Life came to a screeching halt nearly a year ago because of the COVID lockdown. This suspension of normal life brought with it the opportunity for reflection, something our busy lives rarely afford. One area the spring lockdown helped us consider afresh is work. For many, work slowed dramatically; for others, it got suspended indefinitely or stopped altogether. But for essential workers, life carried on, and for good reason.
We need these workers––grocers, delivery drivers, nurses, doctors, and others––for a simple reason: if they all took a 60-day break from work, we would all die. Any rest or holiday we take is only possible because someone else is working on our behalf––delivering goods, stocking grocery aisles, cooking, cleaning, computing, policing, governing, and so on.
Our lives are deeply dependent on the work of others. From the moment we enter the world through our mothers’ labor to the moment we die, we are engulfed in an environment created and sustained by human work.
This is crucial for a Christian to remember.
Overvalued or Undervalued
If we fail to realize our embeddedness in a world of work, one of two things can happen. On the one hand, we may overvalue our jobs, which can lead to an inflated sense of ourselves and our work.
Daniel Plainview, the central character in the 2007 film There Will Be Blood, is an example of this tendency. Plainview is a restless, calculating, and obsessive oilman who works to maintain a veneer of benevolence––his stated goal is to “blow gold” all over his community. Yet underneath the veneer, Plainview is riddled with greed that prevents him from caring for anything outside himself—including his adopted son—and it inches him closer to a personal explosion as dangerous as an oil derrick blowout.
Our lives are deeply dependent on the work of others.
Not seeing our embeddedness in a world of work can create a second, opposite problem—an undervaluing of our jobs, which can lead to a deflated sense of ourselves and our work.
Consider Jim Halpert’s uninspired description of his job in the pilot episode of The Office: “My job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantities and type of copier paper, you know, whether we can supply it for them or whether they can pay for it.” After sighing, Jim confesses with sleepy detachment, “I’m boring myself just talking about this.”
Both Daniel Plainview and Jim Halpert have a shortsighted understanding of work.
Adjust Your View
How do we strike a balanced view of this enormous subject of work? C. S. Lewis’s essay “Meditations in a Toolshed” helps us. Lewis considers a beam of light bursting through a crack of a toolshed door. By looking at the beam, Lewis saw nothing but the beam, along with a few lazily floating dust particles. Everything else was dark.
When Lewis shifted his perspective and looked along the beam, a whole new world opened up. He saw beyond the confines of the toolshed—the tree branches and their leaves blowing in the wind, blue sky, and the beam’s source, the sun.
Lewis compares this to modernity’s obsession with detached observation and analysis, which spends too much time looking at things and not along them. I believe Lewis’s meditation can also be applied to work. We tend to look at the work we spend so much of our lives doing and not along it.
When we look at our work, we fail to see work’s connection to the world and others, which creates either an obsessive preoccupation or a numbing malaise. Christianity not only invites us to look along our work, but provides ample resources for doing so.
Looking Along Our Work
There are three main directions we can look along our work.
1. When we look along work in an upward direction, we see the triune God.
As the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit lovingly relate, the Trinity flourishes. Moreover, their love overflows into the work of creation.
In other words, look up along your work, and you’ll see a working God. Whether your profession brings order (the legal profession, administrators, professional organizers) or healing (therapists, doctors, nurses), whether you tell stories (journalists, librarians, actors), raise children, or create beauty (artists, musicians), you’ll see the Creator who made you to work like he does.
2. We can also look backward along our work.
The Protestant Reformers, most notably Martin Luther and John Calvin, encouraged this perspective.
In the beginning, work was a good part of God’s creation. Even now, we create with God by taking the material of his creation and working to uncover its latent treasures.
Work was not meant to be undervalued as a necessary evil or overvalued as an opportunity for control. Instead, it is participation with God in sharing his love with humanity. Human work is the means by which God’s providence is normally manifest. When we pray for our daily bread, God could certainly drop bread from heaven, but that prayer is ordinarily answered through the labor of many workers.
3. We should also look forward along our work to the new creation.
Let’s consider the firstfruits of that new, resurrected order: Jesus. His resurrected body retains the scars from the cross, which led theologian Darrell Cosden to conclude:
We have made an imprint on Jesus’s eternal physical body. And since this body, still containing those scars, is now ascended back into the Godhead, the results of at least this particular “human work” are guaranteed to carry over into God’s as well as our own future and eternal reality.
In other words, the work of the Roman executioners left an eternal mark on Jesus and therefore persists into eternity. In fact, the whole arc of the biblical narrative suggests a “spillover effect” of human labor into the new creation.
The whole arc of the biblical narrative suggests a ‘spillover effect’ of human labor into the new creation.
What begins as a garden culminates with a garden city in Revelation. The organizing, settling, and culture-making labors of people in response to the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28) will somehow be ushered (albeit gloriously transformed) into Christ’s eternal kingdom. This is likely what John meant by his enigmatic description of “the kings of earth bringing their glory into [the new Jerusalem]” (Rev. 21:24).
Look in the Right Direction
Work in the modern world is complex, which means we are often severed from the fruit of our labors. Consider the factory worker making steel ingots, or the legal assistant sorting through forms. Given the thick bureaucratic and technical furnishings of contemporary life, it is difficult for us to see along our work.
We may feel boxed in, much like Lewis in a toolshed. This is not to say that looking along work is an automatic fix, for we can look along work in the wrong direction. Lewis could have looked down the beam of light to see nothing but a dusty shed floor.
The key is to look along work in the right directions––upward, backward, and forward. The change in perspective is both illuminating and rejuvenating. Those undervaluing their work can see their labor’s value as part of God’s providential care for and connection to their neighbor. Those overvaluing their work can see their dependence on the broader work landscape, giving them an appreciation for the good work of others.
Look up, and see that work is divine. Look back, and see how work is an important way to order, steward, and love God’s creation. Look forward, and see the exciting possibility that our labors may persist into the new creation.