If you won a hundred million dollar lottery tomorrow, would you quit your day job?
If you quit, what would you do with your time instead?
A volunteer who works with retirees once told me about a friend of his, a hard-driving executive who loved the Cubs. He always wished he had more time in between his work commitments to make it out to Wrigley. After decades of the corporate grind, he had saved enough to retire in style, with season tickets.
But it turns out you can only watch so many baseball games. Six weeks after retiring, he was back at the office.
Work often functions as a “have to” rather than a “get to” in our lives. Why work? Because we can’t afford not to.
But even for the vast majority of us who have to work to pay the bills, working because we “have to” is only part of the story. The other part of the story includes the purpose and meaning of our work, the difference it makes to us and to the world besides our paycheck. That’s the part of the story that the Cubs-loving executive stumbled into when he tried to retire. It turned out his work meant more to him than he realized.
Throughout our series Work: Who, What, When, Where, Why, we’ve been looking at how we grapple with the purpose and meaning of work as disciples of Jesus. Why work?
- Because work makes us more who we were meant to be. (Who)
- Because our work today is our context for fulfilling our call to holiness. (What)
- Because work well done makes God’s beauty and goodness visible in the world. (When)
- Because our presence at work makes a difference to the people around us. (Where)
To wrap up the series today, we’ll answer the question a bit differently.
Why work? Because our work demonstrates the power of the good news of Jesus to a dying world.
Alienated from Work
Today’s work controversies are at more of a boil than a simmer. Employers and employees are squaring off on the four-day work week, remote work or return to office, and the perils of AI. There’s even a vocal anti-work movement giving voice to frustrations with work of all kinds. While we may rightly contend for more just arrangements in any of these conflicts, something more is going on. Underneath the fervor of debate, there is an older dynamic that drives much of our work angst: a basic, existential alienation from our work.
Those of us who turn to the Scriptures for guidance don’t have to look far to see where this alienation comes from. Just three chapters into the Bible, we see the story of the human heart turning away from God portrayed dramatically in the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. After they transgress God’s one prohibition and hide in shame, God finds the man and the woman. He proclaims that their decision has had dire consequences that will unfold for generations. Among these consequences is a changed relationship with the earth, and therefore with work:
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground
(Genesis 3:17-19 ESV)
Internal and External Frustrations
The phrase “thorns and thistles” gives us a poetic image of our frustrations with work. There’s both an external dimension and an internal dimension to our problems with work. Externally, there are realities beyond our control, in our environment, that get in the way of us getting work done the way we want to—accidents, disasters, limited resources, illness, and more. The thorns and thistles cut our hands.
But internally, there are also our own shortcomings—impatience, selfish ambition, distraction, envy and so on. The proclamation that the ground would bring forth thorns and thistles came only when Adam and Eve’s hearts had already turned away from God. Pastor Timothy Keller (who so recently passed into glory) puts it like this:
[We] will be able to envision far more than we can accomplish [in our work], both because of a lack of ability and because of resistance in the environment around us. . . true aspirations are thwarted as often as they are reached. And for all of us, more often than we would like to admit, we are the ones doing the thwarting.
Drudgery or False Hopes
The experience of thorns and thistles is universal, even if the conviction that it arises from human sin is not. We try to realize a project we care about, only to see it fall to pieces. We work hard for the promotion, and then get laid off. We find ourselves stuck in a daily grind at a job we dislike but can’t afford to spend our time differently. The entrepreneurial dream fails.
One normative human response to the unrelenting frustration of work is to resign to drudgery. Comedian Drew Carey hits the mark when he says, “Oh, you hate your job? . . . well why didn’t you say so? You know there’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY. They meet at the bar!”
Another response is the dogged pursuit of a work or retirement utopia. The upwardly mobile careerist might see each job as a stepping stone, willing to endure long hours and other indignities for the sake of the dream job they’ll eventually land. Yet dream jobs often turn out to be nightmares.
Or, like the Cubs fan executive, we might set our hopes on an early retirement and enjoying the flexibility of financial independence. Ironically, this approach can combine overwork with the conviction that a work-free life is ideal. If you maximize your working years early on, you can enjoy a leisurely retirement later. But of course, you can’t get back some of the things you sacrifice in those early years, like time with kids while they’re young. The promised land of retirement may also prove to be a false hope; the absence of work drudgery does not by itself produce joy and meaning in life.
A Breath of Fresh Air
If alienation from work is our normal experience, then finding someone who truly enjoys their work and does it well comes as a breath of fresh air.
People like this are perhaps most striking when they occupy positions of low status, jobs that we would assume would give rise to resentment or discontentment. I was once on an airport shuttle at around four in the morning, and the driver of that shuttle was beaming, courteous, energized, enjoying the moment as though there was nowhere he would rather be. At my college, there was a dining hall worker who arrived at work in a full suit before changing into his uniform each morning, as a sign of his commitment and professionalism.
What’s remarkable about people in such roles is that they have dodged both of our normative responses to the frustrations of work. They are neither resigned to drudgery nor enslaved to false hope. That dining hall worker was not (as far as I know) taking night classes to try and find new economic opportunities. He had no illusions about the thorns and thistles of his work situation, from the unending cycle of dish cleaning to the ingratitude of undergraduates. But he wasn’t hitting the bar after work, either. He was doing an honest day’s work, and finding contentment and joy in it.
Let Your Light Shine
I think Jesus had such people in mind when he said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 ESV). That bus driver’s face was shining, even at four in the morning. His whole demeanor conveyed the possibility of a different way of life.
Our interior life shows through in our body language, our facial expressions, and our behavior. Part of what makes children both delightful and endlessly frustrating is that they have not yet learned to separate their interior life from their faces. If they’re sad, you can see it. If they’re disappointed, you’ll hear about it right away. While growing in self-control is part of growing up, the connection between our internal experience and our face is a feature, not a bug. We were meant to shine with the light of the life that God has given us.
Even the turn of phrase “Let your light shine” underscores the organic connection between our internal life and what others see. Jesus did not tell us to manufacture light, but to simply let our light shine. The true character that we possess will come out in our interactions with others. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.
The light shines in a way that people can see. Jesus teaches that, specifically, they will see “your good works.” For most of us, on most days, the “good works” most incumbent upon us are our work responsibilities. To do our daily work diligently and uncomplainingly, with a generous spirit toward others, is the better part of Christian moral duty.
Twentieth-century mystery writer, playright, and essayist Dorothy L. Sayers makes this point in regards to the church’s teaching on work:
How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.
Our work itself serves God’s purposes in the world. Making good tables makes God’s world a better place. The responsibility of work has heft to it; it’s a weight we shoulder whenever we set to the task at hand. It calls forth our internal resources, testing whether we are equal to the task. The light that shines is working light. It’s light that we carry within us when we go to work, and that itself goes to work in all the work we do.
Light From Heaven
The question arises: Where does all this light come from? What have people like that bus driver and that dining hall worker experienced that makes such a difference in their work? What do we need to experience to see life with their eyes—to see that a dark airport shuttle can be lit by a smile, and that a dining hall locker can be graced by a full suit?
Jesus’ statement about light comes after his first proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). The domain of God is opened in the ministry of Jesus to everyone who would enter into his way. This means that the disciples of Jesus become emissaries of another world, representatives of a power that comes “from heaven” (Matthew 21:25 ESV).
That is why Jesus says that people’s response to seeing his followers’ “good works” will be to “give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 ESV). Whenever some aspect of our character gives light to another, it is the light and life of the Father breaking into our experience of alienation and drudgery.
Demonstrating the Power of the Good News
The light does not come from us. With the psalmist we pray, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9 NIV). Jesus’ instruction to let our light shine implies the theology of grace worked out across all the pages of the New Testament: God has come into the darkness of our sin to give us the light of life in Jesus Christ. In his death and resurrection, he opened the way of light and life to us. When we step into that way, we experience the healing of the turning away from God that brought alienation to our work in the first place.
That is why our daily work can demonstrate the power of the good news of Jesus to a dying world.
It’s the experience of turning toward God in Christ and his healing of the heart that produces people capable of letting their light shine. In his death, Jesus paid the price of all the ways we have contributed to the injustice and evils of work. In his resurrection, Jesus gives us a transcendent hope, protecting us from setting our hearts on the false hope of a work or retirement utopia. In his gift of life, Jesus gives us the energy we need to work joyfully instead of resigning to drudgery, making a difference in his world in our daily efforts. In his suffering, Jesus is our companion even as we continue to feel the pain of thorns and thistles.
Because the good news is too good, too true, and too beautiful not to.
Reflect and Practice
- If you didn’t have to work to pay the bills, would you still work? Why?
- How do you most often experience alienation from your work?
- Have you ever come across someone who was a “breath of fresh air” in the way they did their work? What do you think made them like that?
- What kind of person do you want to be in your work?
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