I have the privilege of working full-time for the nonprofit I founded back in 2014. Naturally, I get comments all the time about how lucky I am to be able to do work that I believe in, work that makes a difference. It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, but I love my work.
Shouldn’t we all, though?
Most of us don’t work in the nonprofit sector or directly for causes we care about. We have “normal” jobs. As we all know, it can be difficult to find meaning in a nine-to-five that doesn’t feel rooted in our inherited creativity and purpose. This disconnect often leads to sense of frustration and a felt lack of meaning in the places we spend the better part of our lives.
A healthy theology of work, however, is vastly different from our modern concept of employment. Our “jobs” are often tasks dictated to us by others that we engage in solely to pay the bills and buy groceries. These tasks, however, are not rooted in our calling or purpose, creating a disconnect between daily work and our souls. Work should be done for love of the work itself and contain a measure of beauty and pleasure even in the most mundane of tasks. Work is more than just a job. In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox says that work should be understood as “an expression of Spirit at work in the world through us.” He goes on to say that while a job can often be about “getting paid,” “work is about a role we play in the unfolding drama of the universe.”
Perhaps our modern view of work needs to be reformed.
In Genesis, we find the original work. The Divine, in an act of infinite creativity, uniquely designs everything that we know on a dark canvas of nothingness. God takes a breath and exhales life, forming beings who are made with the same creative predisposition as the One who composed them from the compost. Humanity was born from a work of creativity, a divine poem spoken into the universe.
God takes a breath and exhales life, forming beings who are made with the same creative predisposition as the One who composed them from the compost.
All of creation danced together in shalom. The work given to the first humans was equally creative. They cared for their wild garden and nurtured the delicate balance between all living things. Unlike many modern jobs, their work was never meant to steal time from meaningful relationships with family or God. Adam and Eve worked together in the same place where they walked with God. All of it was meaningful and directly tied to their inherited creativity and purpose.
I believe there were three primary relationships that made up their work: their relationship with their place (the wild garden, animals and the earth), their relationship with each other (humans), and their relationship with the Divine. By caring for each of these relationships, they were fulfilled.
The world makes clear that we’re not in Eden anymore. A return to the garden life and meaningful work seems unrealistic. However, the unfolding drama of the universe—as Fox puts it—is about humanity making a symbolic return to Eden through the way and work of Jesus.
Three primary relationships that made up their work: their relationship with their place (the wild garden, animals and the earth), their relationship with each other (humans), and their relationship with the Divine. By caring for each of these relationships, they were fulfilled.
How can we—followers of the way of Jesus who are committed to shalom—embrace a healthy theology of work? Here are three precepts that I believe are significant:
- We cannot let our jobs keep us from our work. Maybe Kanye said it best when he tweeted, “Try to avoid any contractual situation where you are held back from your ideas.” As unrealistic as this sounds, if your job causes you to neglect your family, is harmful to your spiritual life, or does damage to the earth, then maybe you should find or create a better one. Our calling is too important to neglect only because it doesn’t fit with our contemporary understanding of employment.
- We need a better definition of success. As followers of Jesus, we need to be done with the “big house, nice car” success narrative. It doesn’t work and is not what we, as Christ’s body, should be about. There were three primary relationships that made the original humans’ work meaningful: their relationships with place, each other, and the Divine. Let’s trade success for a pursuit of loving God, our neighbors (that is, everyone), and our world.
- Invest in the millennium. In his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Liberation Farmer Front,” Wendell Berry writes, “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest… Call that profit.” Reformation is difficult work that requires the patience of generations. Our work is more like growing a garden than microwaving a frozen dinner. It is going to take wisdom, time, and patience.
Berry also says, “We all come from divorce, now. This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart, and you can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do: you take two things that ought to be together and you put them back together. Two things, not all things. That’s the way the work has to go.”
Our work of putting two things back together is the most important work on the planet.
We are the farmers that Berry reminisces about.
We are the sparks that Foreman sings about.
We are the dreamers that Perkins preaches about.
Reformation is difficult work that requires the patience of generations. Our work is more like growing a garden than microwaving a frozen dinner. It is going to take wisdom, time, and patience.
I feel a profound sense of kinship as I write. I don’t know your name. I don’t know where you are employed. But, I do know that you and I are called to reformation. Our roles may different, but we are filled with the same creative disposition and calling from God. We are called to take part in the restoration of all things and to plant the seeds of shalom wherever we walk. This is our humble work.