When I was in high school, I looked at all the career opportunities that I could pursue. I thought about going into business, becoming a journalist, and also about teaching. But in the end I couldn't avoid the sense that I should become a pastor. There were all kinds of good and bad things that factored into that decision, but let me tell you the bad.
The bad is that I made a separation between everyday work and spiritual work. Do you get what I mean? It's like I made two lists. One one list I put ordinary secular work: business, commerce, construction, law, writing, teaching. On the second list I put things like pastoring, being a missionary, teaching in seminary – that's about it. I thought that you can do ordinary, everyday work, or you can do spiritual work that really matters.
I don't know where I came up with this view, but I know I'm not alone. If you follow this to its logical conclusion then all of you work to make a living and to support those of us who are doing important work. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Today I want to look at what the book of Proverbs says about work. I hope that it will change the way that you think about career and vocation. I want to ask three questions:
- What does it say about work?
- Why does it say what it does?
- Finally, how does this impact what you do?
First, what does the Proverbs say about work?
All you have to do to answer this question is to read through the book of Proverbs, or else search for the words sluggard or diligent. It's not very subtle. It skewers those who don't work hard, and it praises those who work hard. For instance, look at how it slams those who don't work:
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
Probably the bluntest passage is this one from Proverbs 26:
A sluggard says, "There's a lion in the road,
a fierce lion roaming the streets!"
As a door turns on its hinges,
so a sluggard turns on the bed.
Sluggards bury their hands in the dish
and are too lazy to bring them back to their mouths.
It's not a very pretty picture. The sluggard uses absurd excuses to get out or work. He's not lazy; he just doesn't want to go outside in case there's a lion. Yesterday it was too hot to work; today it's too cold. Instead he lays in bed. Again, he probably has an excuse: "I'm not my best in the morning." There's a bit of humor in verse 14: he lies in bed turning, but his motion is like a door. There may be lots of movement, but it never goes anywhere because he's hinged to the bed. Even when the sluggard is hungry, he is so lazy that he can't manage to lift his hand to his mouth. The writer has no sympathy at all for those who are lazy.
Contrast this to what the writer says about the diligent:
Diligent hands will rule,
but laziness ends in forced labor.
The plans of the diligent lead to profit
as surely as haste leads to poverty.
Those who work their land will have abundant food,
but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty.
Over and over again, Proverbs gives us the message. Work hard. Avoid laziness. The book is completely intolerant of lazy people. Lazy people, according to Proverbs, are the epitome of folly. It parodies them, it pokes fun at them. It has absolutely no sympathy for them.
We could stop right there, but we'd miss out on really understanding the message of Proverbs if we did. If we stopped here, we would think that Proverbs is a little like a nagging parent who is always saying, "Get to work! Don't you have homework that you should be doing?" We could even be driven to workaholism.
We need to go a little deeper and to ask a second question, and the question is this:
Why does Proverbs say what it does about work?
In other words, what is the reason that Proverbs says what it does about work?
To answer this, I want to give you a bit of background about how other cultures saw work at that time. In the other cultures, the gods had to fight to create the world and to bring order out of chaos. When they realized how much work it is to maintain the world, they tried to think of a way to get out of all this work, so they created us. In this view, we're stuck with all the work while the gods sleep. Work is something that we have to do because the gods are too lazy to do it. We'd get out of it if we could as well.
This isn't the view we get in the Bible at all. When you open the Bible you meet a God who loves to work, a God who has no trouble at all bringing order out of chaos and arranging the world just as he wants it. What's more, he even gets his hands dirty. He does manual labor, forming man from the dust of the ground. There's a dignity that God gives to work right from the beginning. He's not trying to get out of work; he does work that expresses who he is and what he wants this world to be.
All throughout the Bible, imagery is used that describes God as a worker. Genesis portrays him as a gardener and a farmer. Proverbs 8 describes his work of creation in terms of architecture and building. Psalm 139 compares him to a weaver, knitting us together in our mother's womb. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and a craftworker.
And when God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, he came as a builder. In Mark 6 we learn that Jesus is a carpenter, a word that could mean carpenter or just builder. Jesus himself was a manual laborer. And when Jesus spoke of his work, he used images from other professions: doctor, shepherd. He even compared God to a homemaker (Luke 15). And he said of his Father, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working."
This is a very different picture of work from all of the other gods of the Ancient Near East. God is a God who works, and who endows all work – manual work, professional work, and so on – with dignity. And we haven't even got to the good part yet.
When God created us, listen to what the Bible says:
Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:26-29)
The next thing we see, Adam is tilling and keeping the garden, naming the animals – which, by the way, has cultural dimensions. So right away, you have humanity doing important work, work that's very similar to God's.
But let's back up a second. Twice in Genesis 1, God emphatically says that he made us in his image. What does this mean? As someone has said, you could fill bookshelves with the three thousand years of conversation sparked by this one verse. What's especially interesting is that God has said that we are not to make anything in his image, but this is a restriction God hasn't put on himself.
What does it mean to bear God's image. It means to be like him. And looking at Genesis 1 and 2, in what ways are we to be like God?
- We meet a God who is a God of limitless and extraordinary creativity
- We meet a God who takes an environment that is disordered and inhospitable, and who transforms it into an environment that flourishes with life and creativity
- We meet a God who has authority over this world
Then God turns to us and says, "I am giving you authority to fill the earth and subdue it." Being fruitful means building families, churches, schools, cities, governments, and laws. Subduing the earth means harnessing the natural world: planting crops, building bridges, designing computers, composing music.
He's given us the job of being, as one person says, "creative cultivators" (Andy Crouch) – to make something of this world. We're talking marriage and family, but we're also talking art, language, commerce, and government. When we do these things, we're bearing God's image and carrying out the cultural mandate God has given us.
Someone else has said that you are here on earth for four reasons: to love God, to serve others, to responsibly cultivate the earth, and to savor the work of your hands. You are here not only to love God and to serve others, but to help bring shalom to this earth, and to savor the work that you do. It's only in our work that we get to do all four of these at the same time.
One theologian says:
To unfold…possibilities – for example, to speak languages, build tools and dies, enter contracts, organize dance troupes – is to act in character for human beings designed by God. That is, to act in this way is to exhibit some of God's own creativity and dominion in a characteristically human way. (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God's Word)
Work is not something that entered the world because of sin. We have been made so that baking bread, playing soccer, writing music, creating products, banking, practicing law, is holy work before God. It expresses his creativity, contributes to the flourishing of this world.
That's why Proverbs takes work so seriously. It's not just because the writer doesn't like lazy people. It's because when we're sluggards, we're not taking seriously what it means to be made in the image of God. When we are diligent in our work, we help to shape culture and bring glory to God.
You can see how wrong I was to think that some professions are holy, and some are secular. Every vocation can bring God glory.
It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
One man put it this way, hundreds of years ago:
The homeliest service that we do in an honest calling, though it be but to plow, or dig, if done in obedience, and conscience of God's Commandment, is crowned with ample reward; whereas the best works for their kind (preaching, praying, offering Evangelical sacrifices) if without respect of God's injunction and glory, are loaded with curses. (Joseph Hall)
In other words, the work of a banker or a mother or a teacher or an entrepreneur can be loaded with more blessing than the work of a preacher. Because this is so, Proverbs is right to challenge us to take our work seriously.
We need to apply this by asking one more question:
What does this mean for me?
To answer this, I have a couple of proverbs and then a verse from the New Testament.
Proverbs 13:4 says:
A sluggard's appetite is never filled,
but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.
What does this mean? It says that sluggards and those who are diligent both have desires, but the sluggard's desire isn't fulfilled while the diligent person's desires are. At first glance you could interpret this to mean food or money or all the things that money can buy, but I think it goes deeper. There's a sense of satisfaction that comes when we work, even if the work isn't what we would naturally choose to do. Your work is not only for the purpose of paying bills; your work actually brings satisfaction. At each phase of God's creative work in making this world, he pronounced it as good. There's something in us as well that longs to take a step back from our work and say that it too is good. Work can be intensely satisfying.
Proverbs 22:29 says:
Do you see those who are skilled in their work?
They will serve before kings;
they will not serve before officials of low rank.
So we have desire or satisfaction that comes from work, but here we also have skill. There are certain things that you may enjoy doing, but you will never be skilled at doing them. But when you have desire and skill come together, it is a powerful combination. Frederick Buechner said, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
I realize that this can all sound hopelessly idealistic. You may understand everything I've said, but really struggle with how it could ever be true in your life and in your job. It's going to be true here, but the reality is that although we bear the image of God, we've sinned, and neither we nor this world are what God intended them to be.
But God through Christ is renewing and restoring all things. The good news (gospel) for us this morning is that Jesus came into this world to take on our sins, and to begin the process of restoration so that one day things will be as they should.
You've heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. He and C.S. Lewis decided to write fiction they way they thought it should be written. Lewis kept producing book after book. Meanwhile, Tolkien labored over one book and never felt satisfied.
One night Tolkien had a dream about a man named Niggle. Niggle is an artist who paints a picture of a great tree, but is never satisfied. Before he can finish the painting he dies. On the train to heaven he sees the tree that he had been trying to paint. The Tree he sees is the true realization of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete form of his painting.
One day, through Jesus Christ, the tree you've always wanted to paint, the sermon I've always wanted to preach, the work we've always wanted to do – we'll discover it in heaven. Your work now matters to God, but it's only a shadow of the work we'll be able to do, and the satisfaction that we'll get from that work, when God one day restores all things through what Christ accomplished at the cross.
Yuko Maruyama, a Japanese organist working in Minneapolis, was once a devout Buddhist. Now, thanks to the music of J. S. Bach, she is a Christian. "Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity," she told Metro Lutheran, a Twin Cities monthly. "When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God." Masashi Masuda, a Jesuit priest, came to faith in almost the same way: "Listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations first aroused my interest in Christianity." Our jobs can be used to proclaim God's glory and even to draw people to Christ.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, "If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."
Father, today we give our vocations to you. Thank you that you are a God who is still at work. Thank you for your Son, who not only worked as a carpenter, but worked to accomplish our salvation. And thank you that you call us to serve you with our whole lives, including the work that you've called us to.
We offer our work to you today as an act of worship. May you be glorified through our holy vocations. And we look forward to that day when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we'll do the work we've always longed to do. In the name of Christ our Savior we pray. Amen.