The Value of Work (Labor Day)
Our society is conflicted about work! On one hand, we are a nation of many workaholics with people who work as many hours as possible each week from of a driving compulsion to “get ahead.” Come to work early, stay late, and bring their work home with them.
On the other hand, we have become a people who play at their work and work at their play because we worship pleasure and entertainment. Jobs are purely for a paycheck, a necessary evil that allows us to get to the things we really worship in life. “TGIF,” we say, and only consider ourselves alive from the time we punch out till the time we punch back in again.
Except for Martin Luther King Day, Labor Day is our most recent national holiday, but it’s 121 years old today. We have it primarily as the result of a campaign by a Union called the Knights of Labor, one union among many that sprang up after the Civil War. Their slogan was, "An injury to one is the concern of all." Bigger unions would follow—AFL, CIO. These have a checkered history, but no one would deny they have done the American worker good. Their gains we now take for granted: mini-mum wage, social security, 8-hour work day, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and workman's compensation are a few.
We know God values work. The word “labor,” or variations, occurs in scripture 105 times. That’s simply to tell you that God has plenty to say about it.
God Himself is a worker. Jesus is a worker. The creation story says, “by the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing” [Gen 2:2]. Jesus frequently made statements like, “My Father works and I work… I must work the works of Him who sent me…” [Jno 5:17]. At the beginning, we see that "the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it" [Gen 2:15]. So, when everything began, even in a paradise situation, God expected humankind to work and to take care of things.
In the Ten Commandments governing the life of Israelites, God said, "six days you shall labor and do all your work." All days are the Lord’s, but one day is especially dedicated to Him, and the other six are for work.
In the NT, when Jesus sent out the seventy to proclaim the Gospel to all Jews, He told them not to take much money or extra clothing to wear. The principle He declared in effect was "the worker is worthy of his wages" [Lk 10:7]. He expected that their work would be rewarded appropriately.
And He was not really talking about trees at all but about people and what their lives produce by their activities when He said, “a tree is known by its fruit" [Matt 12:33]. Our lives are about “producing.”
It’s not hard to see how valuable work is in our lives. Vacations and leisure are delightful, but work is a staple of life. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “If you wish to be happy for one hour, get drunk; …for three days, get married; … for eight days, kill your pig and eat it; …forever, learn to fish.”
When one of us is forced to sit idle due to extended illness or unemployment, how do we feel? Frustrated? Depressed? Useless? Worthless? Meaningless?
I noticed long ago that retirement becomes a challenge to many who have worked hard their whole lives and I became not-a-fan. When such folks are suddenly without any need to get up in the morning, they will often begin to face mental and physical health challenges… and spiritual, too. Until they can discover a new sense of usefulness in some way, retirement seems to be a pointless waste.
Then consider the agony on the faces of the long-term unemployed, many of whom have given up and in to government assistance and other hand-outs and have no way of producing much.
Then consider the excessively rich. Of course, many do great good with wealth, but many do nothing but spend their days in search of new and more exciting amusements. Often what they find to do is highly destructive to themselves, others, and society. Wealth, privilege, and power often breed greed and condescending attitudes of looking down on others who do common work.
If you complain that you have to work to earn a living, let me contend that it is in reality one of your greatest blessings. Being able to work—to find gainful employment of time and talent at some secular job doing something that is of benefit to others, or in the home devoting attention to rearing a family and providing a happy environment—is a vital way—and a precious gift—the Lord has provided for us to provide for ourselves, to be useful to others, and, all in all, to live with a sense of self-value.
More than those purposes, here’s an even higher one: our jobs, when we perform them diligently, become our means of charity. Martin Luther stressed that our work is not first about what we do. Rather, it is about what God does through us. It stair-steps up like this: we have relationship with a God by His grace and He gives us each day our daily bread through our work. Then, in turn, He calls us to give grace to our neighbors by love and service. Jesus said, “as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40]. It turns out that when we love and serve our neighbor, we are loving and serving God.
To have regular work establishes a pattern, a structure, for our lives. It teaches us valuable lessons, occupies our time, keeps our minds busy, and often leaves us too tired for mischief. Simply put, having to work makes us more than what we were before and it keeps us out of trouble.
Working is how the Lord teaches us to be useful. Young adults, though maybe very smart and well taught, need the experience of putting their knowledge and skill to the test to become expert in their art and wise in using it (would you trust a first-year doctor with complicated brain surgery, or a first-day mechanic with an engine overhaul?). First knowledge is gained, then experience follows in applying it, and finally wisdom comes and brings delight at accomplishment. Often, out of what we learn at our secular work, we devise ways to use our skills to bless others. It’s not a requirement for church leadership, but frequently the churches leaders and teachers have gained their church skills by doing similar jobs elsewhere.
That work teaches us new—and right—priorities can be seen in the story of Jacob who had to flee his home for his “crimes” of stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing, who rightfully deserved them as the eldest child. With no land or flocks; he had little status. But then, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed but a few days to him because of the love he had for her" [Gen 29:20]. Of course, we know the story goes on to tell us that he was duped into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister, and had to work another seven years for Rachel.
After those fourteen years, he agreed to work for Laban another six years to acquire flocks and herds for his sizeable family. So, at the end of at least twenty years of work, Jacob eventually returned to his childhood home a wealthy man. What happened? Though there were family connections, his work was a major way God changed and matured Jacob. When he finally returned home, he bowed before Esau, finally recognizing his seniority. This would not have happened unless he had grown wiser through time and work.
Often, in immaturity, our goals are selfish at first, but as we add day to day faithfully working and being productive and discovering the rhythm of life and many hidden blessings in work, God changes our attitude and shifts our emphasis away from personal gain to joy in doing good for others. We first work to provide for ourselves, then to bless our family, but then to bless neighbors and the world. This delight in being useful is a heavenly gift.
As we perform to the best of our abilities in our jobs, we serve the Lord, doing His work. For Christians, God is present in every interaction between people, guiding them so that spiritual life may grow. This means that there is no meaningless labor on this earth. Each job, from what we see as the most poorly paid menial work to what we consider the most exalted executive position, contributes to the Lord's purpose in creation, and His providence for us and others. Paul notes several times for us that our work is “for the Lord” [Col 3:23].
Sure, in our materialistic culture we tend to measure worth by what one is paid, but that is not how the Lord looks at us. Rather than looking at how highly or lowly esteemed our position is, He sees each of us in terms of how faithful and fair we are trying to be.
Then, the job we do is not as important as our approach to it. God has simply given us a way to provide for ourselves the simple necessities of life: food, clothes, shelter, and be content and thankful to God for “daily bread.” And in 100% of cases, He grants us the ability to earn more than we need so we can be of service to others.
Satan has attacked and blurred work’s noble purpose by conditioning us to work to get and consume more on ourselves.
Then there is the “labor” of our heavenly calling—the kingdom work we are called and gifted to do. Those who become disciples of Christ really have only one job — see God and glorify God and enjoy him forever. Everything else is secondary. This means that as citizens of the kingdom of God, we strive, as Paul says, to become new creatures with new eyes that see as God sees—every pain and joy and challenge in the light of God's love. In good times and bad, our job is always the same: to glorify God. We have a new king and a new calling.
The book of Proverbs, collective wisdom of the world with the stamp of inspiration saying they are true, is essentially a comparison of wisdom and folly. It speaks often of work and warns about unwise and unblessed approaches to it: (1) laziness—A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing. [20:4], (2) desire to get rich quick—He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment. [12:11] Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow. [13:11], (3) greed—Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man. [27:20], (4) half-hearted work—One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys. [18:9].
But work does not need to be a curse to us. Rather, when we work with a godly attitude, God can use that work to be the channel of His blessing to us. We see (1) God’s Provision — “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” [6:6-8]. (2) Prosperity — “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare” [20:13]. (3) Honor — “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” [22:29]. (4) Satisfaction — “The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” [13:4].