This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Sunday through Saturday Connection". See series.
Whether it as at home, in a classroom, on a factory floor, or in the office, work can be a big pain!
You can face an urgent deadline and have your computer crash. Or you can deal with difficult customers and serve under a demanding boss. Or you have to let an employee go or downsize the labor force. Even at home you may face a mountain of laundry to do. All of these are big pains.
I was out tending to my lawn and I've always liked lawn work—until recently, that is, when something took the wind out of my sails. Frankly, it happened so very quickly, I couldn't stop it. The momentum of my revved up lawnmower devoured the extended sprinkler head hidden in the tall grass. Black pieces of my sprinkler flew all over my back yard. At that agonizing moment, words suddenly snuck out of my mouth that—well—I don't think I will repeat for you this morning. Needless to say, I was not a very happy camper when my sprinkler head disintegrated before my eyes and my tongue revealed to anyone within hearing distance that I, the "right" reverend, was neither right nor very reverent at the moment.
Work, it makes us want to curse. But why? Why is work so often such a pain? If you have a Bible, turn with me to the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1 and 2 we see that God didn't design human work to be a frustrating pain; He designed it to be an exhilarating pleasure. But in Genesis 3, because of humankind's act of great folly, we see sin's devastating effect on work.
Work itself was profoundly impacted by the curse. If we grasp what the biblical writers tell us then we realize that my work, your work, whatever it may be, is not at all what it ought to be. In this fallen and broken world, God's original design for our work has been badly corrupted. So what happened? Let's take a look at Genesis 3, verses 17-19.
And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (ESV).
Work is often difficult
You will notice the far-reaching and long-lasting changes described regarding work in verses 17, 18, and 19. The very nature and context of human work has fundamentally changed. As you read these verses, you can almost hear the intensity of hurricane force winds transforming the entire landscape of human existence and feel the weariness as work is placed under a heavy weight—a weight humans were not originally designed to bear.
Work is now toilsome and difficult. There will be thorns and thistles and the sweat of the brow. This vivid biblical imagery paints the dire picture of the far-reaching and devastating consequences of human rebellion against a good, just, and holy God. There is alienation from God, alienation from other human beings, and yes, alienation from work. Theologian Miroslav Volf says, "God's curse after the Fall expresses the fact that alienation is inherent to the human experience of work." Work is not what it ought to be. Our work has become difficult, distorted, and disillusioning.
Sin entering the world and corrupting God's design has made work harder. The systems, technologies, economics and structure reflect a fallen, broken world.
A TV show on the Discovery Channel called Dirty Jobs takes a humorous look at some examples of what it's like to do a job in this fallen world. The show always begins with the following quote from the show's host Mike Rowe, usually spoken while in the midst of a particularly dirty task: "My name's Mike Rowe, and this is my job. I explore the country looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty—hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. Now, get ready to get dirty." The dirty jobs have included a roadkill collector, a catfish noodler, a shark suit tester, a penguin keeper, a bologna maker, and a hot tar roofer. The show's theme song was originally Faith No More's We Care A Lot which features the lyrics, "Oh, it's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it."
Your job may not be that bad (and thank God if it isn't), but the curse of the Fall means that work is often painfully difficult.
Work is often badly distorted
Humankind's fall into sin not only affected our relationships, but also our understanding of work itself.
Work can be distorted in three basic ways: Work can be seen as no big deal. This is the destructive danger of slothfulness. Work can be seen as too big of a deal. This is the destructive danger of workaholism. Some work can be seen as more important than other work. This is the destructive danger of a work dualism.
As apprentices of Jesus, we have all been called into full-time Christian work. Your mission field is right where God has called you to work or study or where you volunteer. Edward Gene Veith says in his book God at Work, "The priesthood of all believers (namely that all true Christians have equal access to God and value before God) did not make everyone into church workers; rather it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling."
Work is often very disillusioning
The writer of Ecclesiastes transparently addresses the disillusionment that is part of this fallen world and our daily experience in it. The author's mad pursuit of power, pleasure, and material comforts leads him to the disillusioning conclusion that it's all for naught. Satisfaction and fulfillment elude him in his pursuits, particularly his work. It is as if he had before him the lyrics of the Rolling Stones classic, I can't get no satisfaction, but I try and I try and I try …
Ecclesiastes 2:17-18: So I hate life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.
Ecclesiastes 2:22-23: What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not resist. This too is meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 3:12-13: I know that there is nothing better for me than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that work in this broken and fallen world is a mixed bag. It is both a curse and a gift. It brings us frustration and exhilaration. Yet work calls us not to an "Eeyore" kind of pessimism, but to a "Tigger" kind of hopeful realism. In his book Work in the Spirit Miroslav Volf points out: "Together, Genesis 2:15 and Genesis 3:17ff affirm that the inescapable reality of human sin makes work unavoidably an ambiguous reality: it is both a noble expression of human creation in the image of God and a painful testimony to human estrangement from God."
Cultivating a hopeful realism about work
One way to cultivate a hopeful realism about work is to remain hopeful in the midst of work's inevitable difficulties. Our work can be difficult, it can be a pain at times, but we do not have to live in an "Eeyore" fog of melancholy and discouragement. If we grasp the truth of God's word about our work, we can remain hopefully buoyant, even in difficult job circumstances.
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. (Does that sound like your workplace or what?) You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well- developed, not deficient in any way.
Another way to cultivate a hopeful realism about work is to see your work as an opportunity for personal growth and influence. As I look back at my life and my vocational work, I realize that some of the times of my greatest personal and leadership growth has been in the most difficult days. When my work has been the most demanding, when my inadequacy has been most inescapable, I've had to trust God for wisdom and strength, and as a result my growth as a human being has been the most significant.
In Romans 5:3-5, the Apostle Paul articulates the transformational truth of the Gospel of Jesus, that we find new creation life by faith alone in Christ alone, he lays out God's path for our transformation. It is not a path of ease, but it is one of enduring hope. We must fix deeply in our hearts and minds that our work, though often difficult, is one of God's main means for our spiritual growth and transformation. Work is where perseverance, proven character, and hope are often deeply forged.
A final way to cultivate a hopeful realism about work is to build a healthy life rhythm of both hard work and Sabbath rest. We live in a time where human work has dramatically changed. In a high tech, 24/7 nano-second global world, each one of us needs to establish healthy boundaries and a regular life rhythm of engagement (work) and withdrawal (rest). This will require us to build margin in our lives, our schedules, and our finances. Our work world needs to be wisely shaped or it will wrongly shape us. Building a healthy rhythm of both hard work and regular rest raises the importance of close-knit spiritual community with others who help us as well as our own personal vibrant prayer life. Trying to do our vocation without prayer virtually shuts God out of our work. Many of us approach our work and what we do the majority of the week, as practical atheists.
God's Word clearly reminds us that in this very broken world with broken people, work will never be all it was intended to be. Though sin entered the world, the good news is so did the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ who came to this sin-stained earth and died on a cruel Roman cross—the redeemer of not only human souls, but also a fallen world. Have you embraced Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you know Christ? Someone has rightly said, "If you miss Christ, you miss it all." Without knowing Christ, not only is life unfulfilling, work is also unfulfilling.
In his beautiful poem, When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted, Rudyard Kipling penned these words: (quoted in "The Call")
"When earth's last
picture is painted, And
the tubes are twisted and
dried, When the oldest
colors have faded, And
the youngest critic has
We shall rest, and faith, we
shall need it, Lie down for
an aeon or two,
Till the Master of all good workmen
Shall put us to work anew …
… And no one will work for
the money, No one will
work for the fame.
But each for the joy of
the working, And each,
in his separate star,
Will draw the thing as
he sees it. For the God
of things as they are!
Our work is not what it ought to be, but one day it will be!
Tom Nelson is the senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas, and the author of Work Matters.