06 September, 2016

Work and faith

I've just finished reading this book about how biblical faith applies to our working lives (that includes non-paid work). I loved it. It says so many of the things that I have thought about but not sat down to apply words to. 

I'm finding myself talking to a lot of people about it. So, despite being bad at writing book reviews, I'll take a shot at writing about the book because this is really something every Christian should read, no matter what kind of work they do. And I want to consolidate my thoughts about it. Like other books by the same author, I got through it and immediately felt like I could read it again, just to give myself time to digest it. Maybe I read too fast?

Work is good 
First Keller frames work as something God has designed us to do. In fact God led the way by working himself and delighting in it (Genesis 1:31; 2:1). He also commissions humans to take care of his creation, and that doesn't just mean environmental protection, it means the work of providing food, of caring for all living things, populating the earth, discovering new things etc. 

Work was in the world before the Fall, meaning it was always God's plan that we should work. "Work is as much a basic human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not simply medicine but food for our souls. Without meaningful work we sense significant inner loss and emptiness" (p 37). I've seen this again and again in people who have had their lives disrupted by illness, injury, or life's circumstances (like unemployment or transcontinental moves with spouses).

This statement stood out to me:

Work is so foundational to our makeup, in fact, that it is one of the few things we can take in significant doses without harm. (p37)
It makes me think about the culture we have in Australia of worshipping leisure time and whether that is okay if my worldview is to be a Christian. I even wonder about seemingly innocent comments like Garfield makes about the horror of Mondays!

It also makes me less concerned about myself in some ways. I hate boredom, sometimes I fuddle around so that I don't get to the end of a list and run into the issue of not having anything to do. This obsession with having stuff to do concerns me sometimes. I know about the trap of busyness, that we are not the sum total of our schedule and that I shouldn't just fill up my schedule so that I feel meaningful. However, it is as natural as breathing that we should be desiring to do meaningful work. 

However the drive to work is tainted by a broken world. The book comes next to this dilemma about how our drive to work can be a drive to save ourselves.

Problems with work
Keller talks about the problems we have with work. Particularly that work can become fruitless, pointless, selfish and that it reveals our idols. This was not an enjoyable part of the book, I have to say, but important in helping understand why, work become such a problem for us.

Sin has entered the world, so even though work itself is not bad, it gets affected, just like every other part of creation.

"Part of the curse of work in a fallen world is its frequent fruitlessness" (p.90). Keller explains that this fruitlessness includes being able to envisage that we'll achieve far more than we actually manage, that various factors mean that our aspirations will be curtailed. Conflict, pain, illness, envy, fatigue etc. Even satisfaction with the quality of your work but not getting the results you want. For example a talented musician or artist who can't get a job to pay the bills using what they're best at doing. This is all evidence that we're not working in a perfect world.

The idols of work: we can end up working for recognition, choosing a career for wealth, or seeking power over others. "The New Testament reveals that the ultimate source of the tranquility we seek is Jesus Christ" (p112). "When we set our hope on an idol . . . we are saying to ourselves, 'If I had that, it would fix everything; then I'd feel my life really had value.'" That can be anything, from a job with a higher pay rate to one with greater prestige. Even becoming a missionary could be this.

Keller spent some time in Esther and says Esther is a pointer to Jesus. He challenges us to realise how loved we are. "Meditate on these things, and the truth will change your identity. It will convince you of your real, inestimable value. And ironically, when you see how much you are loved, your work will become far less selfish. Suddenly all the other things in your work life—your influence, your resume, and the benefits they bring you—become just things. You can risk them, spend them, and even lose them. You are free" (p127).

Hope for work
Keller challenges us to think out the Christian worldview's implications in our work life, and to not just being satisfied with superficial answers like "be honest" or "not sleeping with coworkers" or even "start a prayer meeting with Christian co-workers".

He gives an example about journalists, one that speaks to me as a writer and editor. He says we should be writing stories of redemption and renewal, sacrifice and perseverance rather than stories about neglect and blame. He looks at other areas too, like the arts, medicine, education.

I can look a bit at the missionary world. It's easy to fall into the trap of making idols of sacrificing ourselves, we can set ourselves up as models to be admired, or we can do our jobs at a standard that is less than it could be done. We can neglect our family and our spouses all in the name of "the work". We can even look down on others who aren't working as missionaries.

The point is, just because we are Christians doesn't mean we're living out our faith fully in our work.

Some ways we can bring our Christian worldview into our work
Workers are told in the Bible to be wholehearted (Eph 6:5). Our motive for working is "as if [we] were serving the Lord". Keller assures us that Christians are set free to enjoy working and that work is a way to please God.

Christians are to work with "sincerity of heart" i.e. with focus and integrity (p215). 

Being courteous and respectful as well as humbly confident. I've seen this modelled my whole life by my parents. Until they retired a few years ago they ran a business from our home. These attitudes characterised them. 

"Christians should also be known for being calm and poised in the face of difficulty or failure. This may be the most telling way to judge if a person is drawing on the resources of the gospel on the development of personal character" (p220).

"If we have an integrated and non-dualistic understanding of work, we know that many people who are not believers are, through God's providence and common grace, given gifts to do excellent work. So we will respect and treat those who believe differently as valued equals in the workplace—at the same time we will be unashamed to be identified with Jesus. If a Christian avoids both of these errors, he or she will be striking an unusual and healthy balance" (p221).

There is a great story on p218 of a Christian manager who took the blame for a big mistake an employee made. She asked why and he finally admitted it was because he'd experienced grace from God. Jesus had taken the blame for things he'd done wrong and that gave him the desire and freedom to do the same for others. 

As I've mentioned earlier, don't assume that because someone is in full-time Christian ministry that they are working in a way that glorifies God. We all are deeply sinful. The flip-side of that is that God's love and grace are incredibly vast. I love this prayer of Paul's: 
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph 3:17-19, NIV).
I cringe occasionally when I see people in full-time Christian ministry who act without confidence (cringing or servile) or don't do things to the best of their ability. 

I'm also shocked when a missionary is surprised when I am generous or gentle in my dealings with them as an editor.

There's lots to think about in this book. I do recommend that you get a hold of a copy and mull it over.


Sarah said...

I'm pretty sure that's the book my husband has sitting on his bedside table, collecting dust. I'll have to grab it off him and read it.

Something that bugs me on Facebook is Christians sharing a quote by C.S. Lewis about children being the most important work. I think that is idolatry. Glorifying God is the most important work and raising kids is just one way to do this.

Wendy said...

Yes, you should!

I think that as soon as we elevate one type of work above another then we're losing sight of God's heart. He doesn't have a list of more important jobs. That is where we get things all skewed with schooling, going to uni (or college) and getting a professional well-paying/respected job shouldn't be the ultimate goal in education. All work is valuable to God, whether it be cleaning, building, preaching, mothering, or doctoring. It is all important. If we mums put all our value in parenting, then what happens when our kids leave home? I see too many older (Christian, even missionary) mums completely devastated when their kids leave home. Sure, we'll miss them but they aren't our reason for living.

Wendy said...

Oh, and putting so much value into parenting devalues those who can't have kids. Single people or infertile couples feel then that God is withholding "the best" from them. Not true.

Sarah said...