, they had to struggle through what it meant to serve as representatives of a religious minority, working in an environment that routinely involved worship of foreign gods. Their worldview was substantially different to that of their work colleagues and of the surrounding culture (which is no doubt how many Christians feel today).
These examples (among many others) help us to see that the Bible gives little evidence of a secular/spiritual split. The Hebrew worldview was a much more integrated one than that of the Greeks. Involvement in the marketplace didn’t disqualify people from undertaking significant tasks. Quite the opposite, in fact.
What about Jesus? Did he consider certain types of work better than others? Perhaps he viewed his many years as a carpenter as just “fill-in” time, until he was ready to engage in “public ministry”?
Certainly that’s the way many people seem to interpret the life of Jesus. But it hardly seems consistent with what we know of him. For God himself, in human form, to spend the majority of his adult years engaged in carpentry, speaks volumes for the value of such tasks. Even as a travelling “rabbi” Jesus hardly played by the rules of his culture. He made plain there was no work that was “beneath” him. Even the work of a servant.
For example, when no one seemed prepared to do the menial job of washing feet he willingly took it on himself. While it proved to be an ideal object lesson for the teacher to use, there seems little doubt that the way he used it, far from divorcing spiritual and secular, actually demonstrated to his disciples how even the most mundane and dirty of tasks can serve others and honor God.
Among New Testament writers, Paul has most to say about the role of work. As we’ll see in the next chapter, in 1 Corinthians Paul teaches that we should work out our calling in the context we find ourselves in.
This is important for our current age where “fulltime Christian service” is seen as the ultimate way of serving God – more spiritual and satisfying than “secular work”. Under this false value system, Christians will never find a strong sense of fulfillment and value in the tasks God has placed them in, because they will be forever dreaming of a “better” way to serve.
Paul makes the same point in others of his letters. For example, in Colossians 3:23-24 he writes:
“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.”
Tom Wright comments on these verses, “The task may appear unimportant or trivial, but the person doing it is never that, and he or she has the opportunity to turn the job into an act of worship.” 
What seems clear from Paul’s teachings is that…
- All work is of value and significance, in spite of the status (or lack of it) given by the surrounding culture.
- There is no hierarchy of tasks in God’s economy. As Eugene Peterson writes: “Any work done faithfully and well is difficult. It is no harder for me to do my job than for any other person, and no less. There are no easy tasks in the Christian way; there are only tasks which can be done faithfully or erratically, with joy or resentment." Neither are there “spiritual” tasks and “secular” ones.
- All of what we do needs to be connected with who we are in Christ. This is reflected in Paul’s view of his own work. He seemed not to regard his tentmaking trade as a means to an end, but something that had real value in itself. About this Paul Stevens comments “…the New Testament treats work in the context of a larger framework: the call of God to live totally for him and his kingdom. Therefore Paul was not, strictly speaking, a bi-vocational missionary, but rather mono-vocational by integrating daily work with all aspects of his kingdom life.”  This is reinforced in Paul’s teaching. For example, in Colossians 1:10 he writes, “As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work.” (The Message)
Where has our dualism come from?
If the Bible gives us no reason to create a spiritual/secular distinction, where has the split come from?
In the following chapter on “calling” we’ll look further at how the early Church became influenced by the surrounding Greek/Roman culture of its day. Despite the insistence of both Jesus and Paul that our faith infuses every part of our life, it took only a century or so before dualistic ideas were adopted. Spiritual and physical were thought of as separate entities.
Biblical texts such as Luke 10: 38-41 (where Jesus comments on Martha’s criticism of Mary) came to be used to support a view that certain tasks were more spiritual than others. An ever-so-subtle twist in the message of this incident led to the “contemplative life” being seen as far better and more spiritual than the “active life”.
This dualistic view was quickly reinforced by the development of a “clergy” class, and then the phenomenon of monasticism.
By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the distinction between clergy and laity was clearly evident. With the insistence on celibacy for the clergy in the 11th century, the demarcation between priesthood and laity was complete. The clergy inevitably acquired an aura of spiritual power, status and privilege. Ordinary people were relegated to second-class status. The spiritual/secular chasm had opened wide.
Monasticism, somewhat unintentionally, reinforced this growing worldview. The movement to set up institutions dedicated to fostering the spiritual life arose in part because of the nominalism of the church. In the Christianized Roman Empire, believers were no longer a minority. In that atmosphere, discipleship quickly became diluted. When everyone is a “Christian” in name, and faith is assumed, then faith loses its sharpness.
With the best of intentions, reformers tried to separate themselves from this nominal Christianity, and to strive for spiritual growth in communities that were distinct from the world around them. So the notion arose that those who wanted to direct their thoughts uninterrupted towards God must not be distracted by the activities of a profession, or by family concerns. (In fact, manual work was not totally despised in monasteries, but it was definitely secondary to “more important tasks”.)
Luther and Calvin
It wasn’t until the Reformation that this dualism was effectively challenged. Martin Luther had been a monk, but as he studied the New Testament his theology was turned on its head. His growing convictions about justification by faith soon led him to embrace a belief in the priesthood of all believers. Monks and clergy, Luther realized, were no more valued in God’s economy than anyone else. In fact, all believers have a “priestly calling” in whatever roles they undertake.
Though different on a number of counts from Luther, John Calvin also promoted the belief that all work is “spiritual” in character. He emphasized the transformational nature of work, and with it social action. Calvin challenged all believers “to work, to perform, to develop, to progress, to change, to choose, to be active, and to overcome until the day of their death or the return of their Lord”.
Yet, in spite of the efforts of Luther and Calvin, the church has never really freed itself from the clergy/laity distinction. We can talk all we like about “the priesthood of all believers”, but in reality our churches are a long way from this ideal. Tasks are divided into spiritual and secular. Roles are distinguished according to so-called “spiritual value”.
The narrowing of salvation
Much of this has to do with a narrowing of our understanding of salvation. In the late nineteenth century, salvation came to be viewed in largely individualistic and spiritualized terms.
Dwight Moody, the famous North American evangelist was a good example of this tendency. He viewed his role as essentially to “save souls”. In fact he used to say, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’”
If God’s real concern is only to see souls saved then those who preach, run crusades, go overseas on missionary service, etc., become more important than others. For they are doing what is closest to God’s heart, doing what will ultimately be the only important work eternally.
In this sort of theological worldview, everyone else can best find significance by either contributing financially to the “work of God”, by praying for “fulltime workers”, or by developing a “ministry” of their own.
“Secular work” is valued only inasmuch as it contributes to the “evangelization” of the world. Employment is useful primarily because it gives us an opportunity to “witness” to our non-Christian workmates, and to earn money in order either to do “ministry” or to support others in “ministry”. Acts of service and mercy are essentially viewed as a means to an end. By doing these things we hope to attract people to Christianity and so “save their souls”. Likewise, the value of friendship building with non-Christians is mainly so that we can earn the right to share the “gospel” with them.
The “full” gospel message
This contrasts sharply with a more holistic biblical mandate. As we’ve seen in the chapter on “Transforming Work”, God’s intention is to put right the whole cosmos. (See Colossians 1, Romans 8, Ephesians 1, among other passages). Remember, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Colossians 1:20, which we looked at in chapter 3:
… all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the Cross.
God’s redeeming work involves the restoration of all four foundational relationships (with Him, with ourselves, with each other and with the rest of creation).
To be sure, our relationship with God is absolutely central to this restoration, but it does not – indeed, cannot – stand in isolation from the other relationships. One automatically affects the others.
Salvation involves all of these relationships.
We believe in the importance of evangelism. In fact, both of us (Wayne and Alistair) have devoted a lot of our lives to spreading the good news. However, we don’t believe in an evangelism that is disconnected from making disciples. Nor a relationship with God disconnected from all other relationships. True evangelism leads believers to live as the servants of God in the whole of life, including our daily work.
Closing the gap
If we are to see the true significance of all work we do, we simply must deal with the dualism that dominates our view of the Christian life. It’s not biblical – and so it is counterproductive to our aim of seeing God at work in this world of his.
It is only as we learn to work with God, learning to see that what we do is connected with what God is doing, that we will close the false gap between secular and spiritual.
A prayer of Richard Foster’s echoes the desire to discover this kind of integration…
The day has been breathless, Lord. I stop now for a few moments and I wonder:
Is the signature of the holy over the rush of the day? Or have I bolted ahead, anxiously trying to solve problems that do not belong to me?
Holy Spirit of God, please show me:
How to work relaxed
How to make each task an offering of faith
How to view interruptions as doors to service
How to see each person as my teacher in things eternal;
In the name of him who always worked unhurried. Amen.
Up Close and Personal
1. Have you heard anyone talk in similar tones to the piece at the start of this chapter? How prevalent do you think this kind of thinking is in your church context?
2. Read Luke 10: 38-41. Discuss what you think Jesus is explicitly and implicitly saying about Mary and Martha’s activities. Why do you think we have assumed that Jesus’ commentary on the different tasks each one was attending to at the time, was an either/or, rather than a both/and? (i.e. His rebuke of Martha was a not comment about the value of her housework, but about affirming the validity of Mary’s choice.)
3. Why do you think we have developed such a dualistic view of work? Try to identify ways in which it affects your own attitude to the various tasks you do in the week.
Refer back to the list all the roles and tasks you fulfill during your week, that you compiled at the end of the Introduction. Reflect on each of the tasks, asking yourself:
- How do I feel about the value of this task?
- What in this role do I find fulfilling and significant? Why? What do I find mundane, boring, pointless and insignificant? Why?
- How much do I feel I am serving Christ when I do this work?
- What about the tasks and roles you feel negatively towards? Do you think this is primarily because they don’t fit well your unique mix of giftings and temperament, or because you have not been able to connect what you do with what God is doing?
- Take time to consider what opportunities each of these tasks presents for expressing stewardship, service to others, creativity, witness, conservation/preservation, the building of community and relationships, justice, peace-making, healing, etc.
Suggestion for a group activity: Have members prepare the above questions beforehand (or in a time of personal reflection at the beginning of the group meeting). Then, either in pairs or in the whole group, invite members to share their discoveries about themselves.
N.T. Wright Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale series) (IVP: Downers Grove, 1986), 149-50
Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 70
R. Paul Stevens, “Calling/Vocation” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (IVP: Downers Grove, 1997), 97-102. Edited by Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens.
Paul Marshall, Callings: Spirituality, Work and Duty in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (unpublished manuscript).
“A Prayer at Mid-day” in Richard Foster, Prayers from the Heart (HarperCollins: New York, 1994), 76