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How did we get into this mess? – 4: work and slavery (cont.)

by on October 18, 2014

(On Genesis 2 – continued)

God comes down to the ground, and rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands in the soil, and he makes man out of the dust. And then he gives Adam the task of working the soil, just like God had done.

This gives a high value to ordinary work.

Work is good. It’s a blessing from God. An important part of being human. That’s why people when they retire often find they’re not so happy. If you know anyone who’s been able to give up work really young and live a permanent holiday, they aren’t usually happy people. We are made for work. Work is good. Not because of how much it earns. Not because of how much status you get, or how many promotions. No, work is good because it’s what God has made us for.

God’s act also gives a dignity to work. All work. God has had his hands in the dirt. And he has placed us in charge, to get our hands dirty looking after his world. That is the dignity of work. In fact through the rest of the OT, when the look back, they see this garden of Eden as a meeting place between heaven and earth, they had a word for places like that, they’re called temples. Eden was a kind of temple, and Adam, he was the priest. There he is doing this sacred work before the Lord. What work?Gardening! Manual labour. All work is intended to be an act of worship to God. And that makes work sacred. Whether you are building a fence or adding up the accounting or you have your hands in baby poo, your work is sacred to God.

It all sounds a bit ideal, doesn’t it? When I look at the world it seems like the false gods are getting their way: most people hate their work! Can the Genesis story explain the actual experience we have of slaving every day? Yes it can. It tells how Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and was cursed, and part of the curse was this:

cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

Adam and Eve got sent out of the garden paradise, out into the territory where the other gods ruled. Sacred work turned into toil. Hard, grinding, sweaty drudgery. From now on work was now going to wear us down until we fell back into dust.

And for many today work really is painful. I have a friend who works up power poles in thick insulated clothing. Can you imagine what it’s like for him in the blazing sun on a 35C summer day? The suffering is intense. Many people find themselves in jobs that are boring, repetitive drudgery.

Many people work long hours just to pay the bills, and this goes on for years and years. Have you ever seen a mouse in a wheel, they run and the wheel spins, and they end up in the same place they started? For many people, work is like that. If you are just working to get money to pay bills but there will always be more bills so you must always keep working, then you are like a mouse in a wheel. You’re always running, just to stay still, and you can never rest.  That’s slavery!

And for many people work itself is a kind of god. If work and the money it gives you – if those things determine how important you are, if they give you your identity – then work is your god. Instead of an act of worship to the true God, work becomes an idol. It becomes a way to prove yourself. If I can get promotions and become more respected and important, then I will be somebody. I want everyone to see that I’m a success. Work can give me that. And so I’m driven. This is a kind of idolatry. If you are always trying to prove yourself, and your work about calming your insecurities, then you can never rest, and you can never enjoy work just for its own sake. I used to be a school teacher, and I remember the thoughts. Does everyone like me? Do they think I’m a great teacher? Am I more popular than the teacher in the next room? Instead of just enjoying teaching. It’s slavery. Whenever work is not about itself, but it’s about something else, that’s slavery. You’re working under an idol.

You might remember the film Chariots of Fire, which gives a fascinating insight into these two very different approaches to work. Two men, both athletes, sprinters. Harold Abrams, an outsider, driven to prove himself. He says “I have 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?” For Abrams, his work was an idol. He could never just relax and enjoy running. The other man was Eric Liddell. For Liddel running was something quite different: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

The difference between them? Liddel was a follower of Jesus. For him his work was an offering to his Creator. And because it was that, because he had nothing to prove, he could enjoy it. He could run for the pure joy of running. That’s freedom. When you can do work and just enjoy doing it for its own sake, because it is what you were made for, that’s when your work is not slavery, but freedom.

No the bible is under no idealistic illusions about work. It says plainly that work became toil when our first parents sinned. But it also says this: that in Christ, the story starts over again. For a second time God came down to a lifeless body, made of dust. And there in the tomb he breathed into Jesus nostrils the breath of life. And Jesus became a living being. God raised him up and once again put the man in charge over his kingdom. When Jesus rose from the dead, it was a fresh start for mankind.

And when we come under the Lordship of Christ, work starts to change for us. We begin to escape the toil and slavery of the false gods and find the blessing of work as a sacred gift.

What would that be like, to rediscover work as a good and sacred thing? For one thing, it would mean we’re no longer working out of a desperate scramble for money. God our Father has promised to provide for us, so we don’t have to be afraid. We can relax about money. In fact, if you aren’t able to do paid work, you’ll be thinking about volunteering. So much good is done by volunteers in our country. Since all work matters in God’s eyes, you don’t need to get paid to be doing something important.

If Christ is our lord, then it also means we no longer need to be driven in our work. God has already honoured and accepted you. God has justified you. So you can stop using your work to justify yourself. You don’t have to prove anything. And that is going to make it a whole lot easier to enjoy your work. And it frees you up to start thinking new thoughts: Who does my work help? Who does it benefit and bless? They are the reason to do this job. It’s not about me. It’s for them. The builder builds the house not just to get rich and impressive. He builds it to bless the people who are going to live in it.

And so, when people comes under Jesus’ lordship, they tend to end up doing a job they believe in. They try to find work that makes a difference. Because work is good. I’ve known people who’ve given up high paid jobs and taken lower paid ones because they say, I can do more good there.

A fresh view of your work would mean if I happen to be lucky enough to have skills that pay well, the money is not for me. It’s not so I can take things easy and act superior while others drudge. No, that money I earn, God has given me that to help others less lucky than myself. You’re no longer trying to use work to set yourself above the others. “work honestly with your own hands,” writes the apostle Paul” so you will have something to share with the needy.”

What about in the church? What will rediscovering work look like? It will mean that there’s no pecking order here. When you come into this church family, it doesn’t matter if you earn $200000 a year or $2000. No one gets more respect because of his fancy job. No one is looked down on because of his manual job. Leadership in the church is not reserved for the educated or the bosses. We follow a Lord who was a carpenter!  In Christ there is no doctor nor shop assistant, professional nor volunteer. But Christ is all and in all. We are all brothers. And all our work is sacred.

Well, I wonder how you feel about your work? It’s is such a big part of being human isn’t it. But also the cause of so much stress and misery. Adam fell from sacred work in the paradise, into toil and pain in the wilderness. But in Christ work is rescued from the false gods: it becomes a good thing and a sacred thing once again. And you can be rescued from those idols too. If I know Christ, then each morning the reason I get up is to enjoy doing something good in the world as an act of worship to my Father in heaven, the one who loved me and who got his hands dirty for me.

From → Bible talks

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