Work(ing) it Out

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

We were taught to work growing up.

Wait, let me rephrase that. Our purpose for existence when we were growing up WAS to work (or so it seemed). Work is what we DID. It seemed it was WHO WE WERE and what we were known for. Playing was not on the list of our daily tasks. Both of my parents were strong believers in hard work, but for sure my father was the master task-master. He did not believe in children laying around and playing. Too much work to be done for that kind of nonsense.

I couldn’t have been out of 2nd grade before I began to dread summer holidays and Christmas break. Kids would be talking about all the sleeping in and TV watching and sleepovers and I remained fearful of what projects would be on my father’s list for us to accomplish during the “break.” One Christmas break, we took on the project of fencing in the majority of our rural property. Dad and the three kids. Woven wire and fence posts. Merry Christmas to you too.

In the summertime, he believed in push lawn mowers over riding ones, gardens full of okra to cut, blueberries that needed picking, calves to bottle feed, and wood to chop and stack. Mom, she believed in children that cleaned the house from top to bottom and washed and folded the family’s laundry as part of their daily chores. Throw in a few livestock projects on top of that and it was understood that we didn’t set foot in the house (unless it was to clean it) till the sun had settled below the horizon each night. Sure made for some long summers in my childhood mind.

Weekends and holidays were not opportunities to sleep in. There was a general rule in our house that if the sun was up, we were expected to be outside working. On a slack day, we may not have started our work until 7. That was if dad got up and cooked us a breakfast first telling us we better eat the grits he cooked cause “those grits’ll stick to your ribs and we aren’t stopping for lunch.” We usually did stop for lunch, but it wasn’t uncommon for it to be 2 or 3 before we did.

Don’t get me wrong, these things are not necessarily bad things. I learned so much from being taught how to work at a young age. I was out of college before I learned how to sleep past 7 and even now I feel a little guilty about it. Learning how to work is not the problem. Working hard is not the problem. Far too many valuable lessons learned by that work to act as if it wasn’t a good thing. And if I am ever blessed with children, I will probably raise them much like how I was raised.

While I will forever be grateful to my mom and dad for teaching me – and always modeling – hard work, as I got older I realized that that constant pressure to work, work, work seemed to be an endless effort with no good results. What was the point of working all the time? Too often, my need to work was ultimately a need to prove myself – my self-esteem, my self-worth, my salvation, my peace of mind – and it was exhausting. I knew how to work for all kinds of reasons, but rarely, rarely did I work because it was a good and honorable thing done to bring glory to God. I did it for self, for money, for obligation, for identity, for fear of failure. And the list goes on.

Eventually, a loathing for work began to settle in me. I became – for lack of a better word – complacent. Tired of working to prove myself, I decided working hard was overrated and it would be much better to do just enough to get by. You weren’t going to catch me “working my life away.” No siree. I had done enough of that as a child and I was done.

In a weird way, going overseas to the mission field didn’t help either. Once I got back, all jobs just seemed like, well…a job. I had been doing “important” work. God’s work. Spiritual work. Eternally significant work. Work that I loved. Only to come back and have to do work simply to pay the bills. It was all so purposeless and insignificant. It was fruitless and without meaning. I was searching for something much deeper than working just to earn a living and I was simply only willing to give so much of my time and energy to “a job.”

Over the last year, God has graciously been teaching me some hard earned lessons about work and my mindset towards it through Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor. What I found was that hard work itself was certainly not the problem, but rather the problem was found in the driving factor behind that hard work. I’m not gonna ruin the whole book for you because you really, really need to read it for yourself, but here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Remember that something can be a vocation or calling only if some other party calls you to do it, and you do it for their sake rather than for your own. Our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others. And that is exactly how the Bible teaches us to view work.”
“Not only are the most modest jobs – like plowing a field or digging a ditch – the ‘masks’ through which God cares for us, but so are the most basic social roles and tasks, such as voting, participating in public institutions, and being a father or mother. These are all God’s callings, all ways of doing God’s work in the world, all ways through which God distributes his gifts to us. Even the humblest farm girl is fulfilling God’s calling. As Luther preached, ‘God milks the cows through the vocation of the milk maids.’”

Like any well-learned lesson, I’m sure I’ll have to learn this one more than once. Who am I kidding? I’ve already learned it more than once and still struggling to learn it again. Reading this book wasn’t the first time I was introduced to this notion of all work being part of God’s cultural mandate to “fill the earth and subdue it” but it seems to have taken a deeper hold this time around.

If you feel discouraged in your work, feel purposeless in your work, feel complacent in your work, feel an endless striving and burnout in your work, feel a need to prove yourself in your work, feel like your work should be more “spiritual,” or feel like your work should be less consuming, do yourself a favor and buy this book. Read it. Remind yourself of the gospel. And apply the gospel to your life through some of the ultra-practical ways brought to life within its pages.

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