Lost: Joyful Work

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Read my original post on this series Lost & Found here.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15 ESV)

Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19 ESV)

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… By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:17-19 ESV)

By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.
Robert Frost (1875-1963) American Poet.

We have lost more than we ever thought we had to loose, but our loss isn’t the end of the story. In fact, woven throughout the Bible is God’s response to our lost humanity. What was lost can be found. God, you see, is a God of redemption. What we’ve given away, he made a way to get back. It isn’t simple. It wasn’t cheap. But it is something available to everyone.

One of the things that we’ve lost is meaningful, joyful work.

There’s something about the word itself that feels negative to us. Work. If we’re doing something, as a job, that we really enjoy, we may say something like “It doesn’t feel like work to me.” In our brokenness we fall into two opposite unhealthy approaches to work:
1) We find too little meaning in our work.
2) We place too much meaning in our work.

In the original creation, God made man to live with him, and he gave him meaningful work to do. For many of us, we work to survive. We work because we have to. We work to get a paycheck, and nothing else. There’s no deep meaning to it. There’s certainly no joy in it. Sure, we may find joy in life– but not in our work. Every day that we go to work we hit the pause button on our joy. Joy is what happens on the weekend, or at night, or anywhere that isn’t work. When it comes to what we are paid to do, however, that is not our source of joy.

There are books written to help job seekers find a job that fits them (like What Color is Your Parachute) and on the lost idea of vocation (I like Let Your Life Speak). These might be helpful reads, but not ultimately until you have a healthy view of work that avoids either of the two extremes. What’s the source of these unhealthy views?

Too little meaning in our work

Sometimes we find to little meaning in our work. I am reminded of the following anecdote:

On a foggy autumn day nearly 800 years ago a traveller happened upon a large group of workers adjacent to the River Avon. Despite being tardy for an important rendezvous curiosity convinced the traveller that he should inquire about their work. With a slight detour he moved toward the first of the three tradesmen and said “my dear fellow what is it that you are doing?” The man continued his work and grumbled, “I am cutting stones.” Realising that the mason did not wish to engage in a conversation the traveller moved toward the second of the three and repeated the question. To the traveller’s delight this time the man stopped his work, ever so briefly, and stated that he was a stonecutter. He then added “I came to Salisbury from the north to work but as soon as I earn ten quid I will return home.” The traveller thanked the second mason, wished him a safe journey home and began to head to the third of the trio.

When he reached the third worker he once again asked the original question. This time the worker paused, glanced at the traveller until they made eye contact and then looked skyward drawing the traveller’s eyes upward. The third mason replied, “I am a mason and I am building a cathedral.” He continued, “I have journeyed many miles to be part of the team that is constructing this magnificent cathedral. I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly. However, I know how important Salisbury Cathedral will be one day and I know how many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know this because the Bishop once told me his vision for this great place. He described how people would come from all parts to worship here. He also told that the Cathedral would not be completed in our days but that the future depends on our hard work.” He paused and then said, “So I am prepared to be away from my family because I know it is the right thing to do. I hope that one day my son will continue in my footsteps and perhaps even his son if need be.” [see original]

Sometimes we suffer through work without joy because we fail to see our work connected with something greater. And before you dismiss your work with the thought that you’re not building a cathedral, read the following words from the Apostle Paul, recorded in the New Testament letter Colossians:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him…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 3:17, 23-24, ESV)

In everything we do, we have the opportunity to make it an act of worship, serving Jesus. When you believe that what you do is service to the the Lord who loves you, your boss, and your tasks for the day fit into a larger picture and find meaning in Him.

The reality is that life in our fallen world means everything is a ministry opportunity. There is no relationship, workplace, situation, or place where sharing and living out the gospel isn’t needed.

Too much meaning in our work

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the danger of finding our greatest source of meaning or identity in what we do. This, like the first problem, is a failure to place Jesus at the center of our lives. We bend our sense of identity toward whatever we do. Do you love what you do? Great! Do you find satisfaction in your work? That’s a great gift! But be wary of finding your identity in what you do. You are not a teacher, a mother, a lawyer, a pastor, an accountant or an engineer first.

If you are a Christian, your identity is in Christ. You are defined, first, by Jesus. You are forgiven, loved, accepted, admitted into God’s family, and rewarded all because of the work of Jesus. This is the source of our identity. Work– positive, worshipful, work– is a gift we are given to steward. It isn’t meant to define us.

Sometimes we drown ourselves in work because we don’t know who we are in Jesus. We don’t feel loved. We feel distant from God. In our work, however, we find rewards, challenges and satisfactions that we can experience here and now. It’s easy to find our identity in the more tangible components of our lives. It’s easy, but it’s dangerous. The problem is that we were created for something far greater than anything mere work can provide. We are created for something bigger than anything in us, in fact. We are created to glorify God.

Too much meaning, or too little. Both issues stem from a lack of identity in Christ who is our all in all. When Christ is central, no good work is too meaningless and no work becomes an idol, and joy can be ours again.

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