Half of Canada heads off for the summer, as if to emulate the famous story in the Gospels: the multitude throngs into the wilderness where she loafs and fishes. But now is back to work time. And as we saw in our previous blog, work is a good thing.
But what is so good about work? In recent generations, much of the Christian church saw little good in work beyond the necessity of being able to make a living. Today, thankfully, work is recognized as having significance and dignity. There remains, however, much uncertainty about what that significance is.
Why do we go to work? We may have moved on from the "go-to-work-to-make-money-to-survive" mentality. But we still largely see work as a means to an end. A more significant end than getting paid, perhaps, but an end other than the work itself. The goal of work has shifted from the material to the spiritual: it now has what is described as "kingdom significance".
That sounds like an improvement. But it may well be just another expression of the unhealthy dualism (the great divide that sets 'spiritual' above 'material' rather than seeing that God is in all of life) that destroyed the sense of dignity in work in the first place. In the old paradigm, the only work that was of value was "spiritual" work: pastors and missionaries have the privilege of doing significant work, but everybody else has to go to work and endure the day until they can come away and do more significant things like Bible Studies and prayer meetings in their spare time.
It is not much of a paradigm shift to say that we don't simply go to work to make money; we go to work to make money so we can give lots of it to the Lord's work. That still leaves our day job as being somehow not the Lord's work - just a means to an end of enhancing the Lord's work. We need to go further than that.
Dualism is only destroyed when we see that our work IS the Lord's work. It's not just a means to doing the Lord's work in our spare time or with our spare cash. It is the Lord's work. If it's not, we shouldn't be doing it! In the purposes of God, our everyday work has significance since it is an active participation in what He is doing in his creation. According to the scriptures, God is still working; and we, like Jesus, are only to be doing what we see our Father doing. Mysteriously, he is at work in every plumbing project and in every retail sale of a piece of clothing. The work itself is significant - as an end in itself, not only as a means to an end. A fixed toilet and a well-dressed person matters to God.
James Davison Hunter (in "To change the world", p.249) highlights a more subtle way that we think we are attaching significance to work where, in fact, we are still viewing it as a necessary evil, or at best an unfortunate means to a more important end. He describes those who see their workplace as of value because it provides a platform for evangelism or a context in which to lead a Bible Study with ones colleagues. These are important ends: but is the point of work reduced simply to being a means to such worthy ends?
Within such a mindset, any view of the quality of one's work, or any sense of accomplishment or recognition in the workplace, is only of value insofar as it brings attention and a measure of celebrity credibility to the Gospel. To make his point, Hunter quotes Eric Liddell's father's words to his son in the movie Chariots of Fire: "What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian - to make them sit up and take notice". The value of Liddell's athletic activities, in his father's view, was essentially as a publicity stunt for the gospel. But was there no inherent value simply in the activity of running? Was all that effort merely a means to a supposedly greater spiritual end?
Eric Liddell himself was closer to the mark. He said, "God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure." It would seem that he felt that pleasure when he ran in the loneliness of his solitary training exercises as much as when he ran in front of a stadium full of people who were supposed to be evangelistically impacted by the fact that a Christian won a medal. He ran because God had made him to run - and needed no further 'spiritual' validation. His words can and should be paraphrased by every Christian worker (and no Christian should not be a worker!): "God made me strong. And when I shovel dirt, I feel his pleasure". When I work I feel his pleasure. So the work itself, not merely some supposed higher or ulterior motive, is end enough to leave the lake behind and go back to work.