March 17, 2019
Or, An Inquiry into the Blessing on Humanity that Are Thumbs
We’re starting another mini series tonight on the subject of work. Similar to Downhill Apologetics, we received ideas for possible seminar topics after the 2017 seminar and work was recommended. We decided that we’d tackle said subject on Sunday evenings instead of covering it in a one-day seminar, but each pastor will take his stick to the labor piñata before we have a Q&A, where maybe this time we’ll actually let you ask questions, though that is scheduled to be a number of months from now. I get the first whack, and I have a variety of candy I hope you take with you tonight, while still leaving plenty of hull for the other guys to hit.
It may seem like a vocational pastor–one who gets paid to read the Bible, pray, talk with people, and preach sermons–should not get to speak about any other kind of work, because, what are his qualifications? I don’t think that is true by definition, but it is sadly true by experience, including my own. Some of that testimony might be a good way to punch the timecard and get us started.
My dad was a self-employed draftsman. I do not know what either of my grandfathers did for work, either because I forgot, or because I wasn’t that close to them, or because they were both past working age by the time I knew them. We weren’t continuing a family business and I don’t remember any family lessons about work. My dad held a couple jobs for construction companies prior to going out on his own, but from the time I was eight until he died he worked from our converted living room into office, with no door, and with country music playing on 104.5 WQKT whenever he was working.
There were only a couple worldview stories that my dad told me, not that he used that vocabulary, but as I would interpret what little he said to me growing up. The main story, the one he repeated most often, the one with expectations attached to it, and the one he was willing to sacrifice for, was that I was going to and graduation from college. He had not done either. And in his line of work that lack of having a degree kept him from charging as much as an architect could, and it kept him dependent on architects to “approve” his plans. Especially the latter stuck in his craw such that whatever I did, I would be getting a college diploma.
What he wanted for me was not necessarily the opportunity to be more independent, the reason for going to and graduating from college was so that I could get a job that paid me more money. And the reason that I would want more money was so that I could provide for a family and have it be more comfortable.
I saw him being generous, but I don’t even remember him telling me that I should be. I saw him being diligent, but he never said that diligence was virtuous by itself apart from enabling you to pay your bills. From the time I started school he repeatedly told me his expectations and committed himself to helping me pay for the first year of college, but he expected me to do whatever it took to finish.
I guess this seemed fine, especially since I wanted to be a baseball player. Getting drafted by a professional team straight out of high school was never my aspiration, so playing baseball in college and then going pro seemed great. The summer before my senior year of high school I started to desire to be a pastor, which is its own story, and one that my dad hated at least for a while before he settled into a longer disappointment, but at least for me, I was satisfied going to Bible college and playing baseball before going pro.
Work was only a way to pay bills and buy toys. While growing up I mowed yards in our neighborhood, I worked for an independent painter cleaning up after him, I worked at TCBY for a while, but none of that was what I thought brought glory to God. When I desired to be a pastor, it seemed like a perfect thing, if I could get hired, to be paid for doing ministry things. I didn’t think about ministry as a job, but if I didn’t have to have another job, that would be great.
During the spring baseball season of my freshman year of college, I fractured a vertebrae in my lower back. This is another story, but it was laser that summer, while getting bored laying around the house, that I read The Sovereignty of God by Pink and The Five Points of Calvinism by Steele and Thomas, and asked Calvin into my heart. Things changed. I began to get serious about the Bible and theology, realizing that biblical studies and pastoral ministry were way more than I previously thought. And my view toward work also changed, as it went from a thing you did to pay bills to the worst distraction from the most important spiritual things EVAR.
Through college and then into seminary I had a variety of jobs, and I was at least half-heartedly good at some of the manual labor parts, but to me that work was always lesser, it was unimportant, it was keeping me from the truly significant things like diagramming paragraphs in the Greek NT and reading Luther and Calvin and Spurgeon and making disciples of the doctrines of grace.
My seminary training confirmed this perspective. The truly godly ones spent 30 hours a week in study, the truly envious ones spent some hours in the study and many hours at a warehouse wishing they were in the study. We heard rousing stories of preachers and writers and theologians who gave their lives to sermons and books.
When I graduated seminary (now with a master’s degree! way more than my dad had expected) and became a youth pastor I loved teaching and trying to train others to teach the Bible. What could be more Christian, more Christlike?
But at home I was having conversations with Mo about whether mothering was “ministry.” And we were talking about what sort of education we wanted our kids to get. And then I started studying Ecclesiastes, in which Solomon had the audacity to say things such as:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. this also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to the one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)
But, Mr. Preacher, where is Bible study? Doesn’t joy come from from longer quiet times? Are you for real that finding enjoyment “in toil” doesn’t depend on the kind of toil? Does that really mean any kind of toil? There are two types of gathering and collecting. The one seeking blessing from the hand of God is in the business of gathering and collecting, but unlike the sinner, the righteous man gets joy in it (plus he eventually inherits the unrighteous man’s pile).
Later in Ecclesiastes Solomon wrote, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). We might pick at Solomon’s view of the afterlife, but he saw our time now as the time to get after it!
Then I started studying Genesis, and it is in Genesis 1:28 that God tells the newest members of His creation, Adam and Eve, to take dominion.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
That. Is. Astounding. Some call this the cultural mandate. What it means is that work is blessing, purpose is blessing, being unfinished is blessing, bearing God’s likeness in creating is blessing, having responsibility bigger than you is blessing. Marriage and kids and generations and then society is included for sake of coordinating and expanding the effort, but all the things that God made on earth are given for man to do something with on earth.
Enter Kuyper. Abraham Kuyper is not the one who invented the wrecking ball to break down a false sacred/secular wall, but he did swing it well. And the reason that this series will refer to Kuyperian work and business is because we need to name what we’re doing.
A lot of people do work; Christians have jobs. Most Christians are bad at work as worship, and they’re the only ones we really should expect to be able to do it well in connection with obedience to God. But we are bad at seeing work as taking dominion as God’s image-bearers. Here are three ways:
This is perhaps the ultimate spiritually sounding problem, and it is the problem I described that is pimped by pastors. I do mean pimped. Pastors and preachers and theologians are at fault for selling and promoting a prostitute spirituality. Every Christian with a Bible is responsible, but the Bible teachers are the ones who push a faulty view of discipleship while taking earnings from that distorted position.
This is dualism, it comes at many stages along the spectrum, from full-blown gnostic beliefs about how all material things are evil and immaterial things are good, to a false belief that only things with a Bible verse attached are valuable to God. But it is the Bible that tells us what is good, and the Bible tells us to look up from the Bible and look around and see God’s many good gifts (i.e., Psalm 19). The Bible tells us how to appreciate our responsibilities not that it (the Bible) is our only stewardship.
I believe, and have said before, that preachers have created dualists because they are afraid of what might happen if they aren’t in control of defining “spiritual” life, most of which happens outside the context of church gatherings.
Your work is before God, and therefore you answer directly to God for your work. The church is not the boss of business. The church is not the authority over economics. Don’t pay taxes to the church, and don’t expect the church to offer legal services. The church should be a place for encouragement and training in righteousness so that you can go start a company or show up on time and work hard at your job. Don’t be dualists. Don’t let preachers make you feel guilty for doing your job in the name of the Lord.
It is also a mistake, however, to name all of our work as the only worship we must offer. We ought not be dualists, but we ought to be able to recognize distinctions between things. I don’t argue that being a man or a woman is more spiritual, but I do argue that there is a difference between a man and a woman. Likewise, I don’t argue that Monday through Saturday are other than days appointed by God to honor Him in our labor, but I can also see that our labor is not the same as gathered liturgy with the rest of the church on Sunday. Reading and understanding and meditating on God’s Word urges us to appreciate and make art, to invest and investigate and invent, to count things and label things and transport things and sell things and buy things, but if we do all of that without remembering that we might die tonight and be in God’s presence, we’re just gathering and collecting for the righteous.
Receive both things God said: 1) focusing on our work is a way to honor Him (a kind of worship) and 2) we can focus on our work instead of honoring Him (which is not worship no matter what we argue).
When Paul addressed the Colossian slaves he told them to get their expectations in order.
Obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not only by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:22-24)
Rather than notice the instruction, our culture, including Christians, doesn’t like being likened to slaves.
Do you want to do better at your job? Or do you want a better job? Why? Is it to make more money? Why? Are you wanting another job because you’re fussy, or because you have great thanks for what work God has given?
From my perspective as a shepherd I am saddened and surprised. I am saddened that I wrongly narrowed the view of what pleases God and promoted a false view of work. I am surprised that, as I’ve repented and attempted to encourage others to expand their view of what pleases God and see a true view of work that many don’t want the pressure. I thought many of those who were already working would be relieved and reinvigorated to work with more deeply rooted purpose, but have found that some would rather feel mildly guilty about not doing enough “spiritual” things and then keep the rest of their time for themselves. They don’t want to think about Christ’s Lordship over every thumb’s width in the universe, then they would have to care.
This message is mostly a message to the choir crowd. But if I’m preaching to the choir, then you are the ones who should be singing to others, leading others in how to think about it. To you who are here, you are responsible on various levels to help others work well.
We are called to love God, and to love the work He’s given us, and to love the people He’s given us to work with and work for, and to love the place that we work.
Make it specific. It is easy to mock Marysville. It is easy to complain about our current conditions. But what do we want? We want it to be easy? We want others to work so we don’t have to? We want “free” things? We want to love the lovely? We want harvest to come for the lazy, for those who didn’t sow or weed or gather?
We have great opportunity, because it is a big opportunity. If all of this is Jesus’, then consider the gift God gave you in your thumbs, and what you touch and the pages you flip and the scrolling on your phone.
The church (TEC, or any other local body) is not the boss of business or the government in Marysville, but Christians should be taking over Marysville in many ways. This relates to our kids, to their education, to college training, and to work, including the work that it is to raise and educate them. But it’s not meant to end with school any more than liturgy is meant to be the end of honoring God.
For a few years I’ve been thinking about making Marysville a destination. In order for such an outrageous thing to happen, others (our kids included) will need to see us loving where we live, and investing in where we live. I think we should work to be able to provide a lot more things for them than are currently available, including college education for those who want it (rather than sending them away because we have no alternative), and also including meaningful jobs that can support a family. There will need to be capital, sweat, risk, success, and losses to learn from. It will require more than trying to get a job, it will require trying to take dominion.
Let us raise and encourage the mechanics and musicians, the carpenters and construction contractors, the lawyers, the doctors, the politicians, the employers, real estate agents, the restaurant owners, the web designers and app makers, the newspaper writers/editors and television/movie producers, scientists and teachers, and many more, and maybe even some more pastors, who are “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
One crucial vocation that I haven’t mentioned yet is motherhood, but not because I think that calling is not included in the sort of work that pleases God. I’ve preached messages on the power of a woman’s work (An Excellent Woman and Reformed Mommas), and for anyone reading our current Men to Men book (Men and Marriage) they would also be struck by the culture shaping work of moms who know what they’re doing and why.
I regularly pray that God would give us “a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6). Seeds are being sown, and I see some tiny, baby plants poking up out of the dirt. But may He bless us with fruit a hundredfold.