The Virtue of Labor
It’s a common conversational piece you’ll hear from anyone as young as 12 and up. I listened with a feeling of shame, uneasiness, and this unexpected touch of disgust.
“I don’t ever sleep. What is sleep?” A laugh. “I sleep about four hours a night, and then I’m up in the morning taking care of my kids, and then I go to work. I’ve been living this way for the last seven years. My family and I hardly see each other. I just work.” A smile. “I’ve been working since I can remember, and I worked right through my pregnancy.” She ended her piece with her nodding and me hanging my head.
I used to talk like this. Listing my accomplishments, describing my lack of rest and incredible workload. I’ve worked for the last two years to work less – to rest, enjoy life, place my identity elsewhere.
Hearing this conversation made me question if I was doing something wrong. Am I calling laziness virtuous in my life? Should I work harder? Am I simply buying into the “milennial mindset”? Perhaps sleep is, in fact, shameful. I mean, I try to get a solid 7-8 hours a night.
I should toughen up a bit.
The World’s Portion
Hard work is commended by the Bible and by our culture today, but good work is defined very differently. If we start at creation, we find a wonderful ordination for work (Genesis 2:15). It was a joy. It yielded as it should, an equal reaction for action, if not even more fruitful. After man sinned, we see work has become much more difficult (Genesis 3:17-19). The cost does not equate the return. We now see a gap between what is put into our lives and what is given back. It’s like a Pumpkin Spice Latté from Starbucks – we end up paying way more than what it’s worth. (I’m sorry, I’m a coffee aficionado writing this in Autumn, so you can imagine my distaste for the famous PSL is heightened in its most prolific season.)
So how are we to absolve this gap?
Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.
Booker T. Washington
There is no substitute for hard work.
I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but should get you pretty near.
Work harder. Strive further. After all, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” right?
If we work to our fullest potential and then some, then the gap will be closed and we’ll find provision and rest. Because success, wealth, and self-sufficiency are honorable and should be our goal. These values will repair the brokenness that followed the fall, and we’ll find complete contentment and security that was present before sin. That is a responsibility that God has placed on our shoulders. In addition, we will be rewarded with credentials for our self-worth.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
The good portion.
One of the roots of sin is trust. When Eve and Adam took the fruit from the serpent, they displayed a distrust in God’s sovereignty and authority. Their hearts said, “We don’t need God to tell us what is ours and what isn’t. He won’t give us what is good… We must satisfy ourselves.”
And God, throughout Scripture, responded to this with a firm yet oh-so-loving, “No… only I will satisfy. Glory is mine. Let Me show you.”
When mankind used labor to attempt to “make a name for themselves”, to achieve the glory of God, God ordained the curse of many languages (Genesis 11:1-9).
When God promised a beautiful inheritance for Abram and Sarai, Abram did not trust God and slept with his servant, Hagar. God did not bless the fruit of his attempts to earn the inheritance and still carried through with His original plan (Genesis 16-17, 21:1-21).
Jumping ahead to my favorite example, in Exodus 16, where God’s people are wandering in the desert, in need of food. (If you know me, you’ll hear me reference this a lot and refer to it as “The Manna Principle” – thanks to Edward T. Welch in Running Scared for introducing this concept.) Every day, God provided just enough manna for that day – no more, no less. It had everything they needed to be well fed and thrive. God specifically instructed them to take only what was needed for the day, because He would provide tomorrow. When the Israelites gathered more – laboring to fill/exceed that gap between cost and return – they found it rotting the next morning. On the sixth day, when God commanded they gather two days’ worth so they could honor God’s command of Sabbath rest, they still went out looking for more that seventh day… Even though they had enough and none had rotted. God lamented over this lack of trust and desire for self-sufficiency.
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
God gave His people exactly what they needed, day after day, and yet they still wanted to be without His provision by providing for themselves – even though the very thing they were gathering was from heaven! It only existed because God made it so!
We see that same story of striving for self-sufficiency, despite God’s lovingly inviting us into His rest and life, continuing throughout the Bible, and in our own lives today.
The Good Portion
How, then, are we to live? Where does our responsibility end and faith begin?
I recently re-read Ecclesiastes. It’s a fairly short book that I recommend to anyone. It speaks of the “meaninglessness” of life; that is, the temporal things we experience not being worth our investment or identity, because they will pass and be forgotten. Instead, we have a beautiful eternity, and with this eternity we can simply enjoy the temporal things in the fleeting nature they are. Here is what the Teacher, the narrator of Ecclesiastes, has to say regarding work:
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.…
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:3-4; 2:18-23
Later in the book, we read this comfort:
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
None of us really knows what’s next, even if we strive to close the gap. We have an idea, but our idea could be wrong, and at the end of the day our steps are merely placing our feet on the surface of water, holding to faith that Jesus sustains us. It’s so easy to get hung up on the end of the story, assigning the writing of chapters to our own intellect and labor. Then, in that mindset, we blind our eyes to God’s blessing and promise of rest. We even call it shameful.
…With joy. Pick your fruit with joy. Look at the trees with joy. Take your breath with joy. God has gone ahead, He has written the story – and so He has already approved of what you do. He has already closed that gap that you may live in worshipful joy. The presence of that gap is an opportunity to live out an active faith.
Living in worshipful joy, in active faith – this glorifies God.
Boasting in labor is fruitless. It’s not only fruitless, it’s sinful – when God has given you everything, given you the opportunity to live in joy, and you claim, “These fruits are of my own hand,” you are attempting to take the crown of the King and place it on your own head.
But you forget – your manna is from heaven.
Here we come to the ultimate example of that perfect provision and invitation to rest: the cross.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Nothing of our own doing can redeem us. Paul states that we were dead before the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. If we can’t even save our own souls, how can we possibly take pride in saving our daily needs?
So today, choose worship over worry. Choose joy over despair. We feast on the gifts of life from God, resting, trusting that He will bring the manna for tomorrow.
Forget your labor for glory. Come into this beautiful rest.