I once had an acquaintance who was part owner in a small restaurant and vineyard in southwest Ohio, right on the banks of the Ohio River. On one visit he gave me a tour of his operation. It was in the months before the turn of the millennium, and he was expecting a big party. He had been working hard on making champagne. He opened a bottle of the stuff that didn’t go quite right to give us a taste of the difference between that and the “good” stuff. It was a little bit off, but it wasn’t bad. I asked him why he hadn’t simply destroyed it if he was dissatisfied with it. He said that he was keeping it in reserve in case he ran out of the good stuff at the New Year’s Eve party. He would break out the inferior if he didn’t have enough of the superior. “Aha,” I said, “I see thou hast not saved the best wine for last.”
When our Lord set about turning water into wine, it wasn’t just a good work, in the sense that it was a kind thing to do. It is true that he didn’t want a host to be embarrassed by running short of wine. But he also made a wine that was really worth drinking. In other words, it was good work in the sense of being a quality job. There is a lesson in this for the Christian.
We are tempted to see work as the result of the Fall. We often think of it as a curse, but it’s not. It’s true that God cursed Adam to work the ground from which he was taken, and that he would earn his bread by the sweat of his face. Thorns and thistles would be his constant companions. I remember that every time hail destroys my tomato crop but leaves my dandelion crop unscathed. My peppers require constant loving attention. My milkweed multiplies unbidden.
But that is not the whole story. Adam was given a job to do in the garden. He was to keep it and tend it. Even before the Fall, there was work. Therefore work isn’t so much a bad thing as it is a good thing marred, and a thing which our Lord will fully redeem one day. Of course we mustn’t press a parable too far. Parables are creatures with sharp eyes and weak backs, and we break their backs if we press them too hard, but by the light of at least a few of the parables of the Lord Jesus, we will not spend eternity in idleness. There will be work to do. Cities will need to be ruled, angels will need to be judged, and who knows what else might need to be done? Our Heavenly Father is infinitely creative and he knows us better than we know ourselves. We will not be bored, of that I am sure.
But what of right now? On this side of eternity? How do we set about cooperating with the Lord Jesus in the process of the redemption of work in this life? What does he expect of us? Well, for one thing, he expects us always to do our best work. Colossians 3:23 tells us, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” But there are other matters to be taken in to account as well.
The first thing I’m going to say might not be very popular, but I’m going to say it anyway. Not every kind of work is legitimate for a Christian man or woman. “Of course,” you say, “no Christian should be a drug dealer or an internet pornographer.” Yes, that goes without saying. But there are other kinds of work that are not unambiguously evil, but which I believe are unfit for a Christian.
Like what? Well, how about manufacturing and selling geegaws that people couldn’t possibly need? Geegaws that waste the planet’s finite resources and contribute nothing meaningful to human existence. Or creating advertising that plays on people’s fear or snobbery or feelings of inferiority in order to sell the geegaws. Open the next catalogue that comes in the mail and look at the stuff that’s there. Is there even a tenth of it that serves a real purpose? If someone gave you something out of that catalogue as a gift, what would you do with it? Stick it on a shelf and watch it collect dust? Put it in a box after a few months? Use it a couple of times and then shove it in a cabinet? We adults in America are a lot like my children. I watch my own children, who have been glutted with toys by their grandparents and well-meaning people in the church. They have never learned to play with anything. They have never learned to pay attention to anything for a sustained period of time. They do not value anything. They use it, drop it, perhaps break it, and pick up the next thing. They are being well-trained for adulthood in America. There is a doll in my family that belonged to my great-great grandmother. She got it as a gift from her teacher for perfect attendance at school sometime in the late 19th century. It was one of her few toys and she took exquisite care of it. The head, hands, and feet are china and there’s not a chip or a scratch anywhere on her. My daughters would have her disassembled and shattered into a million pieces inside of ten minutes, and have moved on to something else. I think even though my great-great grandmother was poorer in one sense, she was infinitely richer in another. She got more pleasure out of one china doll than my daughters get out of a whole toy box full of stuff. The doll has been special and has lasted for a hundred and forty years. I accidentally ran over two plastic doohickeys with the lawn mower the other day and they haven’t even been missed.
There’s another thought that’s been kicking around in my mind for a few years. I may be wrong in this, but I don’t think pushing electronic money around and raking off a bit for yourself from each transaction is a fit job for a Christian man or woman. I’m quite suspicious of the whole enterprise of charging interest on money to begin with. The early Puritans were against it, and there seems to have been a revolution in opinion on the subject amongst the people of God in the latter half of the 17th century. I’m still not sure what prompted the change, but the shift in opinion roughly corresponds with the founding of the Bank of England, one of the wickedest institutions which ever was, (our own Federal Reserve Bank being the prime candidate for my vote for absolute wickedest!) Add to that suspicion the fact that you actually produce nothing of any real value, while you do often facilitate people borrowing themselves into bondage, and you see at least how I have come to this embryonic conclusion.
Jobs that are not necessary to human well-being, but which cause you to work on the Sabbath are jobs Christians ought not hold. Cops, firefighters, prison guards, soldiers, doctors, nurses, and those who keep the electricity and water flowing do not violate the Sabbath by working on a Sunday. Those are acts of necessity. Waitresses and Wal-Mart cashiers are not necessary to the well-being of society on a Sunday.
Christians ought to search diligently to discover their calling. God designed you to do something, and when you find it, it will satisfy your soul. Work will be less of a curse and more of a blessing. I think, as a general rule, that Christians ought to work at things which are truly productive and truly contribute to the well-being of society. Christians ought to be engaged in things like teaching minds, shepherding souls, and healing bodies. We ought to be growing food, building things, fixing things, creating things of beauty and lasting value, whether they be pieces of furniture, works of art, or some blend of the practical and the artistic, like fine pottery you can actually use on occasion. One of my elders makes gunstocks for really high-end shotguns. The cheap ones start at $10,000. These guns are beautiful, and they will still be beautiful working firearms in 200 years. These guns are worth making. Sometimes on cold winter days I sit in his workshop next to the old woodstove and watch him work. He is an amazing craftsman. He patiently shapes each piece of wood by hand, slowly and meticulously, until it fits just right.
This leads me to my final thought for today. In some ways I am a man of two worlds. This really hit me when I was in college and compared myself to my peers. I have a Master’s Degree. I worked my way through college as a mechanic and a truck driver, among other things. I’ve been a welder in a shipyard. I’ve done roofing and concrete work and siding and windows. I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none. But I’ve dabbled in enough trades to understand many of them a bit, and some of them more than a bit. It needs to be said that such work is good and dignified work. It is work which we ought to be proud for our Christian sons and daughters to undertake. Anyone who thinks that repairing a modern automobile is not intellectually challenging hasn’t tried fixing one. Welding stainless steel pipe in a power plant so that it can withstand 2,000 psi of superheated steam is a work of the highest craftsmanship. Your computer programming and your accounting and your MRI reading jobs can be outsourced to India or China. Your plumber has to be nearby, and you’re going to have to pay him $80 per hour when your pipes break. Your plumber’s job is safe. Your auto mechanic’s job is safe. Your heating and air conditioning man’s job is safe. Is yours?
It’s my firm opinion that we need to rediscover the dignity and value of tradecraft here in America. We need to value these vocations, especially in the church, for they are eminently compatible with the Christian life and they are good, honest, dignified work. I know for a fact that it’s very hard to find diligent, high quality men for the plumbing field right now in many places across the country. A man can labor as unto the Lord in these vocations without hesitation, and he can put bread on the table for his family. I think that is an admirable combination of virtues.