Because Lent began yesterday, we’re taking a quick break from our current series on the Four Corners of Mission to consider a common Lenten practice: giving something up. Here’s a new idea: What if you could give up your job for Lent? Have you ever felt like your job is a weight that drags your soul down, or a hindrance to your spiritual life?
I know that when I consider making time for spiritual practices like prayer, the first thought that comes to mind is, “But I’m so busy!” Of course, one of the main things I’m always busy with is my job. This week, I had planned to do an after-work prayer time on Monday, but somehow I found the work project I was wrapping up kept me late at the office. Not extremely late: Just forty-five minutes, enough for me to run out of time for prayer before the rest of my evening responsibilities started.
Experiences like this can reinforce the sense that my job is a problem, a barrier to the kind of life with God that I want to live. It’s easy to imagine that if somehow my circumstances were different, making time for prayer and other spiritual practices would be easy. Giving up my job for Lent sounds kind of nice.
What Is Your Spiritual Life?
The tension that we can feel between the demands of work and our desire for a prayerful life raises an important question: What is our “spiritual life”?
In the particular Christian subculture I was raised in, if someone spoke about their “spiritual life,” they usually meant how reading the Bible and praying was going for them. “Spiritual life” was equivalent to “devotional life” or a certain set of spiritual practices. There’s a good intuition behind this language: it’s hard to have a whole and healthy spiritual life without engaging in specific, helpful devotional practices. That’s the thought that gave rise to the practice of giving things up for Lent.
But this language can also betray a confusion about life with God. It is not as though God is particularly interested in our times of prayer or Bible-reading, or in our church attendance and ministry activities, and disinterested in the rest of our lives. Nor is it true that the rest of life, including our jobs, only exists to make those special times possible. God is interested in you as a whole person, and in your whole life.
If that’s true, then our spiritual life is simply our life. Spiritual life is the way we experience each moment and go about our days. God intends to inhabit everyday life with us, including our work.
A Vision of the Beautiful Christian Life
So now let’s return to the tension we feel between how busy our jobs can be and the life with God that we want to live. What is it that you imagine when you think about a beautiful Christian life? The specific vision of life with God that we carry within us will determine much of how we put our faith into practice.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman expresses the disjunction between his work demands and the kind of devotional life he longs for:
If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, seven hours every day
And that would be the sweetest thing of all!
Tevye has a romanticized vision of leisurely prayer and study. It’s poignant because of how it’s totally incompatible with his real-life circumstances. Albeit with less dramatic flair, many of us are stuck with the same contrast: We have a vision of some kind of life of “praying more,” but it feels out of reach given our job reality.
But what if it’s not the job, but rather the vision, that needs to change? This whole business of longing for different circumstances that would let us really pray has the distinct disadvantage of alienating us from the circumstances we really have. It reinforces that notion that our real, everyday lives are not made of the stuff that God can inhabit.
We need a vision of God present with us in our lives now, with all the imperfections and impositions of work. We need a vision of the beautiful Christian life that includes our jobs. Take a moment right now and try to imagine that. What would a prayerful, beautiful life with God look like, including the job that you have right now?
Giving Our Jobs Back to God
Work, after all, is not an accident in our lives. God intended for us to work. His vision of the beautiful Christian life includes us spending much of our time actively getting things done. The first thing God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden was a job: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15 NIV). He has given us our jobs, too.
When someone who is unemployed lands a job, they’ll sometimes share the news by giving thanks for “God’s provision.” The first thing that comes to my mind with that phrase is that they’ll now have a paycheck and the things they need for themselves and their family. But God’s provision includes not just the paycheck, but also the work itself. The job is a gift of work to do that honors God and serves other people’s needs.
The right way to think about our jobs and spiritual life, then, is not to give our jobs up, but rather to give our jobs back to God. When we invite God’s presence into our workday and do our work well, it can become an offering that matters just as much as any prayer or worship time.
It can start as simply as praying, “God, I offer this work to you” at the start of your shift.
Pray and Work
If there’s anyone who might have the opportunity to pray more and work less, you’d think it would be a monk. But the motto of the Benedictine monastic order conveys a deep reality of spiritual life. It’s a Latin rhyme: Ora et Labora. In English, it translates to “Pray and Work,” reflecting the rhythm of prayer time and work projects that Benedictine monks practice. Even those whose full-time job is to arrange their lives for the greatest spiritual impact dedicate much of their time to work.
Having a job to do is usually better than the alternative as far as spiritual life and growth are concerned. If God knows what he’s doing, then it’s possible for our job to help us, rather than hinder us, as we seek to live all of life with him. We are meant to greet each work day as an opportunity for spiritual growth, for living out our faith, and for meeting God in the nitty-gritty details of life.
So for Lent this year, don’t give up your job. Give it back to the Lord.
Reflect and Practice
- Have you ever felt like your job is getting in the way of your life with God?
- When you hear the phrase “spiritual life,” what comes to mind for you? Do you agree that our spiritual life is just our life?
- What kind of Christian life do you really long for?
- What are some steps you can take to give your job back to God in the next week or two?
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