The Bible seems to have two conflicting viewpoints on work. In Genesis 3:16-19 God punishes Adam and Eve because of their little transgression in the Garden of Eden. God tells Eve that her pain in childbirth would be greatly increased and that she would be subjugated by men. And God tells Adam that he was now destined to painstakingly labor on the land which would yield thistles and thorns. Only through hard labor and toil would there be bread to eat. Work would merely be suffering and punishment for their disobedience.
(For the full video version, click here.)
Then Paul, in his letter to the Colossians 3:22-23, puts a new spin on work. He says, “Do whatever you do from the heart. You are working for Christ, not for people.” It makes work sound like a holy enterprise.
That’s an interesting dichotomy. Work as suffering or sanctity… which is it?
Think for a moment about the work you do (and if you are retired then this includes volunteer work, taking care of the house, or caring for grandkids, or hobbies – however you define it for yourself). Now, do you feel that there a sanctity to that work – a sacredness, a holiness – or not? What is it about the job that brings a sense of the sacredness to the work? Perhaps it is one of the following:
- Gives value to life
- Gives meaning to life
- Help others
- Grow self
- A way to give ourselves to the world
- A place to feel connected, a place to belong and build community
- Empowering to support oneself, to be responsible
- A gift to the future.
According to a survey of the Center for Ethics and Corporate Policy, most Americans believe “that their work is very important to their spirituality…”And Joan Chittester, in her book The Heart of the Temple, also concurs that “work is holy,” we’ve just lost sight of that in a culture and society where the worker is valued less and less, wages don’t keep up with inflation and the cost of living, there is no company loyalty, age and experience are no longer valued, more and more jobs are shipped overseas, and the worker is a commodity, not a human being. It appears that the corporation certainly doesn’t see work as a holy endeavor.
But can we?
We’ve often heard that you need to follow your passion in order to feel a spiritual connection in what you do, but that probably leaves out the majority of workers and denies them any spiritual value in working.
What if what we do has less to do with our feeling of the sanctity of work than how we do the job and how we think about the job?
If the Divine continues to work and create in and through us in this world, then we are co-creators with God in whatever we do. And then, in just about every job, it is possible to see the bigger picture of how we are co-creators, how what we do serves a higher purpose and has spiritual value.
When John F. Kennedy’s visited NASA and saw a janitor mopping up the floor, JFK asked him what his job was at NASA and the gentleman said, “I’m helping send a man to the moon.”
In another story, a traveler came upon three men working. He asked the first man what he was doing and the man said he was laying bricks. He asked the second man the same question and he said he was putting up a wall. When he got to the third man and asked him what he was doing he said he was building a cathedral.
Seeing our jobs as creative endeavors that serve humanity can change how we look at them, and consequently bring even more purpose and value to them.
So if you are a truck driver hauling salt… you are working to keep people safe on the roads.
If you are a teacher… you are shaping future generations.
If you keep a home that is beautiful, well-cared for… you are nourishing the people who live and gather there.
If you are a realtor… you are helping people fulfill dreams and build families
If you are a healthcare professional… you are keeping people healthy.
If you are an artist… you challenge humanity with new perspectives and/or lift people up with art that is aesthetically pleasing.
I could go on and on…
My point is, if we begin to acknowledge our work as sacred – in the sense that we are co-creators with God to help humanity – then I think that changes how we feel about work, the energy we put into work, and the way we treat people we work with. Work is not simply a means to make money, it connects us to other human beings, is an exercise in love, and feeds our souls.
There is a story about a master woodcarver who was commissioned by a Prince to carve a bell stand, a task that probably carried the weight of his life should he fail. The stand he carves is so beautiful that people claim it was made by the spirits. But the woodcarver insists that he is merely a workman with no secret to what he did. But we can see in his approach that he treats his task as a holy task.
You see, as the woodcarver pondered his task, he deliberately kept his spirit from getting caught up in the storms and temptations that surrounded the task. His process was to fast to quiet his heart and soul. It took three days of fasting to forget about gain and success. Five days of fasting to forget about praise and criticism. Seven days of fasting to forget about his body and move into the mind of the soul. By then all thought of the Prince had vanished.
Only then, in a place of connection with his heart and true self, and therefore in connection with the Divine, did he seek the right tree for the bell stand knowing that he would know it when he saw it. With eyes to see, the right tree appeared, and the bell stand appeared within it. He seemed, at a spiritual level to become one with the wood and then he used his skill to draw forth the bell stand that was ascribed to the spirits.
In some ways this story may feel out of reach. Who of us has the luxury to take 7 days to get our hearts right before starting a task? And clearly the heart and soul is very unruly for it to take that long! He seemed pretty disciplined, I think it might take me a month!
Still, I think the message is important. For us to work at a level of true self, in connection with “the truth as it is” (God) we need to forget a whole bunch of things:
- Pleasing others
- What we’ll get out of it
- Fear of failing
- Being praised or criticized
My sermons come easiest when my heart has moved beyond these things. When I’ve become one with the process and the flow of thought.
Gardening, or painting, or working through a problem all goes better when my heart has forgotten the distractions that can trap us. Teaching or helping others or designing things or working with animals… they all got better when we move into a clean space of being, uncluttered by the things that distract the mind.
I think this is what Paul was getting at: “Workers, work diligently in everything you do – not only to win favor, but wholeheartedly and reverently, out of respect for Christ. Do whatever you do from the heart. You are working for Christ, not for people.
Christ is an energy, a presence within each of us… work for that, work from your heart, because all work is holy.