I stumbled across this photo recently.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, a red-tailed hawk landed on the fire escape of the photographer’s New York City apartment.
What I love about the photo is how the hawk is framed in the window. You can imagine it’s a window that the photographer has looked out of many times, seeing the clouds. But that day, for a moment, something new came into view unexpectedly. Beauty showed up in the middle of the mundane.
As a follower of Jesus, I also take the hawk as an invitation. Can I be attentive to moments of beauty when they show up unexpectedly in my life? And, as I think about my work: Is there a chance I could help bring beauty to others in the middle of normal life? Could beauty be part of the mission Jesus has given me?
This post is part of our series The Four Corners of Mission. Check out our other posts on faith and work for more resources.
A Torah Example of Beauty at Work
The Bible draws connections between beauty, work, and God’s presence early on. One of the first descriptions of God’s Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures comes in the Torah instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle. The Lord tells Moses to set apart a lead craftsman for the work:
See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.
Exodus 31:2-5 NIV
Bezalel is one of only a handful of individuals described as being filled with “with the Spirit of God” even before the coming of Jesus. Here we see an illustration of God’s priorities. We might ask, what is so important that God would put his presence and power inside of a human being in order to accomplish it? This passage gives the answer: To do works of beauty.
The Spirit Fills Us, Too, for Beautiful Work
On this side of Jesus’ coming and the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is now given not just to particular people like Bezalel, but to all who are in Christ. While the locus of God’s presence has moved on from the Ark of the Covenant, his priority of beauty is unchanged—and that’s a priority that affects all of us.
Not all of us do literal craftworks in the visual arts like Bezalel. The gift of the Spirit is universal for those in Christ, but the specific work we do is particular. As Paul writes in, “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:5 NIV). Although it’s not explicit in the text, I think a case can be made that the different kinds of service are different kinds of beauty. Isn’t there something beautiful about good work, done well, regardless of what kind of work it is?
We get at this broader idea of beauty when we describe someone’s efforts as “beautiful work” even if it isn’t artistic work. Beauty includes the idea of wholeness, goodness, or excellence—not just aesthetic or artistic beauty as such. What if any work we do well and wholly are as pleasing to God as a beautiful sonata or painting?
If that’s true, then what we see in the story of Bezalel is not a historical tidbit about an earlier dispensation; it’s a paradigm for our life as Christians today: We are filled with the Holy Spirit to do beautiful work in God’s power.
For many of us, the chance to do beautiful work will come most often in our jobs, regardless of the nature of our vocation.
Beautiful Work: Craftsmanlike Christians
To see how beauty can be part of our everyday work, consider the difference between productivity and craftsmanship.
- When we think about productivity, we’re focused on efficiency. Can we do the same task in a shorter amount of time? Could it be automated? How can we deploy the same resources to accomplish more?
- When we think about craftsmanship, we’re focused on quality. Can we do the same task with greater care? Could it be better? How can we deploy our creativity and efforts to make the final product all that it could and should be?
There’s a fundamental tension between productivity and craftsmanship, but a realistic approach to work requires us to value both. We need to hit deadlines, and we need to do our work well. But in our post-industrial economy, we’re more likely to “feel the pinch” on the productivity side: There’s usually more pressure to get more done, faster, than to slow down and increase the quality and creativity of our work.
Given that pinch, as Christians, we can be champions for taking a craftsmanlike approach to our work whenever possible. Paul enjoins us “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart” (Colossians 3:23 NIV). That includes giving our work our best creative thinking. When you have a task assigned to you, consider not just how to get it done quickly, but how to get it done beautifully: with care, attention, and even love.
A former coworker of mine named Kaitlyn exemplified this craftsmanlike approach to whatever she did at our workplace. Her responsibilities included frequent event prep, but she wouldn’t just make sure that spaces were ready-to-go. She would go the extra mile to think about how to make the room feel warm, and tune the details for the purpose of the day. She found colorful gourds and seasonal table runners for autumn dinners, made conference check-in areas clear and welcoming with on-brand signage, and generally kept chaos at bay. Even in mundane tasks, she leveraged her best thinking and creativity to do beautiful work.
Beauty in Every Kind of Work
Even if your work is not artistic in nature, thinking about yourself as an agent of beauty can change the way you approach your work. Ask yourself how the whole relates to the parts. What will the experience of the end-user be? Is there a new way to do the same thing that would “make it sing”? Can you take extra care to fine-tune the details or add a missing ingredient? Taking this kind of care with our daily work, even if it’s not expected of you, will give new meaning and motivation to your efforts.
Depending on our role, we might feel like there’s little room for craftsmanship or creativity in our work. I think about my friend Jim who has served for decades on a municipal waste team, picking up people’s trash every day. Or my friend William, who works on a factory floor. I don’t mean to suggest that adopting the right mindset will overcome the severe limitations on creativity that certain jobs entail. Rather, the task for each of us is to do beautiful work within the constraints we face. We are not always responsible for the kind of work we have, but we always have the freedom to choose how we will go about it.
Artists as Ministers of Beauty for Everyone
You might ask whether universalizing beauty to all kinds of work is fair to artists, who make “works of beauty” in a more traditional sense. But the work of artists actually reinforces this broader sense of beauty. Those who by dint of personality, discipline, and gifting have developed true artistic skill offer something unique that the church and the world need. We would be impoverished without the beauty their efforts bring. At the same time, we shouldn’t respond to the distinctive gifts of others by saying, “Well, I could never do that.” The artist gives us an image of what’s also true of us, in a different way: See how this artist creates beauty in their work? You can, too.
The point is not for us to do exactly what the artist does, but that there’s something about what the artist does—in a distinct, powerful way—that’s also true of all work. You may not be writing a song, choreographing a dance, or designing a building, but you can still create something that counts in your work. Creativity is about bringing things together in new ways. So whenever you find a new way to get the job done, bring a new idea to your team, or make connections that others haven’t yet, you’re doing creative work.
Artists bring the reality of beauty into focus for us. But that’s a reality that doesn’t stop with them; it reverberates all through the efforts of our own work lives. Artists minister God’s beauty to us so that we all, in our own way, can be renewed for doing our own beautiful work.
Artists of X
Another way to say the same thing is that each of us is an “artist of X.” We might not be an artist of paint or an artist of film, but we’re still an artist of our own work medium. There are days when I work to be an artist of the Excel spreadsheet. Evangelist and spiritual director Leighton Ford calls himself “an artist of the soul.” One of my old colleagues Justin is an artist of interdepartmental cooperation.
What are you an artist of? As you figure out the answer to that question, hone your craft. The world needs your beautiful work.
Reflect and Practice
- Have you ever had a moment of beauty appearing unexpectedly for you? What was that like?
- What do you make of the story of Bezalel? Why would God care so much about the artistic designs of the tabernacle?
- Do you think of yourself as a minister of beauty? Why or why not?
- Are there opportunities to use your creativity in a craftsmanlike way at your job?
- What constraints do you face in your work when it comes to making work beautiful?
- What does doing beautiful work mean for you?
Subscribe to get our next post in your inbox.
Support Mission Central.
1 thought on “Beautiful Work”
Truly excellent work, Chris!