A True Work Ethic

Last week I posted some thoughts on the Sabbath, which began me thinking about the concept of work.  A concept we have all heard, but perhaps are not familiar with is “the Protestant work ethic”.  Many who have heard that phrase probably think about working hard, as if people of other denominations (or other faiths) are lazy.  In fact, in our modern society a good work ethic simply means a person shows up to a job every day and completes the tasks assign to him or her.  As I have reflected on the Sabbath I have become aware that this is a poor understanding of “work ethic”.

If we read 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 we do see Paul speaking very strongly against idleness.

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.  For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.  This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.  For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.  For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.  Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.  Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

However, we should not develop an entire work ethic from this passage alone.  Doing so fails to understand the purpose of human work and thereby allows greed, oppression, and even laziness to be justified as “honest work”.  Paul commends us to work hard, but taken in isolation 2 Thessalonians could be read to understand that the end goal of work is eating, and thus, so long as I earn the money I need to live on I am “honestly working”.  However, providing for oneself is not the end goal of human work; the first command on work is from Genesis 1:28-29:

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food

Here we see that God has made humanity for the purpose of work.  Namely, God has created us to continue the work of transforming creation into God’s garden.  This means that whatever we are doing for employment, we are only legitimately honoring a “Christian work ethic” if we are endeavoring to transform or maintain God’s creation.  I do not want to give the impression that the only legitimate Christian occupations are farming and landscaping.  There are wide ranging possibilities for Christian occupation, which forward the work of God.  Rather, we must stop looking at occupations in terms of dollars and cents, time off, lifestyle possibilities, or even happiness and begin looking a vocations.  The Christian work ethic is about using our abilities to further the Kingdom of God.

In 2 Thessalonians Paul confronts those who lived on handouts when they were perfectly capable of contributing to the community store.  But Church tradition has also condemned the wealthy who live on their own stores without contributing to the community.  Those individuals who used abundant wealth to either accumulate more for themselves or to live on without working were seen as stealing from the community.  Jesus even condemn those who build bigger barns for themselves (Luke 12:13-21).

But this is the problem, even in Christian circles work has become an occupation, a means to gain money. With that, “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” has become a virtue and an inability to provide for oneself is a vice.  God’s blessings have become strictly material and a sizable house, bank account, or vehicle are seen as signs of God’s favor.  We begin to promote greed rather than generosity.  This is what allows us to put Sabbath on the back burner, after all we must “work”, that is what my occupation demands of me.

I think this is part of the curse of Genesis 3:16-19:

And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,  and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you,  ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you;  in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;  and you shall eat the plants of the field.  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.”

The curse was not that God was now forcing humanity to work; rather, God was saying that because you will choose to make yourself the one who decides right and wrong you will labor to be secure and it will be toil.  God always intended humans to work, but with God and for God’s ends and in that God would provide us with everything we needed for life (notice God gives food in 1:28 and trees in the Garden 3:1).  We fall into the temptation that we have to provide for ourselves and our families and then our work becomes about securing our food, shelter, clothes, etc.; yet, time and again God teaches us that if we work in God’s ways we will have everything we need (see the stories of Exodus-Deuteronomy, Elijah in the wilderness, & especially the Lord’s Prayer).  Our work ethic begins with saying, “I am working to further God’s creative purposes in this world, and to that end I will always strive in my occupation to love God and my neighbor.”  When we begin with this mindset our occupations can become vocations.  Imagine what the world’s economy would look life if everyone practiced this ethic.  This I think is why Jesus says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24).  Imagine the wealthy among us running their companies based on what’s best for furthering God’s kingdom.  We would often say “that’s bad for business”.  And it would be true, loving people often gets in the way of business.  But following God often leads us into places that seem insecure, because God is our security.  Can we carry the burden of living in God’s work ethic and thereby entering God’s Sabbath rest?

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