God's Stewards - at Work and at Play
The holidays are over. Mothers and fathers are back into their regular work routines, and children are back at school. While January first is the calendar start to a new year, in many ways the month of September is more so. School, catechism classes, study societies, home visits – all are in a new season. For many workers, it is the start of another year of work with the next holidays a full year away. The regular cycle continues.
How do we, as Christians, view the return to the routine? Many are already looking forward to the next holiday, and in the meantime they live for “free time” on the weekend, adopting the creed, “Thank God it's Friday.” Others see the holiday season as an unnecessary intrusion on their productivity, and they are glad to get back to work as the only activity that really matters. Christians need to see the faults of both these views and realize our responsibilities as God's stewards, both at work and at play.
Perhaps the most common problem with our view of work is the idea that work is a curse. This can fuel the longing for the weekend, since work is a curse anyway, or it can fuel the idea that work is the only activity worth doing, since it is required by God that we sweat to earn our food (Genesis 3:19). However, a close reading of the first three chapters of Genesis shows that work was not given as a curse. God's creation was His work for the first six days recorded in Genesis. Man was then given his task in continuation of the creative work of God. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to take care of it” (NIV). The RSV translates with the words “till it and keep it.”
This should be enough evidence to show that there was work involved in Adam's daily routine, and not just plucking fruit off the trees to eat it. Tilling and working the garden are the activities of a farmer who tills and works his land to get produce. Work, then, is not a curse. Rather, it is a creation ordinance, to be viewed in the same way we view marriage. Work was required, and work was good before the fall.
Then sin entered the world, with one of the results being the curse put upon work. It was not new that men had to work, but it was new that work would be a burden to man. Does this mean that the right way to view work is as a punishment we deserve and so it should be tolerated only? Or does it mean that we must accept the curse willingly, and throw all our energy into it in order to show our penitence?
The fact is that neither of these answers is correct. The true answer lies in the redemption which we confess. We know that the curse of sin lies on everything in this world, not just work. We also know that there is the redemptive power of Christ to transform everything under the curse so that it works to the glory of God. As Leland Ryken writes in his book, Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1987),
The whole problem of Christian theology is to offer a solution to the problems occasioned by sin. Work can be redeemed, even in a fallen world. Anything that helps us to overcome the effects of sin on work is part of this redemption. Work itself retains some of the quality of a curse, but the attitude of the worker can transform it (p.131).
Once we see work as cursed and redeemable, rather than being a curse, we can develop the attitude that transforms it. If we see work as a curse in itself, it is too easy to adopt the wrong attitude towards it. Our attitude is evident in the goals we select. Our first goal should not be to make money (although it is important to be able to provide for yourself and your family, and for the needs of the church), nor should it be to please your employer (although it is important to do your job well). Even though these goals are good to a degree they miss the essential element of work redeemed. Work, and all of our life, is to be to the glory of God. Our goal in our work should first and foremost be to please Him.
With this as our first goal, our attitude toward work will change. Work becomes the way that we can serve God and others. As David McKenna puts it in his book, Love Your Work (Wheaton Illinois: Victor Books, 1990), “Our work needs to be redeemed by the call of God, for the good of the community and the glory of God” (p. 44). I believe that if our approach is to please God first, then serving our neighbour will be the result as well.
Choice of Vocation
From this realization of what the goal of work should be for the Christian, we can also look at how a Christian should choose a vocation. There is, however, an attitude towards the types of jobs people hold that is incorrect as well, and needs to be corrected. Some have the idea that different jobs fall in different levels of service for God. Ministers and missionaries have vocations that serve the kingdom of God, while a plumber or an electrician serves a useful but lesser purpose. This is a false dichotomy that is not supported by Scripture. As Ryken points out, Paul did not give up his service as a tentmaker as he made his missionary journeys. Still, for centuries the Catholic church separated the idea of vocation and labour. It was a calling to serve in the church, but a punishment to work at anything else. The masses were considered to be less privileged, unable to read the Bible for themselves, unable even to pray for themselves. Luther and the reformers worked at restoring the right view to vocation. McKenna writes the following:
No wonder Martin Luther worked to restore the Biblical meaning of vocation as part and parcel of the Reformation … According to Luther, all believers are called of God, according to their gifts, to a vocation which is spiritual. I remember well my struggle with a vocational choice between higher education and pastoral ministry. Luther rescued me with the good words, “It is more spiritual for a cobbler to use good leather and a strong stitch than it is to pass out tracts.” From then on I could go either way (p. 64).
All work is equal in the eyes of the Lord. If we accept this view, it will be especially helpful to the mothers working in the home. Too many of us have bought into the world-view that says keeping a home and raising children is not significant enough work for a talented adult. We will return to the idea of work in the home later, but for now let us realize the equality of all work in God's eyes.
For now we go back to making our choice of vocations as Christians. Key to Luther's biblical view of vocation is that all Christians are called by God according to their gifts. Realizing that work is not a curse brings us also to being thankful for being equipped to do work. Then we are called to use the gifts given to us, in the light of using our work to please God. This can be a calling to the ministry, or a calling to a trade. The call to a trade can be seen especially clearly in the construction of the tabernacle. In Exodus 36:1 we read, “So Bezalel, Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the Lord has given skill and ability to know how to carry out all the work of constructing the sanctuary are to do the work just as the Lord has commanded.”
When choosing a vocation then, we must realize the call of God to use the talents we have been equipped with to do what He commands. We will not choose work based on the pay we will receive, or a “what's in it for me?” attitude. We will choose work on the side of self-sacrifice rather than self-realization. As Ryken concludes his discussion of work in relation to God,
… if we believe our work is something that relates us to God as stewards, we will choose careers and tasks on the basis of such considerations as the degree to which those careers utilize the talents and abilities God has given us, allow for maximum achievement (and therefore represent a good stewardship of our time as well as our abilities), and provide the greatest potential for witness (on the job, through our work, and as an outgrowth of our work) (p. 173).
Today there are more vocation opportunities available, which is a blessing that presents its own set of problems. When a young person considers the options available today, parents, church and school need to advise them according to these principles. Young men and women need to be counselled to choose the education that will allow the most development of the potential God has given them. The choices are not easy, and prayer is necessary for help in making them.
There is one more area of concern in the current view of work that needs to be addressed before we move on to the subject of leisure. It is a question of what is work, and what is not. Many of us have too narrowly defined work as that activity for which we are paid. This is much too exclusive, and leads to major problems. We return now the idea of work at home.
First we have the problem of the low regard for the work the mother does at home. How many men don't come home at the end of the day and sit down saying, “I worked hard all day. It's time for me to rest.” My question is, what did the mother do all day? Sleep? Christian men perpetuate the world view that work done without pay is less significant by not acknowledging the contribution of the mother's work at home. If the husband says it's time for him to rest, then the wife's response could be, “Since I worked hard all day too, I think it's time for me to rest.”
Men need to realize the significance of what the mother does at home. If men looked at their own work through God's eyes, what would they see? They would see a puny and insignificant contribution to God's world. After all, what is the greatest invention when compared to God's creation? What is the greatest sacrifice compared to the sacrifice of God's own Son? How inadequate is the best father when compared to the Father who gives us all things necessary for body and soul?
The comfort is that there is significance to the work of all Christians, no matter what they are called to do, when they realize it as a calling from God. As Ryken puts it, “…such tasks as preparing surfaces for painting, or typing letters all day, or washing dishes do not carry their own reward. But if God calls us to such work, we suddenly have a reason to accept them with a degree of commitment” (p. 146). The commitment is to serving the Lord, and that is significant in all work, definitely including the work done at home.
A second problem is that some men will work very hard all day in a sincere attempt to please God by serving and witnessing, but then think their work is done once they leave the job. This could not be farther from the truth. It is abundantly clear that God holds the father responsible for the training of his children, and this responsibility does not stop at making enough money to pay the school fees. Again, who do we ultimately work for? We work for the Lord, and we never leave His service. There is not time when we can say, “I'm done for the day. It's quitting time.” This cannot be stressed enough. We are not our own, to do either what we want to, or even what we think we deserve, but we belong to God and our work for Him continues after we leave our job.
All this sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Still, if we as Christians approach work with the right attitude, the burden of work will become light. Work is not a curse. It is a part of God's creation before the fall, and as such we should gratefully accept the blessing of the opportunity to work to please the Lord. We are among the chosen few who have been given significance in our daily work. Let us pursue it with excellence to the glory of God.