The Dignity and Vanity of Labor

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Aaron Blumer's picture
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The Dignity and Vanity of Labor

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I’ve always preached that all honest work is God-glorifying and that the opportunity to engage in labor and reflect God’s character through it is a great privilege. Over the years, I’ve also emphasized that if you’re doing the work God wants you to do, however “secular” it may be, you shouldn’t stoop to do anything else. Even vocational ministry is a demotion if it’s not what God wants you to do.

As a pastor, these ideas were relatively easy to affirm. The logic is simple. The best thing any man can do at any time is to obey God. Therefore, if God wants him to sell soap, or make pizza, or drive truck, or mop floors, that activity is the best thing he can do. And if that work is best for him, all other work is inferior.

But when you’re post-pastoral, these principles can be a bit harder to hold with conviction—especially if you loved your pastoral work, prepared thoroughly for it for almost a decade, and still believe it’s what you do best. But sometimes even guys with seminary training and clear evidence of giftedness for ministry can find themselves facing clear direction from God to “do something else until further notice.”

And when that happens, they struggle to find meaning and purpose in the work they find to do.

So on this labor day, I’m talking to myself and to any of the rest of you who sometimes feel that your work is a bit wanting on the scale of importance, meaning and enduring value.  (It’s also a holiday, so I’m not going to work too hard at this. Please enjoy the irony.)

1. All honest work is God-glorifying, and the opportunity to engage in labor, however humble, is truly a great privilege.

Since we’re uniquely fashioned in God’s image (Gen. 1:27, 9:6), our work is fundamentally more meaningful than all of the activities of God’s other creations. It’s no trivial or random thing that when we first encounter God in the Scriptures He is speaking, creating, and working. We might not recognize His activity as work at all if it weren’t for the fact that we’re told “God rested on the seventh day” (Gen. 2:2). We know that God’s “rest” is significant for how we view labor because the working life of every Israelite was coordinated to mirror God’s week of creation and rest (Exod. 20:11).

When we work, we strive to make people or things better than we found them. We aim to use our abilities to improve on the materials at hand, often employing imagination as well as skill in the process. When we do this, we are doing something God-like.

2. The feeling that work isn’t everything it ought to be is also well founded.

If you search your Bible for passages containing “labor” and “profit” you discover an interesting thing. Proverbs 14:23 assures that “in all labor [vs. just sitting around yakking] there is profit.” But Ecclesiastes tells another story. In chapter one (Eccles. 1:3) we’re challenged to join Qoheleth (“the preacher” in Eccles. 1:1) in wondering, “What profit has a man from all his labor?” Later the book is emphatic that years of hard work are “vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccles. 2:11). Qoheleth even concludes in the same verse that “there was no profit under the sun” (see also Eccles. 3:9, 5:16).

What are we to make of Proverbs’ sanguine evaluation and Ecclesiastes’ more Monday-morning attitude? I’m going to play my “beyond the scope” card here. A complete answer to that question is more involved than a single short post can provide (in addition to being too much work to do on a holiday). But clearly, the whole counsel of God on the subject of labor and meaning teaches us that work offers us both dignity and vanity. Exodus keeps us from thinking that the Fall utterly robbed us of the joy of working as image-bearers of God reflecting His glory. But Ecclesiastes—and abundant personal experience—tells us that work “under the sun” is not all it was originally meant to be. Something really is broken.

Among other things, what’s broken is our capacity to work as Adam did before Genesis 3:6 and 3:17-19, joyfully using our ability to the fullest in obvious fulfillment of clear instructions tailor made for us by the Creator Himself—and reporting directly to Him on the results. (Imagine reporting directly to a “supervisor” who is the self-existent One who has no superior or even equal! And no flow chart can even begin to express the distance between the One at the top and the next being down. Every day was judgment day, yet they faced it without reluctance, without rebellion, without resentment.)

Both work and worker are, for now, under sin, and vanity “under the sun” is the consequence.

3. God is sovereign in our work.

It’s a simple truth, but erupts implications. By “sovereign,” I mean that He is wise and good and orders our employment opportunities and accomplishments so that they serve the best of all possible goals: the exalting of His own perfections (just another way of saying “God’s glory”). There is no greater good in the universe, and it’s ultimately our greatest pleasure and joy to contribute to it in every small and great way.

In rubber-on-road terms, God’s sovereignty in my work means I have the job God wants me to have. Of course, He may also want me to be looking for another one, but as long as I have the one I have, I have the one He ordained. That means I should not only draw contentment from serving His purposes through this work, but I am also duty-bound to be truly and deeply thankful for the work (not just for the paycheck).

That doesn’t mean I can’t be thankful for a day off, though!

Qoheleth would say working is vain but time off is too. And he’s right, of course. In both labor and pleasure we get just a little taste of experiences that will one day be replaced with their perfected equivalents. We’re reminded of what sin has ruined but also of what our God will graciously and abundantly restore.

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Aaron, as a church planting

Aaron, as a church planting missionary on deputation, I am now doing a lot of secular work.  I stepped out of the pastorate in order to raise support.   I know what you are talking about as far as dissatisfaction with work- I experienced that just before I entered the pastorate.  I wanted to be a pastor and even though I enjoyed my secular work, it just was no longer fulfilling like it was before.

Ironically, right now the secular work is fulfilling again.  I think the difference is that since we are already on the field where we plan to plant the church, I am able to work toward that goal as well, and I have a specific goal in mind.  I look back on the secular work I was doing when I accepted the call to pastor First Baptist in Bancroft.  Those last few weeks of work were very fulfilling because I knew that the next step would lead to the ministry I desired.

I understand your longing to pastor and not being there.  I believe that part of what makes work so fulfilling is the striving toward a goal.  Right now I am building a garage and I fear the let down that will come when it is done even though I can hardly wait to have it completed.  When our work does not have a clear path toward the goals that we desire, that is often when discouragement sets in.  I pray that God might reveal the goals He has for you next and that you might see your work as a path to those goals or that He might give you other work that would lead to that goal.  I also understand that sometimes God builds character in lives by forcing us to trust Him even when the next step or goal that should be set is not clear.

BTW, do not forget that you still have a valuable ministry and I want to thank you for how you have ministered to me through SI.    Jerry

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Thanks

Thanks for that, Jerry.

I can't see may way clear to many goals right now, but in due time. The work I have is good work. I have great colleagues, easily the best managerial team I've ever worked for (they don't read these, I'm pretty sure, but even if they do--it's still true. I'm not trying to flatter someone), and a team that is succeeding.

. . . and these days you really have to count your blessings when you can find work at all. 

So I'm blessed. But yes, it does take an act of the will to look at it that way, to look at it truthfully, partly because it just wasn't in any of my plans. Partly because I feel a bit under-utilized. But we'll see what the future holds.

I do also still teach a little school and enjoy that a great deal.

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The value of bi vocational ministry

Aaron, after one ministry ended, I returned home to help my wife's father on his farm while looking for another ministry.  We had very little and as I complained to the Lord, I remember thinking that I knew pastors who were dictators, some who did not preach the word as they should, some who were dishonest and even immoral, and they were in, while I was out of the ministry.  Then, it dawned on me that God is working in them, too, but in different ways.  The principle from it is that God works in different ways in different men to accomplish different purposes at different times in our lives.

Eventually, God opened the door to pastor a small church in Pensacola, FL, so with 5 children, I worked as a mail carrier to meet the needs of the family God had given me.  At first, it was stressful to have to work a full time job and pastor, but gradually, I noticed my preaching changed.  I began to understand more clearly the stresses that people in the pew were facing, so my preaching became more practical and more heart to heart, as I expounded the truths from His Word.  It seems that young preachers would profit from working a secular job for a while, to teach them how to get out of their "ivory tower" approach to preaching and learn to meet folks where they are.

My work as a mail carrier became a great source of joy, as I met folks outside my sphere and learned that there are needs out there of which I had no clue.  I retired last April, and now I am going back to visit some of my old customers to show how Jesus can meet those needs.  Thus, God expanded my sphere of influence through the work He provided.

Further, another lesson from it is a great respect for godly laymen.  Folks who work in the marketplace and still find time to read their Bibles, pray, be faithful in church, witness and participate in other activities sure have a full life.  In many ways, God uses them to reach more than us preachers, for they can speak as one of them.

I only recently learned of the ministry of SI, and I must say, you have a wonderful ministry of encouragement, exhortation, and instruction.  I am most excited about the spirit you men have demonstrated for us all.

Gary D

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Learning

Thanks for the encouragement.

This is actually my second round of post-seminary full time work. About 3 years of it before my first pastorate. Valuable experience to be sure. And it's already clear to me that if I pastor again, I'll be a better one than I was before--partly due to the other work.

But I also think it's important to avoid looking at "secular" work merely as a means to some other end. Since God is sovereign in it and reflected in it, it's value lies in more than how it feeds the family or deepens understanding of the needs of a flock. There is intrinsic/primary value in it as well as consequential/secondary value for other things, other goals.

I want to encourage workers to see that side of it, whether they are bi-vocational, post-pastoral, future-pastoral, or never pastoral.

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Aaron wrote But I also think

Aaron wrote

But I also think it's important to avoid looking at "secular" work merely as a means to some other end. Since God is sovereign in it and reflected in it, it's value lies in more than how it feeds the family or deepens understanding of the needs of a flock. There is intrinsic/primary value in it as well as consequential/secondary value for other things, other goals.

I want to encourage workers to see that side of it, whether they are bi-vocational, post-pastoral, future-pastoral, or never pastoral.

Amen, Aaron.  I fear that too often preachers pressure others into "getting into the ministry" when they mean being a pastor or a missionary.  I believe all Christians should be "in ministry" regardless of what their vocation is.  I have been ministered to by many faithful laymen through the years.  Further, as you pointed out, work itself is valuable.  Remember, it is not a part of the curse that went with the fall.  Adam had work to do even before he sinned. 

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Aaron Blumer wrote: Thanks

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Thanks for the encouragement.

This is actually my second round of post-seminary full time work. About 3 years of it before my first pastorate. Valuable experience to be sure. And it's already clear to me that if I pastor again, I'll be a better one than I was before--partly due to the other work.

But I also think it's important to avoid looking at "secular" work merely as a means to some other end. Since God is sovereign in it and reflected in it, it's value lies in more than how it feeds the family or deepens understanding of the needs of a flock. There is intrinsic/primary value in it as well as consequential/secondary value for other things, other goals.

I want to encourage workers to see that side of it, whether they are bi-vocational, post-pastoral, future-pastoral, or never pastoral.

I agree Aaron and on that note I highly recommend Andy Naselli's messages on work. He describes the fact that work itself glorifies God. Not just the results of it. The actual work itself. 

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Link?

Josh, got a link to those? Sounds like some good stuff.

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http://andynaselli.com/audio

http://andynaselli.com/audio

it is number 16. There are a couple of messages and an accompanying outline. It is nice easy listening too. My at the time 12 year old son listened to them and got a lot of it.

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Thanks

Some good car listening.

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Yeah I really enjoyed them.

Yeah I really enjoyed them.

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