From the Sanctuary to the Salt Mine
The Los Angeles Times (July 26, 1991) carried an article with a banner headline declaring, “When God Goes to Work.” The first sentence in the article read: “When God shows up at work, there often is hell to pay.” The paragraphs that followed contained recitations of well-meaning persons from computer programmers to professional ball players who experienced problems in the work place because they are Christian.
Must people in the pews compartmentalize their faith–they have a Sunday faith that leaves the larger portion of their lives untouched. Can preaching save our people from such schizophrenia? Have preachers, by emphasizing a dualistic view of the world, inadvertently contributed to the gap between the sanctuary and the “salt-mine”?
Lay people and clergy alike need to know that their work is vested with deep significance. When I began collecting materials in preparation for writing this article, I learned from my son-in-law about a book called Your Work Matters to God.1 I checked with personnel at the leading bookstores in the city of Houston where I live, and discovered all of them knew the book but had no copies available. I finally was able to secure a copy of the helpful volume from the publishers. I learned during my research that there is a real scarcity of materials relating to faith in the market place.
Our working people, in almost quiet desperation, are searching for divine significance in their work. Their search is complicated by a lack of materials and the silence of the press and the pulpit on this vital issue. They need the unique help that can be afforded by the pulpit to guide them in their search and to help them avoid the faulty views of work that drive them more deeply into despair.
If work is to be rescued from the present state of misunderstanding — if, as Halford Luccock suggests, we must relate a vertical gospel to a horizontal world in order for Christianity to flourish — the persons occupying our pulpits must point the way.
What are God’s intentions for us in the working world? The first verse in the Bible tells us that God is a worker. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Passages like Psalm 104 outline in vivid detail the ongoing work of God. God is consistently portrayed in the Scriptures as a mighty worker. Job declares that rich and poor alike “all are the work of His hands” (34-19).
Very early in Genesis, we learn that “the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15). This divine assignment to “dress and keep” the creation as God’s ruling representatives, as God’s co-laborers, is beautifully clarified in the eighth Psalm. Speaking of man as having been made only “a little lower than the angels” (v. 5), the psalmist elaborated, saying: “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet. All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas” (Ps. 8:6-8).
The Bible says we are workers for and with God from the beginning. The concept of work as a “curse” (see Gen. 3:17-19) must be interpreted as the direct result of sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden. Interpreting one’s labor as a “curse” from God is to overlook the initial command to “tend” and “keep,” which was the principle directive God gave to Adam and Eve following their creation.
The meaning of God’s initial directive to Adam is instructive for the preacher. Yahweh’s command to “tend” indicates our responsibility to “conserve.” The second instruction, to “till,” directs Adam to “create.” Interestingly, the two components of worship are tradition and innovation. Was Adam’s gardening “work” or “worship”? How could two terms, used so closely in the beginning, become so divergent in our time as to indicate “sanctuary” and “salt-mine”?
Work and worship were obviously meant to be integrated by our Creator. Helping today’s people find a new approach to work that integrates it into worship is badly needed. This is an especially pressing need as the shape of work is changing. Some 5.5 million persons are getting into a new form of “homework” where one’s home and office (hoffices) are the same.
Jesus reinforced the concept of our being co-laborers with God when He declared: “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (John 5:17). One of His final declarations was: “I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given me to do” (John 17:4).
The apostle Paul, like Jesus, drew strength and inspiration from the conviction that he was a co-laborer with God. He cupped his hands and shouted to the Mediterranean world that he was a co-laborer with God (see 1 Cor. 3:9). Yet, is what Jesus and Paul did to be described as “work” in the traditional sense in which that word is used today?
In Benedicta Ward’s translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum), she notes that the term “work” is used in two ways — it may mean manual labor or spiritual exertion. Jesus did not “work” during His itinerant ministry but was cared for by some wealthy women (Luke 8:1-3). He labored strenuously, however, in completing our redemption. Our task, as preachers, is to help our people understand the closeness, even the oneness, of manual labor and spiritual exertion.
Another biblical insight concerning work is the understanding of our labor as a limited gift. As Elton Trueblood has stated: “The chief glory of work lies in the fact that it is really the only thing we can give that is our own. We do not produce our talents as the natural resources with which we work, but we do produce our toil …. We may be stewards of our talents, but we are donors of our labor.”2
Trueblood’s statement is certainly in keeping with the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). We receive our talents but we give our labor. Our work, therefore, has a precious quality about it. As Jesus reflected on His own toil, He exclaimed: “I must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4, AT).
Our reward for faithful service during our daylight hours is more service to render in the next life (Matt. 25:20-23). Obviously our Lord had a high, holy understanding of labor. His understanding was lodged in the belief that God has a purpose for every person’s life. Unfortunately, however, such a lofty understanding of daily toil has not permeated the living of many in our society. Some of our own people are struggling with faulty views of work.
The Christian Work Ethic
Atlantic Monthly carried a frontpage story entitled “The Invention of the Weekend.” The article accurately described the views of those who find their weekly labor boring and lacking in any significance. Their weekly cry is: “Thank God it’s Friday” (TGIF). They work all week just to earn a paycheck and make it to the weekend. Real life is celebrated on the weekends. “Work which has no other incentive than the paycheck is,” as Trueblood observed, “closer to slavery than it is to freedom.”3
Here in Texas we have recently fought and lost the battle against legalized gambling. Voters had earlier approved betting at horse and dog races; now we have approved a state lottery. Many believe that boredom in the workplace is one of the driving forces behind the pernicious evil of gambling. Those who spend sixty percent of their lives performing a task that is empty of meaning and fulfillment are desperate to add the element of excitement that risk-taking provides.
Victor Frankl, a prominent psychiatrist, has written that in any city Sunday is the saddest day of the week. On Sunday the tempo of the working week is suspended and the poverty of meaning and the emptiness of their existence rises up before urban dwellers once more.
The “working to live” view of work is what J. A. Walter has called the “instrumental work ethic.” Those who express this understanding “see the purpose of work to be the earning of a wage or salary, and [it] is by far the most widespread view of work in contemporary society.”4
Our post-Christian culture assumes that the chief reason people work is to make money. We talk about a job “not being worth it” because most of the extra revenue is heavily taxed. Or, on the other end of the economic scale, another says, “Why should I take a job? I can draw just as much in unemployment or through welfare.” Our understanding of “vocation” as a holy calling or summons from God has been surrendered to a wholly secular understanding that defines our work as an occupation, just a job.
Jesus pitied those persons who worked only for pay. In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, a part of the pain the owner of the vineyard must have felt related to what the long-term laborers had missed. They had worked from sun to sun, all day long, bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat for a denarius, the agreed upon wage. When the workers came to the vineyard later, some much later, the long-term workers grumbled because all received the same pay. Not only did they resent the owner’s generosity, and his right to do what he chose with what was his, but they missed altogether the privilege of working in the vineyard all day long. They had been spared the grief of those who grieve that they too late did come. The words of the householder, the owner, are devastating when he says to those who worked only for pay: “Take that thine is, and go thy way” (Matt. 20:14).
Preaching has, in some unfortunate incidents, contributed to the compartmentalization of work and “real living.” In our eagerness to save our people from secularism and worldly values, we have sometimes adopted an enclave mentality and made God’s creation, the world, a bad place. Instead of presenting the world as the arena in which Christ is served and in which faith is to be lived out, some preaching has made the world the enemy from which we take our living during the week and then hurry to the church on Sunday — the only place where true religious work is done.
Robert Calhoun, a professor at Yale, has pointed to the significance of ordinary work and the fallacy of the position described above when he said that devoted work is the very flesh and bone of living religion, without which worship cannot live and grow. Such an understanding of work closes the gap between worship and work, thereby increasing the possibility of Christianity being carried into the marketplace. Unless that happens there is little hope for our cause in our post-Christian Western culture.
A second faulty view of work includes those persons who “live to work.” While their number is not as large as those who “work to live,” every pastor is nonetheless acquainted with “workaholics.”
Workaholics thrive on the strokes from work and the sense of control. As bosses, and workaholics are usually eventually bosses, they can speak and people will jump. At home, and in a marriage, one has to consider the other’s well-being, which can be terribly inconvenient.
Complete preoccupation and absorption with work can be a way of shutting out reflection that might remind one of troubling considerations like one’s place in the universe and the final end of life. God, after all, makes demands on all of us which, apart from grace, are impossibly uncomfortable. It is much easier, for some, to go on playing the American game whose rules, according to the bumper sticker, are: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
Materialism reduces work to a means to an end, and robs it of the lofty conviction that workers are sharing with a working Creator in the shaping of our world. Anyone who is acquainted with the Christian understanding of vocation as a holy calling cannot be deeply satisfied with the sole incentive of making money or accumulating toys.
A balanced life requires fruitful labor and fruitful rest. We must, in our feverish society, reintroduce the concept of the Sabbath as a basic part of the created order. “We cannot recover the true glory of work,” says Trueblood, “unless we likewise recover the glory of rest.”5
After thirty years of ministry, I can understand more clearly the importance of what Howard Thurman taught us at Boston University. Thurman insisted that the first five minutes of every class be spent in total silence. At the end of what seemed like an eternity to those of us who had been running in all directions, he would softly say: “Now young gentlemen (there were no women), if you are looking at the world through quiet eyes we will proceed.”
The preacher must teach today’s feverish, fragmented people to see their world through quiet eyes. They must be taught the benefits of being meaningfully disengaged. Jesus provides the paradigm in His ability, even when there were bodies waiting to be blessed, to go aside and “rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
Making the Gospel Relevant
How does the preacher make the gospel relevant to the world of work and rescue his or her people from faulty understandings of work? We must begin by learning about the work environment of our people.
How many times have you ever been in a “white room” where computer technicians live? How can a preacher preach to laity without any idea or sense of where they spend the greater portion of their lives? I have, for example, an entirely different understanding of one man who, all day long, simply monitors a small screen with numbers on it. Only rarely does he move, let alone punch a button.
I consider it a blessing to have worked at an assortment of jobs in my early years, ranging from coaching and teaching to cutting pulp-wood and working on a telephone line crew. There is great value in having supported oneself while working on a commission. Many in our congregations base their economic survival on the ability to make the next big sale. We cannot address the spiritual needs of such people until we familiarize ourselves with the pressures that surround them.
Preachers must demonstrate authenticity in their sermons. The ministry is not exempt from stress; indeed, an official at the Menninger Foundation has recently stated that there is no vocation more susceptible to stress than the ministry. When we candidly share our own struggle in the gray areas, our people are especially attentive. We must remember that in the final analysis our people learn more from our struggles than from some of our affirmations.
We must demonstrate a feel for what it is all about in the economic world, a knowledge of what our people are up against in that world. This knowledge must include the moral struggles involved.
Each Thursday morning I have breakfast and prayer with about a dozen of my leading business men. One of their most emphasized requests of me is that I include in my preaching a restatement of Christian morality. There has never been a time when a Christian leader could assume that everyone knows it is wrong to lie or steal. To assume even a rudimentary knowledge of Christian values in our culture is to trust that we have not yet exhausted the moral capital of a previous generation. Rampant relativism, not only in society but also in the church, makes it essential for every conscientious preacher/teacher to teach the essentials of our faith.
A new Christian shared with me that he had, along with several other contractors, been involved in some bid rigging involving lucrative contracts. “The problem now,” he said, “is that as a Christian I can no longer do anything that is dishonest.” After much conversation and prayer, he told me that he was breaking off his illegal activities with the other contractor. To do so would, however, jeopardize his own company because they would undercut his bids and, because of his previous involvement, he could not turn to the legal authorities for help.
My parishioner, the new Christian, did the Christian thing and ultimately went bankrupt when he lost the ability to garner large contracts. His experience reminded me that the gospel makes a huge difference in the marketplace. People become willing to face boldly and with courage the consequences of a position that is taken on the authority of Scripture.
We must be bold enough to help those who work at jobs with evil consequences or in positions that do not in any way contribute to the well-being of another, to find the courage to change their job or get out of it. God does not want any of us to go to our graves feeling that our lives have been fruitless.
The Saint Sargius Church in Cairo, Egypt, has a number of impressive columns inside the nave. There is a column for each of the twelve disciples of Jesus. On the face of each column, there is a painted scene from the life and work of that particular disciple. On the column dedicated to Judas, however, there is absolutely nothing. It bears mute testimony to the tragedy of a poorly lived life that gathers no fruit. All persons need to believe that what they do is significant in the sight of God. If their work has no value in God’s sight, they have no value.
We must help our people recover the glory in their jobs. I have been struck by the meaning of the phrase Opus Dei or “work of God.” What makes something a work of God? Something is a work of God not because God does it. In the terminology of Benedict, for example, the work of God is not a work done by God but a work done for God. This means that absolutely nothing is more an Opus Dei than another if it is done for the glory of God — whether washing wounds or washing windows.
If this is God’s world, any honorable work that contributes to the quality of life is a sacred task and should be undertaken with this aspect in mind. The really crucial decision for all of us comes, not when we decide what we will “be,” whether a preacher or a plowman, but when we decide whether or not we will live our whole lives in what the late Thomas Kelly called “holy obedience.”
According to an often-told story, Henry III, king of Bavaria in the eleventh century, grew tired of his heavy responsibility. One day he traveled to a local monastery, presented himself to the prior, and announced that he wanted to live the rest of his life in the monastery as a contemplative. The prior asked, “Your majesty, do you understand that this is about obedience? Whatever I tell you under authority you must do.” King Henry replied, “Yes, father, I understand.” “Then, your majesty,” said the prior, “in obedience to me go back to your throne and serve in the place God has put you.” King Henry, according to the story, went back to the throne and served the rest of his reign in a magnificent way.
Aquila and Priscilla, well-known companions of the apostle Paul, made tents for a living (Acts 18:1-3). Their evangelistic zeal was so great, however, that they are mentioned in three books of the New Testament. Surely they were listening when Paul told the Corinthians: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
When our people are persuaded that they are servants of God regardless of their work, the working world and our churches will be transformed.
Bach, the great composer, signed all of his compositions a.m.d.g., for ad maiorem dei gloria, “for the greater glory of God.” Our task as preachers is to persuade our people, and ourselves, to “do all to the glory of God.”
1. See Doug Sherman and William Hendricks, Your Work Mailers to God (Colorado Springs; Navpress, 1987).
2. Elton Trueblood, Your Other Vocation (New York: Harper & Row, 1952). 62.
3. Ibid., 62.
4. J. A. Walter, Sacred Cows (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 30.
5. Trueblood, Your Other Vocation, 75.
From A Handbook of Contemporary Preaching. Michael Duduit, editor. Copyright (c) 1993 by Broadman Press. Used by permission.
From the Sanctuary to the Salt Mine