“Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is vain that you rise up early,
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.” Psalm 127: 1-2
From this psalm, I’ve reflected on three things regarding work: it must be done; God cares about it; and it must be done in faith.
What does it mean that work must be done? My first thought towards this, is that nowhere in this psalm does God speak disapprovingly about work itself; it is approached as a very normal and necessary thing. It is plainly written that there are in fact builders and watchmen, and there is no doubt to their necessity.
What does it mean that God cares about our work? If work is a normal and necessary thing, it is an important part of the world and system that He has created. Everything is under him, and he cares for His people and his world. He is talking about builders and policemen here, not just pastors and ministry workers. So I think he is talking about financiers, legislative assistants, project managers, and waiters, too. In the past it has always been so easy to draw lines between meaningful work (we’ll call that “sacred” work), and work that was “necessary for an income and lifestyle” (we’ll call that “secular” work). And when I found myself driving to an office, to do a job only because it was necessary for an income and a lifestyle, it felt very far from what I valued. Way over on one end of my life were the things that made life “life”. These were the things I valued and by which I thrived: faith, family, friends, hobbies, interests, learning, and more. Way over on the other end was work. I certainly did not value it, and it certainly was not a place in which I thrived. I learned and grew and developed creativity and relationships, but to me, it looked a lot more like anxious toil. There were things I valued about it, places in it where I could see myself forming into the person I was supposed to be, but was the work in itself, valuable? Not to me. And to me, that was precisely the conflict: what was valuable work and what was not? Should I have left the advertising job and went to non-profit work because it mattered more? Should I have focused on the ways in which advertising benefited the world and leaned on that to give the work value? What this passage tells us, is that there is no way to make work matter if it is not done in faith. Work is not good in itself, work is made good by God’s hand.
He also cares about the work done in the world, because He knows his workers will misuse it. Sin has the potential to enter every good thing, so because there is corruption or dissatisfaction in the work world, does not mean that it is something apart from God. Perhaps it even means that work is something so special to God, that sin tries even harder to ruin it. Sin has done a pretty good job of that so far in my own life, working hard to make my jobs feel like anxious toil, meaningless endeavors whose only purpose is to provide an income and a lifestyle. As I mentioned before, I let work drift so far away from the other things that “mattered’ in my life. As that was happening, I always had an inkling that if I spend the majority of my waking hours here at work, it must matter. The year in that particular job was the most challenging year of my life, but even still, one that was hugely formative in my faith. The consistency of faith in my life has been one of God’s greatest gifts to me, and it was present in that year. God gave me the most wonderful church, a small group, a city and home that I loved; He was my foundation when my emotional self was stripped bare. I do believe that work was a challenge He led me through to show me who He was. It really was a beautiful year amidst the anxiety that prevailed over my work. But now as I look back, I think that perhaps I did not invite God into my work. I prayed at work, I cried out to God at work, but maybe I didn’t let Him into the work itself. Perhaps it was because I did not see it as valuable to the Kingdom of God; or was it that I never really gave much thought to the Kingdom of God at all, and that it had meaning here on the earth? Perhaps the temptation of frustration and apathy wore me down to a great extent that I just did not want to fight it anymore? C.S. Lewis writes, “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.” I didn’t want to find out how hard it would have been an hour later. Apathy was the path of least resistance, and indulging in it was just too easy.
In Fellows, we are encouraged to think about how our workplaces affect and engage with the world, and how, in both a micro and macroeconomic sense, their industries can work to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. These are good and important and valuable things to think on, but we need never forget that it is not the work that builds the Kingdom, but God who chooses to build it through our work. Seminary students and MBA students alike must know this. This thought however, brings me to another: what does it mean that work must be done in faith? This thought is often filled with confusion: I’ve had trouble bridging the supposed gap between the Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility. I don’t suppose that I will have it all worked out any time soon, but I think that developing an understanding of it will come from acting them out together in obedience and faith. I believe that God is good, therefore His commandments are good. If you love me, keep my commands, is not a cold empty instruction, but a straightforward call from a good God who knows what goodness is held in his Law. I believe that in obeying his commands in faith and trust, I will, as the psalmist says, taste and see that the Lord is good. This means praying when I doubt prayer’s effect. This means tithing first and saving second. (Even typing that was difficult, because I do not tithe, and the thought of it makes me anxious).
But that’s what I’m saying: we are not supposed to eat the bread of anxious toil, and we are told frequently to not be anxious. Anxiety enters where faith has left. But as I struggle with this connection yet between Sovereignty and Responsibility, I must struggle it out in faith and trust God as He tells me that as I build, to let Him build through me. As I strategize messaging and media, let him strategize through me. And as I finish my work, give Him the time, and let Him put me to rest, because otherwise will always defer to mindless apathy and anxious toil.
Putting it all together, as I am still working through it in my mind, I can know a few things: that work is made good by the hand of God, work is made valuable by the hand of God, we must take action and work, but all is futile without God’s leading.
image: freeimages/wen hsiao