The Scriptures never cast aspersion on the ordinary work of our hands because when human labor is functioning as it should, God’s purposes come to bear upon the world through it and God’s glory is revealed in it. Let me give you a couple examples of what I mean.
Years ago, I pastored a church that had as one of its stated core values “the sacredness of work.” We talked often and enthusiastically about how the mission of God goes forward in the world through the work of our hands. Over time, it became both a powerful discipleship tool for us as well as a powerful statement of where our priorities lay as a church—not only in the building up of the body but also in the equipping and “sending” of the members of the body into their various callings in the world.
One day, I grabbed lunch with one of our congregants, David, who at the time worked in urban planning and design. I was curious about his vocational journey— how he wound up in his field, what his job involved, what motivated him, and how he connected it all to the life of the Kingdom. He told me about his background in the arts and about his passion for the Bible’s vision of a world marked by shalom—t he universal flourishing of all people and all things. For David, given both his ability and his convictions, the natural occupational path was urban planning and design. He could spend his days dreaming about and creating plans for the development of neighborhoods that, by their design, would stimulate the flourishing of the people in them— with walkways and bike paths and open areas and playgrounds all designed to get people outdoors (promoting health) and interacting with one another (promoting community). His efforts are contributing to the blessing and building up of the world. Abad and shamar.
Too often, the way that we talk about the value of work in the church reduces it to a mere instrumentality. “Work is sacred,” we tell people, “when it is specifically ‘religious’ work. Preaching or teaching or leading worship or doing overseas mission trips. If you can’t do those things, at least try to do something that’s not evil and that earns you a decent wage so that you can contribute financially to the church.”
“Hogwash,” I say—and the Desert Fathers and Mothers would agree. “Church” work is not more holy than any other kind of work. It is the spirit in which we undertake our labors, and the ends to which those labors are directed, that render them holy or not: “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.”6
Do you see it? Doctoring is a needed profession, and this doctor was practicing it in the spirit of ora et labora, with pax being the result.
The English poet and novelist Dorothy Sayers, in a brilliant essay on the meaning and dignity of human work, remarked that “Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work.” Then she identified the devastating effects of not doing this:
In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.
But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? 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.7
Faith in the Incarnate God refuses to surrender any part of our lived existence to the evil one. And yet, when we fail to appreciate the full meaning of human labor in the plan of God, we tacitly do exactly that—with tragic results: “The secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends.”
We need to do better. We need to reclaim the intrinsic holiness of our work, bringing its sacred depths to visibility as we seek God and the good of others in it, understanding it as an expression of the many ways that God is working to bless and build up his world. “Teach me work,” writes Wendell Berry, “that honors Thy work.”8 And what is “Thy work”? Whatever God is doing to bring his shalom—“thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—to bear on his world.