“This is my work; my blessing, not my doom”
The Holiday Push
The holiday seasons always bring with them an increase in difficulty at work, whether it be more hours or more volume, or less time but the expectation to do more with it. Whatever the dynamic, the extra strain has a tendency to make me reevaluate my job and my determination to keep doing it. Not that I immediately have doubts at the first sign of difficulty, but my mind is certainly prone to ask questions about my ability and determination to perform the thing that seems so difficult at the time.
Even though my job title is that of a supervisor, in reality much of what I do involves manual labor. My work environment is a warehouse: hard concrete floors, metal railings and walkways, poor lighting, loud machinery, no air-conditioning, etc. It certainly isn’t the most comfortable environment! And the work itself involves a lot of walking back and forth on those concrete floors, climbing the metal ladders and railings, squatting down, standing up, lifting and moving packages that weigh anywhere from 1 to 150lbs, all night long. Did I mention I work overnight?
But I’m not trying to win sympathy or argue that my job is any harder than anyone else’s. There’s harder, I’m sure. Still, there’s something I secretly enjoy about my job (from time to time), and it has to do with the difficulty and hardness of it. It’s one of those jobs that you feel some sense of accomplishment at the end of the day by virtue of its difficulty.
Conversations about Work Ethic
As a supervisor I spend of lot of time talking to my employees, keeping them updated on their job performance, encouraging them to work harder, or training them on how to do their job better. This role has given me quite a bit of insight into the different temperaments of people and how they view hard work. Unsurprisingly, there are those who have a poor work ethic and those with a good work ethic. I’m inclined to say that there are more people with poor work ethics than good ones, but perhaps the subjective nature of my opinion shouldn’t be accepted as statistical proof.
Regardless, I find myself thinking a lot about work ethic and motivation. I consider myself someone who is very independently motivated. I need very little encouragement from others to do or perform a job well. Much of that I’ll have to attribute to my mother. She is and has always been the hardest worker I’ve known. I see this trait in my sister too, who is also one of the hardest working people I know. They take responsibility very seriously and I’m impressed by their work ethic and accomplishments.
In my role I see so many younger people who approach work as a kind of undue burden upon their lives. I’ve heard it been said before that Millennials value a work-life balance over achievement, in contrast to previous generations. With this in mind, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that for many (most apparent in younger persons) work encroaches upon personal leisure and pleasure.
Desiring a work-life balance is not a bad thing, though. I kind of like this motto which is often said of the people of Spain. Spaniards do not live to work, but work to live. Perhaps there’s some wisdom to that. Life can’t be spent in all toil and no play. But leisure and ease is like that forked-tongue serpent at times, enticing us to believe that there will be no consequences for eating of the fruit of labor before any labor has been done or fruit has been produced. This is one of the major themes of the book of Proverbs, the folly of foolish and lazy people.
The Sacred and the Profane
I’m going to reach back into my undergraduate studies for a moment and talk about the sacred and the profane. The sacred and the profane is a concept in the social sciences, in particular the anthropology of religion, which delineates between domains of human life which are considered divine in nature (the sacred) and things which are human in nature (the profane). The sacred domains of life would be, quite practically, religious ritual and observance. It’s through the observation of ritual that man makes contact with the divine. All else is profane, it is the everyday comings-and-goings of daily business and family life. At least, this is how most of humanity viewed the different domains of life, for most of human history, according to Emile Durkheim. That is, up until the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation brought with it views of life which elevated even the smallest of activities to the status of worship. I’m paraphrasing here, but Luther said something to the degree that all of life is worship, even the seemingly trivial things. Prior to this, most all of Western Civilization was Roman Catholic, and the main expression of worshipping God was through the sacraments. This reformation perspective, promoted by Luther, freed the individual from the close-minded view of what worship is or could be. For many, this immediately began to shape the way people viewed work.
One critic of the reformed-view of work was Max Weber. He wrote a popular book titled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (original in German). This work has been highly influential in the field of sociology. In it, Weber argues that the reformed-view of work gave way to the rise and dominance of Capitalism in Western civilization. Fundamentally, his argument is that people began to view wealth and success as a sign of personal favor from God. If a person were to become wealthy and successful in their work and business venture, that person would see that as a blessing for their faithfulness to God.
The problem with this criticism is that it totally misses the entire theological position of Luther and the other Reformers. Their point was not, as Weber explained, that work is a measure of holiness. But rather, work is an activity of worship, which was previously clouded by a menial-view of it. Without making an extended argument, I’ll simply offer that I think this expansive view of the work-worship relationship is a Biblical view based on two simple texts (there are many more).
“The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:19-24
- Observation: Jesus explains to the woman at the well that there will be a time (the present moment of the discussion) when true worship will not be defined by a certain space or practice, such as a temple or sacrifice, but by the nature of the person involved. That is, whether they are worshipping in spirit and truth. Worship has to do with a right heart and right understanding (and right relationship with God), not with formalities.
Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. – Colossians 3:22-24
- Observation: Christians are encouraged to view work as a service to the Lord. It is not simply a means to an end but is literally a way in which we serve Christ.
I want to articulate this point again just in case I wasn’t clear. Luther and the Reformers did not bring the sacred down by making it profane but elevated the profane by making it sacred. Luther did not demystify religious ritual by opening up worship to other common activities in life, but he made the common mysterious by elevating it to the status of worshipful activity. And this in light of what Scripture instructs.
Beauty in the Everyday Life
But still we wrestle against our flesh, which is prone towards selfishness and laziness, and against the consequence of the fall, which made the activity of work a cumbersome one. In addition to these, or maybe a direct result of them, I think one the greatest challenges to our taking pleasure in our work has to do with what I mentioned in the previous paragraph; the lack of mystery in work.
There’s a fancy word which is generally only used by the literarily inclined; banal. Banal, according to Google’s online-dictionary, is defined as “lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.” I think that’s quite a good description of most people’s view of their work; lacking originality, obvious and boring. But that isn’t what Scripture tells us about the nature of it. And yet we are still bored by it and view it as encroaching on the extracurricular activities which we find more enjoyable and meaningful. And perhaps that’s another big problem, is that we struggle to find meaning in work that seems to accomplish little more than providing our next meal.
I could go on but I wanted to share a poem that I feel captures the essence of the beauty and mystery of everyday work. Being able to savor those moments from day to day; looking back at the end of the day and seeing worth and value, and even in the moment of adversity and difficulty, feeling a sense of excitement; though those moments be rare, they are all the more valuable for it and worth remembering. Henry Van Dyke helps me to remember with this poem.
I believe this falls into public domain at this point, but for your information, I’m borrowing the text from http://www.poemhunter.com.
Let me but do my work from day to day,
In field or forest, at the desk or loom,
In roaring market-place or tranquil room;
Let me but find it in my heart to say,
When vagrant wishes beckon me astray,
“This is my work; my blessing, not my doom;
“Of all who live, I am the one by whom
“This work can best be done in the right way.”
Then shall I see it not too great, nor small,
To suit my spirit and to prove my powers;
Then shall I cheerful greet the labouring hours,
And cheerful turn, when the long shadows fall
At eventide, to play and love and rest,
Because I know for me my work is best.