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work as a spiritual discipline

June 3rd, 2004 by Jason · No Comments

Every day children are raised, young people are educated, billions of dollars pass between hands, and food makes its way to our tables because people work. Many people spend one third of their life behind desks, under cars, behind a wheel, or laboring in the fields. In short, work is a major aspect of human existence. Is there any way to redeem the long hours we work? Or put more strongly, is it possible for work to be a spiritual discipline which we engage in with the conscious desire to deepen our love for God and others? The Scriptures have much to say about work, and in this paper I will argue that they lead us in the direction of seeing work as a spiritual discipline when it is done with the intention to further the Kingdom of God.

Before continuing to look at work as a spiritual discipline we must define what we mean by those terms. By work I mean something far wider than what is usually understood. Work includes: paid employment, housework, schoolwork and study, and voluntary work (Robert Banks, Redeeming the Routines, 82). We must also define spiritual discipline, which is usually thought to be a practice that brings us closer to God by its nature of being somehow spiritual. However, such a view is more steeped in a dualistic mindset that seeks to draw an arbitrary line between the spiritual and physical. A far more Biblical notion is that there is no aspect of life which is not infused with spiritual significance. All aspects of our lives, heart, mind, and soul are to be engaged in loving God (Matt. 22:37). Thus, there is nothing which makes abstaining from food (fasting), or even talking to God (prayer) more spiritual than working with our hands and minds to bring God glory. Thus, I would define a spiritual discipline as any intentional practice of the body, mind, or soul in which one seeks to submit oneself to God’s ongoing work of redeeming the world.

Given the above definition of work it should be clear that any activity of life, if it is honoring to God, can be engaged in as a spiritual discipline. However, the work of thinking through how a common aspect of life such as commuting, shopping, sleeping, or working can be conformed to God’s reign has, by and large, not been done by our churches or theologians. The sad result is that many aspects of our lives remain unaffected by our discipleship as Christ’s followers. Thus, I choose to examine work in this paper because it is one of those facets of life that has been largely ignored as a spiritual discipline and because it plays such a large role in our lives. Additionally, on a more personal level, it has been a question with which I have grappled during my last few years working as a web programmer. How can I bring the many long hours I spend behind the computer monitor into the service of God’s Kingdom? Is it still a spiritual discipline if I am not developing something which is directly related to the church or ministry (in my case, I work for a photography college developing in-house applications)? Is the time I spend reading books about God for seminary somehow more spiritual or meaningful than the time I spend at work? These and many more questions have prompted me to attempt to approach work as a spiritual discipline.

We must now turn to looking at how Scripture informs our view and practice of work. Should we even be trying to redeem it or is it solely a curse that is the result of humanity’s fall from Eden? We first find work in, what has been termed by reformed theologians, the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. There we are told that at the very outset of creation, before sin had entered the world, God instructs Adam and Eve to ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it….’ To fill the earth includes not only creating babies, but also an array of cultural gifts, such as marriage, family, art, language, commerce, and (even in an ideal world) government (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, 32). Soon after this cultural mandate is given we are told that humanity, and the rest of creation with it, falls from the goodness of the original creation and that now in toil you shall eat of [the earth] all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you… (Gen. 3:17-18). Thus we find Scripture declaring what many of us know by experience: that work brings satisfaction and enjoyment, but also frustration, exploitation, and often very few results in proportion to the amount of effort we expend on it.

While sin has corrupted our talents and efforts the cultural mandate has not been nullified by sin, only frustrated. We are still called to be good stewards of what God has given us. Jesus’ parable of the talents reminds us that while we are waiting for the Master to return we are to make good use of the talents (money in the original context, but it can be applied today as the gifts we have been given). Work is a prime arena where we can use our unique talents to help further the Kingdom of God. One of Jesus’ recurrent themes throughout his ministry is the Kingdom of God, a place where God’s rule and reign are complete. The mystery is that it has come (Lk. 17:21), but has not yet fully come (Lk. 21:31). However, we do know that it is to permeate every aspect of our lives, just as yeast permeates all parts of the dough (Lk. 13:20-21). In short, there is to be no aspect of our lives that is unaffected by God’s redeeming work; including our work.

As a spiritual discipline, then, our work is a place where we can be faithful stewards of the gifts and abilities God has given us to further God’s Kingdom. In order for this to be accomplished our work must be shaped to fit the ethics and life of the Kingdom. Our occupations must be redeemed if they are to fulfill the cultural mandate of causing God’s earth to flourish and be filled with his glory. For me this entails such practices as working diligently during my work hours or writing high-quality code which can continue to be used after I leave. I seek to have integrity in all aspects of my job, which means that what I say I believe and value actually lines up with my actions. This became apparent at work recently when our Information Technology team was cleaning out the storage room. Our customary way of operating is to throw everything we don’t need into the dumpster, including boxes and old computer parts. Besides the fact that it is illegal to throw away many computer parts, I was also convicted that what I espoused to believe, namely, that being a good steward of the earth is a mandate for the Christian, was not lining up with what I was doing. After a bit of an internal struggle I went ahead and took the extra time to pack down the boxes for the recycling bin and haul off the computers to the Salvation Army. While what I did was small, it reminded me that the hours I spend at work are not value-neutral and indeed should be transformed by God’s Kingdom ethics.

Obviously, however, not every minute I spend at work is laden with decisions I must make for or against God’s kingdom. What I have found, though, is that during those times that seem most routine and ho-hum, I am the one being shaped by my work. If I remain aware of the fact that God is continually seeking to form me I find that work can be a place where many of the gifts and disciplines of the Spirit are learned. For example, after hours of wading through code in search of an annoying bug in the software I am reminded that I am learning what it means to be patient and diligent. There are times of great joy when I finally do find the bug and the program begins to hum smoothly again. During such a moment I have two choices: I can accept the joy as a signpost to the God who also takes satisfaction in his work of creating and sustaining the earth, or I can steamroll right over the moment, oblivious to the fact that there is anything to be learned from my hours of work.

While work is not a traditional spiritual discipline, it is important that we see it as that, not only because we spend so much time doing it, but also because as followers of Jesus there is no part of our lives which are to remain untouched by our new citizenship in the Kingdom. Work as a spiritual discipline means we must shape it to fit the Kingdom and, likewise, let God shape us through it. While this may sound good on paper I have found it to be one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines that I practice. More often than not I leave work having completely forgotten my intention to consecrate the work hours to God. Nonetheless, I keep listening, hoping to hear a bit from God over the incessant clickety-clack of my keyboard.

Tags: theology