Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Work: Great Expectations?

An edited version of this piece was published in the September 2014 edition of EG, a magazine published by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, but I don’t think I posted it on the blog. I had been asked to write something on the frustrations that often come with work. I’m currently writing another short piece on work, and I may be redrafting or even reusing some of this material.

Perhaps you’re one of those people who bounces out of bed with a lightness in your step and a song on your lips. Your morning routine is purposeful but relaxed. You smile on your commute. You breeze into work, cheerily greeting your colleagues, looking forward to all that the day holds. Perhaps. If so, the rest of us are really pleased for you – though we secretly wonder whether you’re in deep denial or taking something that may or may not be readily available over a pharmacy counter.

For many of us, though, work can be a drag. Not all the time, to be sure, but with enough periods of frustration and futility and sheer hard graft to make us wonder about escaping to a simpler life without jammed photocopiers, rude customers, demanding managers, and unrealistic deadlines.

If God created work, we should expect it to be fulfilling, shouldn’t we?

Getting a fuller perspective on work

As it happens, we are created in the image of the God who finds satisfaction and delight in work, and who designed work to be fulfilling not frustrating, pleasurable not painful. But work – like all things – was impacted by human rebellion against God and alienation from each other.

Work itself is not cursed, but nor does it escape the distorting effects of sin, such that it has become ‘painful toil’ (Genesis 3:17). We’re able to enjoy the fruit of our labours, but only by the ‘sweat of [our] brow’ and by tackling ‘thorns and thistles’ along the way (Genesis 3:18-19). Here is a daily reminder that the world remains out of kilter with God’s design, where it’s possible to make too much or too little of work.

Getting a realistic perspective on ourselves

For instance, it’s possible to succumb to idolatry, where our job becomes the primary object of our passions and source of identity. Or we slide into idleness, wittingly or unwittingly, unable to see God’s purposes in work. Both are problematic. In seeking self-fulfilment through work, we risk forgetting that our purpose and identity is found first in Jesus, who then helps us make sense of our jobs. Or we risk not seeing that work has value in and of itself.

Ecclesiastes provides a voice for the frustrations we might feel – work can appear to be ‘meaningless’ (2:11, 17-23). Even so, toil is still seen as a ‘gift of God’ (3:12-13), to be enjoyed (3:22), which brings satisfaction (5:18-19) and joy (8:15). The key, in 2:24-26, seems to be not seeking delight in what one gains from work, but seeing good in the work itself, as from ‘the hand of God’.

Getting a proper perspective on Jesus

So, there is hope. Work is not just a way to pass time and make money, but a service we render to Jesus himself (Colossians 3:23). Working for Christ not only gives us a new master, but a new freedom to worship through our work, a new desire to serve others, a new confidence to trust God in our jobs, and a new motivation to work well – even during times of frustration and seeming fruitlessness. We have sufficient examples in Scripture – Joseph, Ruth, Daniel, Esther – to show that God works through us in difficult and morally ambiguous situations, often in spite of our flaws.

Work, then, is a crucible for discipleship, a place to grow as a follower of Jesus, even in the mundane tasks: writing an email, placing an order, servicing a boiler, tightening a bolt. Seeing our job as an arena to serve Christ won’t necessarily deal with all our frustrations, but it will put them into their proper perspective as we take our place as God’s stewards in his governance of the world. Think about that when the alarm goes off tomorrow morning.

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