Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep. Bzzz Bzzz
I lay completely still, telling myself that if I can pretend it’s not happening, it’s not really happening.
Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep! Bzzzzzz Bzzzzzz
My phone continues to bleat relentlessly, louder this time to communicate the supposed urgency. I shove my pillow over my head. Peace.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP! BZZZZZ BZZZZZ
My husband nudges me gently, wanting for me to do something about the alarm so that the headache it has given him will go away.
Angrily, I hiss “SHHHHHH!” at my phone and blindly poke at the screen until it goes silent. I then flop back onto my pillow.
“I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want to go to work. I don’t want to face people. I don’t want to do this anymore. What’s the point?” These lines spin round and round in my head until I reluctantly drag myself out of bed and into the bathroom.
Debilitated by the daily grind
A few months ago this was my morning ritual every Monday to Friday. Gone were the feelings of excitement, eagerness and enthusiasm that used to welcome me in the morning during my first three years of full-time work. That was a time when I had sprung out of bed, full of energy to face the day and learn new things. These days, everything related with work feels like a drag – waking up, catching the train, drinking my coffee, tackling that never-ending to-do list, watching the clock, coming home and being terrified of closing my eyes to go to sleep because once I wake up, the whole process will start all over again.
Conversations with my friends and colleagues around me lately have fueled this disillusionment. Gossip about you being spread through the office, the anxiety of a temporary contract, the indifference of a manager, the boredom of not being challenged, the burden of a crushing workload, the frustration towards a lazy colleague, the lack of recognition for hard work… bit by bit the workplace seemed to be sucking the joy out of our lives and left us miserable, tired and disappointed. What had happened to all our childhood dreams of holding fabulous jobs that we were passionate to the core about? What about Hollywood’s promise of big bucks and big lives for those who tried hard enough? The dreams of waking up every morning and thinking, “I’m so lucky that I can get out of bed and be paid for doing something I love”!? Had the dreams let us down?
I know that my situation has little to do with the nature of my work. I know that because deep down, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing and I can’t think of any other job that, in the long term, would resolve the feelings that I’ve been experiencing on and off. During a recent period when I was struggling quite badly, my husband encouraged me to re-read a book that we had once read together (just before he become my boyfriend :O). My prayer is that some of my biggest “take-home” points from Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavour (which you can find and borrow in our ACG library- yay!) that I have touched on below may also act as an encouragement to you, whether you have already transitioned into the workplace or will do so in the next few years. At some point in our lives, we will have to face the brokenness that has marred our work as a consequence of sin, and I am convinced that these points can also apply to how we approach the other “work” we engage in – whether it be our studies, housework or ministry.
Work was a part of paradise
“It is perfectly clear that God’s good plan always included human beings working, or, more specifically, living in constant cycle of work and rest.” (page 36 – Every Good Endeavour)
Work itself is not an evil thing. God commanded Adam and Eve to work before the fall (Gen. 1:26; 2:15) which demonstrates that work itself is intrinsically good. God created work to be as much of a need for humans as food, rest, friendship, prayer and sexuality. Without meaningful work we can be left feeling empty and directionless. Think back to the last time you spent a couple of days cooped up at home without doing anything significant – I, for one, certainly wanted something purposeful to do by the end of it (even if it meant the end of the semester break and going back to university!).
Like all good gifts, an obsession and idolisation of work will compromise our fixation on the Creator, but it is helpful to understand that the reason work can become unenjoyable is not because work itself is a problem that needs to be eliminated.
Keller in his book reminds us that in the same way a fish can only find freedom when it is restricted in water, we will not find ultimate “freedom” by fleeing from the constraints of work. At the same time, we can also recognise that healthy boundaries (for example, ensuring we have regular and sufficient rest, managing our time wisely and striving to act in a just and loving manner towards others) will help us to pursue the goodness of work.
Knowing that God designed us to work and values what we do compels me to believe that despite the way I may feel at times, work is something I should diligently pursue because He, our loving Creator, specifically built us, His beloved creation, for work.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
All work has dignity
I suspect that like myself, at some stage after becoming a Christian you began to feel that ministry was so much more exciting and important than your every-day job or studying. I mean, what else could be more important than making disciples for the Kingdom? Shouldn’t we, having seen the value of the gospel, devote our entire lives to the work that has certain eternal consequences? Wouldn’t that be THE great solution to all the grief we feel towards our work right now?
The sacred work of ministry is noble and important. However, we must remember that all work, whether it be mowing the lawn or doing 121 discipleship, has dignity because it reflects the image of God in us. In Genesis 1-2, humankind is called to care for the material world because it is good. Christians should not look down on work that involves greater contact with the material world (“secular work”) because caring and cultivating the material world has its worth and it is something that God himself does (Psalm 147:8-9).
Keller also reminds us that because our God delights in the diversity and creativity of all work, we should never have a basis for condescension or superiority, which has become part and parcel of a society like ours. Many of us would benefit from reflecting on how the character of our Creator radically challenges our cultural beliefs that white collared, high paying professions are much more worthy of our time and efforts than other professions.
“Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” Ephesians 4:28 (NIV)
The problem with work
Keller does a fantastic job in unpacking many of the reasons behind why it can become so difficult to enjoy work and shed light on a lot of my own heart issues behind this. To whet your appetite for the gems that you will discover in reading this book for yourselves:
- Work becomes fruitless. Man’s rebellion against God resulted in our alienation from Him and unraveled the very fabric of the entire world – including our work. The entire world is now subject to decay (see Romans 8). Sin has distorted both our personal and public lives, and under the curse of sin, work has become a “painful toil” plagued by thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:17-18). Work itself is not a curse but it is under the curse and as a result, all work and human effort is marked by frustration, fruitlessness and a lack of fulfilment. In Chapter 5 of the book Keller highlights the importance of understanding the tension between the goodness of work and accepting what the Bible says about the consequences of the fall. He ends the chapter with the “deep consolation” that Genesis 3:18 tells us that not only “thorns and thistles” will come out of the ground but that we will “eat plants of the field”; though it will always fall short of its promise, work will still bear some fruit. Work will be both frustrating and fulfilling (sometimes, as Keller puts it, just enough so that we may catch a glimpse of the beauty and genius that might have been the routine characteristic of all our work).
- Work becomes meaningless. The narrator in Ecclesiastes makes his case that work under the sun is meaningless because it does not last (Ecclesiastes 2:7). It takes away our hope in the future, and alienates us from each other and the Father. This can be changed by the truth of the gospel, without which “we will not toil for the joy of serving others, nor the satisfaction of a job well done, but to make a name for ourselves.”
- Work becomes selfish. When we do not engage in constant reflection, we can easily slide into allowing our work to become a part of our identity and define our essence, security, worth and uniqueness. Contrast this with making what the Lord has done for us and in us (Revelation 2:17) become our confidence. Work often becomes a channel for us to “make a name for ourselves”, become addicted to the short-lived pleasures of materialism and fall into the trap of pride and self-sufficiency. Only an acceptance of our brokenness keeps us going back to God to remember what we cannot do on our own. A quote from this book I have pinned on the wall in front of my desk at work reads: “But if you are unwilling to risk your place in the palace for your neighbours, the palace owns you.”
- Work reveals our idols. Both individual idols (comfort, pleasure, approval, affluence etc) and cultural/corporate idols (such more traditional idols that teach societal members that their lives have meaning if they assume and are faithful to their duties and roles within the community, or modern idols such as individual freedom and “equality”) are revealed by our pursuit of work. Again, it is well worth taking the time to examine the societal messages and teachings that presently flood our minds and our workplaces and to challenge our hearts with how our salvation reshapes this.
The Gospel of Hope and Work
Having understood the purpose of and problems with work, the final chapters of Keller’s book remind us of the greatest hope that God has given us for restoration – the world is going to be redeemed. The truth of the gospel (God created a good world that became marred by sin and evil, but through Jesus He redeemed it at an infinite cost to himself so that someday He will return to renew all creation, end all suffering and death and restore absolute peace, justice and joy) changes everything – especially our work! No longer is our work only cursed or meaningless toil – it is becoming and one day will be completely liberating, satisfying and a joyful endeavour.
Our biblical worldview helps us fight against the voices we hear at work telling us that our only value and joy is found in whether we achieve money, power and satisfaction in this life. It means that being a Christian worker leads to more than just being an honest and trustworthy worker or evangelising to our colleagues – it also means thinking about the implications of the gospel and God’s purpose for our whole work life as well as everyone under your influence at work. Whether you work in the field of journalism, education, arts, medicine, law, business, or as a tradie, your work has a part to play in God’s redemption story.
The gospel gives us a new identity that grants us purpose and frees us from being crushed by work. It provides us with a desire to abide by Godly principles that dictate how we should behave at work and it brings a new worldview that fortifies us for the battle against becoming enslaved by work.
We are all well aware that an understanding of how the gospel impacts our work is distinct from actually living it out. I’m always grateful for this community that we have and I would encourage us all to have those chats with each other about how God is using you, with your specific gifts, passions and opportunities, to redeem His world and bring glory to His name.