The Discipline of Work
Because of the curse, your job may involve painful toil and yield little satisfaction. But you can glorify God where you are by your heart attitude. You may feel your occupation is not holy, but it is if you see it so and do it for God’s glory. You are God’s masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God planned in advance for you. Men, everything about your work must be directed toward him—your attitudes, your integrity, your intensity, and your skill.
The disciplines of work are practical disciplines. The Scriptures are very explicit here.
Both the Old and New Testaments are crystal clear on the necessity of energetic work as opposed to laziness. Proverbs mocks the false wisdom of the lazy:
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!” As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth. The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly. (Prov. 26:12–16; cf. Prov. 6:6–11)
The New Testament Epistles likewise disparage all laziness—sort of a spiritual ultra-SlimFast for sluggards. Evidently the Thessalonian church had some “brothers” who ostensibly lived “by faith” while they sponged off the church—Christian parasites, we might say. For such, Paul gave explicit advice: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. . . . For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:6, 10).
In our Lord’s parable of the talents the master tells the servant who has done nothing with his talent, “You wicked and slothful servant!” (Matt. 25:26). No one has ever been both faithful to God and lazy! It is impossible. But perhaps the most withering epithet comes from Paul: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). There is no escaping it—godliness is associated with hard work. You cannot be lazy and be a godly employee (or employer for that matter).
This said, it must be understood that the Scriptures do not commend the workaholism that comes from pursuing wealth and a career instead of God’s glory. In this respect it should be noted that the hard-working Puritans were zealous in enforcing Sabbath laws without which employers would have made people work seven days a week.
The bottom line for us, men, is: Are we truly hard-working? And if so, are we doing it for God or merely for self?
A second, and parallel, aspect of the Christian work ethic is enthusiasm. “Whatever you do,” Paul told the Colossians, “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). To the Romans Paul admonished, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).
It is natural—actually quite easy—to be enthusiastic if your work is prominent, but less natural the more hidden it is, as the conductor of a great symphony orchestra once revealed when asked which was the most difficult instrument to play. “Second violin,” he answered.
“We can get plenty of first violinists. But to get someone who will play second violin with enthusiasm—that is a problem!”
And so it is. But doing one’s work with enthusiasm, even if hidden, plays for an audience far greater than that of the most famous symphony orchestras or world champion sports teams! If we could but really see this, our enthusiasm would never flag.
A third aspect of the Christian work ethic, very close to energy and enthusiasm, but nevertheless bearing a distinctive and important nuance, is wholeheartedness:
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eyeservice, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. (Eph. 6:5–8)
If you have ever observed a gym class doing push-ups, you will understand the sense of this verse. The coach orders everyone down and begins to intone “up, down, up, down.” All are following until he looks to the right, and in that moment the half on the left go on “hold” until his gaze begins to move back to the left, whereupon they begin to do proper push-ups again, and those on the right go on “hold.” There are employees who are all action when the boss is around, but otherwise loll around the watercooler. Out of his eye there is no energy, no enthusiasm, no heart.
The cheerful wholeheartedness recommended here comes, as before, when one’s work is done for the Lord. Men, we are to work as we did as boys when we knew our father was watching, because our heavenly Father is watching—always!
We must recover the biblical truth—the Reformation truth—that our vocation, be it ever so humble, is a divine calling.
Lastly, our work must be done with an eye to excellence. Dorothy Sayers said that the church in our time has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred; that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.1
Work that is truly Christian is work well done.
Genesis 1 logs God’s commitment to excellence when it says, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Christians should always do good work. Christians ought to be the best workers wherever they are. They ought to have the best attitude, the best integrity, and the best dependability.
If what the pollsters tell us is true—that there is little difference in the work ethics of Christians and non-Christians—we have cause for alarm. If there is no difference, then large numbers of God’s children have succumbed to the extremes of laziness and overwork that characterize today’s work force. It also means that vast numbers of Christian lives are spiritually dysfunctional, for it is impossible to dedicate over half of one’s waking hours (some 80,000 to 100,000 hours in an average lifetime) to a sub-biblical work ethic and not suffer immense spiritual trauma.
We must recover the biblical truth—the Reformation truth—that our vocation, be it ever so humble, is a divine calling, and thus be liberated to do it for the glory of God. This alone will take the church out into the world.
Men, if you sense you are deficient, you need to do three things.
First, take an honest assessment of your life, using the Scriptures as a standard as you answer these questions:
- Do I do my work for the glory of God?
- Do I honestly work hard?
- Do I work with enthusiasm?
- Do I work wholeheartedly?
- Do I do excellent work?
Second, after honest evaluation, confess your sins.
And, third, commit your work life to the glory of God alone.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed of Chaos (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1949), 57, quoted in Ryken, Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective, 174.
This article is adapted from Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes.
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