Life & Worship: Work

This is the first in a short series of posts for the Easter season, which I introduced last week.

During a good week, the average Christian spends about an hour or two at church – singing, praying, and generally acknowledging God – and maybe a few more hours here and there praying, reading Scripture, chatting it up with other Christians, etc. And the rest of that week is spent at work. That’s four or five hours directly focused on God, and 40+ hours focused on charts, diagrams, budgets, or whatever else working people are up to these days.

This would be a huge problem for Christians if work itself wasn’t a form of worship. But it is.

In my last post, I talked about how the activities of worship include anything that is necessitated by us being God’s image-bearers. That’s pretty vague. To get a better idea of what this might mean, let’s start from the beginning:

Step 1: From nothing, God makes everything seen and unseen.
Step 2: God makes the first human (“in our image”), and calls him “good.” This human has a body.
Step 3: God gives that first human dominion, including naming rights, over everything that He just made. He also tells him to cultivate that garden in the East.
Step 4: God stops making stuff.

At this point, we don’t know very much about God or about people. One of the things we do know is that God is infinitely creative and productive, and that He seems to want people to be as well. Before the fall, God ordains work.

Between then and now, God has revealed Himself to us many times in many ways, including and especially by becoming one of us – the perfect human. This perfect human did a lot of really incredible things, turning water to wine, making a feast out of a few loaves and fish, restoring bodies and lives. And this was over the course of just a few years. For the first 30 or so years of his life, Jesus studied, and made stuff.

Scripture isn’t super clear about how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves in the details of our everyday lives, but I think it’s pretty clear about this. We are supposed to work.

Now we’re kind of treading some tricky territory. Our society has a…complicated…understanding of work, what it is, what it’s for, how much we ought to commit to it, etc. For the sake of clarity, I’d like to define work as productive human activity that sustains and grows us, our families, our societies, and our world. This is a very broad definition; incidentally, there are literally millions of things that qualify as work (and we’re thinking up new ones all the time!) – each of them good, necessary, and potentially worshipful.

One of the mistakes that our society makes in its thinking about work is that it is exclusively related to one’s job. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s because we’re kind of obsessed with our careers or we really like money or something. But the legitimacy of work is not determined by how difficult it is or how much money it earns.

Lately I’ve been reading and encouraged by Margaret Peterson’s book Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life. In this treatise on housework, she points out that “in a society dominated by its monetary economy, it is easy to assume that any unpaid activity is either a form of consumption or an oppressive waste of time. But housework, although unpaid, is essentially productive; it is among the ways which humans can and do participate in God’s own work of creation” (Peterson 38). In the office, we might not be particularly creative, and that’s okay. But we should fulfill this part of our human end at home, first and foremost by establishing a hospitable and flourishing household.

Sometimes we also forget that work is a means to an end, not an end it itself. Work is only good and worthwhile insofar as it achieves whatever it aims to do. To be sure, the general aims of work are of cosmic significance.

And this is why work – all of it – ought to be done well. The quality of one’s work is essential to the Christian. Somewhere along the line, the Church (particularly the Evangelical tradition) lost its way and began to devalue tangible worldly things, including work, which was rendered a mere distraction from God that doesn’t ultimately matter.

In her book Creed and Chaos – which is about the things that ought to matter the most to Christians – Anglican writer Dorothy Sayers includes a chapter about work. She reminds us that “the only Christian work is good work well done” (Sayers 108). She also argues that churches should be very interested in how people conduct themselves after the benediction, saying that “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” (Sayers 106).

Peterson also makes the interesting and compelling argument that “work is sacramental…In a traditional Christian understanding, sacraments are points at which material and spiritual things come together and God is present and active in particular ways… (work), while not a sacrament properly speaking, may in a similar way allow physical objects and actions to link believers to Christian memory, hope, and present faithfulness” (Peterson 40).

I find all of this deeply relieving. It means that God cares about how I use my time, and not just because He’s jealous that I’m not using it all to pray or something. It means that every day matters, not just Sundays. And it means that it’s not idolatrous to care about the emails I send in the office or the food I cook in the kitchen.

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One Comment

  1. […] Earlier I wrote about how part of worship is creativity and productivity, and I think that we can do that not just through work, but also through leisure. Whenever we create, whether it be communities or culture, we are living up to our title of God’s image bearers, thus worshiping the one who made us. […]

    Reply

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