Weary in well-doing?

An amazing percentage of life is focused on our vocation. Small children are asked what they will do when they grow up. Their play often centers on being a cowboy, homemaker, soldier, astronaut, accountant (just kidding), or other vocational role. Between 12 and 20 years of education is largely aimed at success in a later career. After graduation(s), our days are involved with our vocation, our nights are controlled somewhat by our next day’s work schedule, our weekends may be overproduced and frantic in celebration of our time off?for about 60 years, our work has our attention. After that, we are still identified by what we did formerly and are, even then, not free from a variety of daily chores which are a mundane part of our work.

It is stylish, particularly among those who produce nothing but entertainment, to ridicule this expenditure of our lives. We are “hamsters on a wheel,” “wasting our lives” in a “dead-end job” in so many popular songs, movies, and plays. I doubt this portrayal stands up to closer examination.

Contempt for work was a luxury mostly reserved for the idle and the artists, up until the rise of the Baby Boomer generation. We wanted “more.” We wanted fulfillment in our work, fulfillment beyond what we earned or produced. Our jobs must now be our passion or calling. Those stuck working for their daily pay are pitied by many of us. A throw away comment in a travel magazine caught my eye last week. The writer marveled at the joy a Caribbean farmer found in his “chosen vocation.” It was a condescending comment that assumed joy was a function of what we do, not in the doing of necessary, noble, productive work. That is the voice of contemporary Americans who do not understand their parents or grandparents. More on that later.

Why do we work? The short, incomplete answer is that we work to earn our keep. Working and working for a living are two different things introduced at different times in history. We work because we bear the image of God. Adam and Eve were given the privilege of continuing God’s creative work in Genesis 1:28. He told them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue the earth, and rule over every creature on the earth. The next verse says that their food would come from every seed-bearing tree on the planet. Their work and their food were not tied together at this point. It was not until Genesis 3:17-19, after sin entered the world, that God said that Adam would “eat from (the ground) by means of painful labor” and that he would “eat bread by the sweat of (his) brow.” We would, or should, work even if we didn’t need to for survival. It is part of our nature and our reason.

This is apparent every time I take a vacation. I like kicking back for a few days. It restores me to play with my family, see someplace new or visit with old friends. After a few days, though, I start to feel useless. I’m ready to continue projects I left behind or to try new ideas that occur to me while I’m away. My inner Baby Boomer says that this is neurotic, too much. My reason says he’s wrong. I don’t need to work simply because it feeds my self esteem (although it does); the fact that I work confirms my place in God’s creation and my submission to his purpose.

Contempt for our workaday world may be born out of humanist perversions of work. Work, thus twisted, can become dehumanizing and ignoble. One such mistake ascribes worth to a worker and his labor according to what he produces. If he produces what we consider valuable, he is considered more important than someone who produces fewer or more common things. Thus, an entertainer who produces little of significance is celebrated because we value his wealth and notoriety.

Personally, we may consider ourselves important if our work allows us to acquire goods or surpass our competitors. This is a variation of the same humanistic error. In this scheme, we have no inherent value given by our Creator. Our work is not an extension of his and thus worthwhile. Again, we are esteemed if what we do is temporally valuable. This viewpoint is a powerful motivator, like hunger, but our work becomes a form of slavery. We will come to hate it, what we do, the “sweat of our brow” required, and even that we have to do anything at all. We will hate it because it will not satisfy us, regardless of how much we attain or who we defeat. In this model work is an act of worship, but the object of our worship is human, no greater than ourselves.

It is not necessary that we enjoy our work every day, Genesis 3:17-19 says that we won’t. God’s command, given before the Fall, indicates that it is also wrong for us to resent the fact that we must work at all.

Apply this to your father or grandfather. Most who read this, particularly those over 30, were raised by men in middle class jobs. They made things, grew things or fixed things. They did hard, noble work but didn’t consider it a calling. Usually, they didn’t do it because it was a “career choice” or fulfilling in itself. It was a means to an end, providing for the family. Work was also what a man did. Mostly, our predecessors would rather earn a little than take charity. Our fathers found a satisfaction in producing something that would have been denied them with charity. Like the Caribbean farmer mentioned earlier, their joy was based on satisfaction that came from taking care of business, and with just plain working. Be careful when you speak disdainfully of that.

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