The Role of Work

You may have seen the movie or read the book called Gifted Hands. It’s the inspiring story of Ben Carson who came from an underprivileged background, yet by God’s grace and hard work became a doctor who performed some ground breaking surgery, like separating conjoined twins, and saving many lives through his career.

Unlike Dr Carson, most us won’t have movies made  or books written about our careers. For most of us the work we do is much more ordinary. Some of you enjoy the work you do, you find it satisfying or stimulating, you have good work environments, work colleagues you enjoy working with. At the other end of the spectrum some of you aren’t enjoying your  work, perhaps it’s boring or stressful, or the environment is toxic, or your boss or work colleagues are difficult to work with. Many of us are probably somewhere in the middle with some good things, and some difficult things about the work we do. Those of you whose work is mostly unpaid, working at home with children or family will also find yourself somewhere on that spectrum too, maybe in different places on the same day!

For all of us, work, both paid and unpaid will consume more time in on our week than any other activity. How should we think about work? What role does it have in our lives? Today I’d like us to look at three things: 1. The good design of work 2. The pain and frustration of work 3. How Jesus transforms our work

1. The good design of work

God is a worker. Jesus says: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17). We see God at work from the very beginning of the Bible:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. (Genesis 1:31a,2:2) Notice two extraordinary things about those verses: firstly they describe God’s activity as ‘work’, using a word later used for ordinary human work. The second extraordinary thing is the delight God takes in his work. He looks at the work he has done, looks at all that he has made and says it was very good. He is satisfied, he’s delighted, he sees the goodness of his work, which expresses his character.

God made humans in his own image, and he made us to work as he does, he made us to rule the earth under him. God made a beautiful garden, a paradise called Eden. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15) Humans were made to work, just as their Creator works. Work has always been part of God’s good plan for his people. It was part of God’s original paradise, and it will be part of his ultimate paradise.

Martin Luther wrote: “When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And he does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, the person who prepared our meal.” You can see there, how work is part of God’s good design, it’s part of the way God works in our world. God brings about good in society, and provides for our needs as we work.  

This is one of the reasons many struggle more than they expect when they get to retirement. They expect to enjoy the freedom of not having to do paid work, but they often find themselves discontent. The loss of work is deeply disturbing because we were designed for it…Work is an indispensable component in a meaningful human life. It is a supreme gift from God and one of the main things that gives our life purpose. But it must play its proper role, subservient to God (Tim Keller)[1] For all its frustrations, humans often find at least some parts of our work, fulfilling and satisfying, it is part of God’s good design.

One of the things I’ve appreciated about serving at MEC, is that people sometimes send me funny photos of Roger to use as sermon illustrations. work1Here’s one someone sent me recently of Rog enjoying himself at our Guess who’s coming to lunch? I want to show you this picture, because you know that Rog, as our senior pastor, works very hard, it’s a job that can be demanding and stressful, but this photo shows us that he does get to have some fun every now and then, like this when he can jump onto a kids swivel car and have a ride! (By the way, if you have any more photos of Rog, keep them coming, you’re very welcome to remain anonymous. I won’t tell you who sent me this photo, because I don’t want to get Dave Reynolds into trouble, he’s too valuable in the work he does with our sound and the website! )

You might not have a job that’s as much fun as Roger’s where you get paid to ride on swivel cars, but even so there will be something in whatever work you do, whether it’s paid or unpaid, where you reflect the image of your creator. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of completing a task or a project, finishing something you’ve made, seeing a student you’ve taught understand something or go deeper, helping someone with a health issue, handing in an assignment for school or Uni, looking at the lawn after you’ve mowed it, or finally getting to the bottom of the washing basket, even if it’s only for a moment!

Even when we’re not finding our work fulfilling, we can know there is a basic dignity and design to any work we do. When we work, it is not ultimately about us, we’re living for someone much greater than us. When we work we reflect the character of our Creator in whose image we have been made.

2. The pain and frustration of work.

God created work to be good, but when humans rebelled against him, part of the curse was that work became painful and frustrating. The book of Ecclesiastes pushes us to ask the big questions about life – is there any meaning in life? What is it all about? As the Teacher in the book looks for meaning in various aspects of life he turns to work:  I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6) He gave himself to great work, great projects that should have brought about satisfaction and fulfilment, but look what he says: What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23)

Work is hard, it can cause grief, it can cause sleepless nights. Work is painful. There’s the physical pain that can come from manual labour or even an office environment, the strain that work puts on your body and the niggling or more serious injuries it can bring. There’s the strain and pressure of deadlines. There’s the frustrations of being let down by machinery and technology, and people. The boredom of the more mundane tasks. The unrealistic expectations, the nastiness of the politics in the workplace. The brutality of co-workers. The insecurity of potential layoffs and redundancy. There are so many ways work can be painful and frustrating. If we look to work to be the source of our fulfilment or reputation or ultimate satisfaction, we will always be disappointed. Work by itself is not able to bring ultimate meaning or fulfilment to our life.  

On one level it’s good to be aware of this: Just because you cannot realise your highest aspirations at work does not mean you should [look for another] career that is devoid of frustration. That would be a fruitless search for anyone. You should expect to be regularly frustrated in your work even though you may be in exactly the right vocation. (Tim Keller)[2]

At our home group during the week, as we were talking about work, one of the guys mentioned how monotonous work could sometimes be. This guy was a boilermaker, he said at one stage in his job he was just welding together truck after truck. He’d made something like 1000 and after awhile it all seems a bit the same. We were talking about it in the group, and I said: what about the fact that you’re made in God’s image, and you’re making stuff like God is – does that help keep you going? And he said: Not really! It doesn’t take away the monotony, does it? As we talked about it, we decided sometimes the thing that can help us the most is just to recognise that in this earth, work is never going to be perfect, there are always going to be parts of it that are hard or monotonous, and so it’s good for us to adjust our expectations and not expect more from work than it can ever really give us.

But is that all we can say as we face difficulties in our work? Is it is just a question of putting up with it? If we’re Christians, what difference does the gospel of Jesus make to our work?

3. How Jesus transforms our work.

a) Motivation (why we work)

All of us struggle with a tendency to either be lazy with work or at the other extreme to overwork. We might be always procrastinating and putting off work, just doing the minimum necessary, or only work when we’re being watched, or at the other extreme our work consumes us, we give it too much time and energy, we neglect other important things as we get swallowed up in our work.

Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, (Ephesians 6:5-7) You can see there the motivation for work is to please Christ, to live for him. In the gospel God shows us that we are worse sinners than we ever realised yet in Jesus more loved that we could ever imagine. In Jesus God offers us his grace and forgiveness. The more we grasp God’s love for us in Jesus, the more our motivation becomes to live for him, even in our work.

That can help us with both the two extremes we mentioned. It can help us with laziness, because now we want to work wholeheartedly, because we’re working for Jesus, we want to work even when people aren’t watching us because we know, Jesus is watching us. It can also help us with the tendency to overwork. If you’re in a job where you help people, a health profession, social work, a teacher, a pastor, it can easy to become proud, and think of yourself as better than other people. It can be easy to overwork because you get your identity from your job, and you want people to think well of you. The gospel helps to free us from that, because it shows us that God’s love for us is not dependent on what sort of job we have, or how well we do it. His love is given freely. The more we grasp that, the more we are freed up so we are not so tied to our work.

When I was working as an accountant, one of our clients was Colgate-Palmolive. Some of the guys who worked on that team, told me that when they did a tour of the factory, they saw where the toothpaste tubes were being made – the tubes would come along upside down, and they would be filled and sealed from the top, and then go along the conveyer belt. Every now and then, a toothpaste tube would fall down, and when it did there was a guy there whose job it was to pick  it back up so it could keep going. Can you imagine having that job – watching thousands of toothpaste tubes go by? How was work today? Yeah, had a couple of exciting moments, a few toothpaste tubes fell over, but apart from that, it was pretty uneventful!

Yet even in a job like that you can see how something good is being done for others, toothpaste is getting made, you’re helping the population with their oral health which has implications for other health. Your work does lead to lives being improved, and possibly even saved.

We’re all different, and different jobs will appeal to different people, yet no job is totally exciting, but if you see your job as a way that you show love for God and love for others,  it doesn’t have to always be exciting, because you realise it’s not about you. Through Jesus you have a different motivation for life.

You see that same idea earlier when Paul says: Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.  (Ephesians 4:28) See how different a Christian’s motive for work is? Many people think: I’ll work, so I can have more money, so I can buy more stuff for me. But for Christians it’s different – both the work we do, and what we do with the money we earn are motivated by love for God and love for others. Of course we use our money to provide for our families, as the Bible says we should, but ultimately we work to show love for others, to earn money with which we can show more love for others.

What can motivate us to live like this? It’s the gospel of Jesus where we find Jesus loving us, and giving himself up for us.

b) Character (how we work)

The Bible tells us to live and work in a way so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:12)

Titus talks of living a life of integrity at work, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive. (Titus 2:10)

The gospel of Jesus impacts not just why we work but how we work. Some of the most stressful situations we face will be at work.

We need to recognise the profoundness of work relationships. My work colleagues are far more likely to see me in a high-stress situation than my family, friends or contacts out of work. And I see them in those situations too. This can create…gospel opportunity (Tim Chester)[3]

Certainly not all, but some of the most stressful situations we face will be in the workplace. For some of you your main work is at home, and that’s where your most stressful situations will be. In a sense what we believe, is on full display to others in those moments, in how we react and respond. As we grow in our grasp of God’s love for us in Jesus’ there are always opportunities in the workplace to show that love.

Earlier this year at a conference I heard a lady called Katherine Leary Alsdorf talk about her work as leader in a number of entrepreneurial tech companies in the US and in Europe. She said in each company she wrestled with what it meant to live for God in her workplace. She said her faith in Jesus helped her to treat people with dignity, and to try and model grace, and truth and love in the organizations that she lead.

The gospel continued to open her eyes to her own sinfulness, and her need of God’s grace, and that motivated her to be gracious in the way she treated other people in the workplace.

She said one of the big tests came when the internet bubble burst, and the company she was leading failed, despite all the hard work she and many others had put in. How could all this good, hard work go wrong? I had tried to do right by our employees and now they were out of work in a collapsed market. How was I to handle failure? I wanted a gospel that had good news even for this? (Katherine Leary Alsdorf)[4] She found that the gospel does have good news, even in our failures. God can work through failures to humble us, to show us how much we need him, and to help grow our trust in him.

Earlier this year I used to be the fastest MEC runner at the Maitland Parkrun. Mostly because I was the only MEC runner at the Maitland Parkrun! As the year’s gone, many others have come which has been great, but it’s meant I’ve had to get used to being regularly beaten by some of the better runners amongst us. The one who’s had the best times from MEC so far is Phil, but last month I actually managed to beat Phil a couple of times. Now, if you look at this photo:work3

you’ll see that he did have a bit of a handicap those weeks, he was pushing one son in the pram and carrying the other on his back, but I’m still counting it as a win! That photo is taken 20 metres from the finish line. His young sons have no hope of running 5km by themselves, but their dad does all the work needed to get them over the line. It’s a great illustration of the gospel, we have no hope of saving ourselves, of making ourselves right with God, but Jesus does all the work needed to get us over the line.

Jesus was asked once what we need to do to do the works God requires of us. He tells us: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29). The work God requires of us to be made right with him, is actually no work at all, our work is to trust in Jesus work. He has done all the work for us, through his perfect life and his death on our behalf. He has done enough for us to be and be made right with God. God calls us to trust in his work.

The more we grasp Jesus’ work, and trust in it, the more we are transformed, both in why we work – we work out of our love for God and love for others, and how we work – we work in a way that makes the gospel of Jesus attractive. 

Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 7 September 2014. Audio here

[1] Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavour, 38,42.

[2] Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavour,  94.

[3] Tim Chester, Gospel Centred work, 86.

[4] KLA in Every Good Endeavour, 14-16

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