The Bible says that work is a gift from God; we were designed by God to work, created in His image to be His co-workers in the world. If work is so good, why is it so hard?
September 30-October 1, 2017
Pastor Joe Wittwer
God and Your Work
#2—Our Problems with Work
Introduction and offering:
ILL: Do you want to know the quickest way to get me to swear? Plumbing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tackled what seems like an easy plumbing project, only to have something go haywire. Do it, undo it, redo it—multiple trips to the hardware store—and still…it leaks. Now every time I grab my tools, my wife begs me to call a plumber. “Please,” she says, “I want you to stay saved.” I do have to say that our shower was leaking last week, and I fixed it. Sort of…
Work can be frustrating. Things break, go wrong, don’t work as planned. We’ve all experienced some version of Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong, will. (picture of car smashed in garage). Think about your work and how hard it is and what frustrates you—it’s not hard to imagine, is it? What about your work makes you say, “Really?” Work can be frustrating.
Even in my job, as a pastor, you might think that it’s nothing but joy—no problems, just doing God’s work with God’s people every day! Happy, happy, happy! But it can be incredibly frustrating. I work like crazy to give a talk that will move people to take a step toward Jesus—and some do, but for many, it seems like it goes in one ear and out the other. I do my best to love people and invest in people—and they leave, and sometimes they leave for the silliest reasons. “Really?” I do my best to lead, but often I’m frustrated by my own incompetence, or weakness or stupidity—I’m constantly backing up and taking another run at it.
Why is work so hard? Last weekend I said that work is a gift from God, that we were designed by God to work, created in His image to be His co-workers in the world. If work is so good, why is it so hard? If God’s plan for work is good, why are there so many problems with work? That’s the question I want to address today.
For this 3-week series, “God and Your Work,” I’m borrowing heavily from Pastor Tim Keller’s excellent book, Every Good Endeavor. I’m able to cover some of the highlights, but there is so much more in here—if this is a subject you care about, I encourage you to get the book and read it. We have copies available at our cost in the Commons.
So if work is God’s design for us, if work is so good, why is it so hard? Here’s the Bible’s answer.
- Our work is frustrated by human sin.
Genesis 1-2, the story of creation, explains the design and dignity of work. We were created in God’s image; God works, so we work; we were given work to do in Paradise, to cultivate and care for God’s world as His co-workers. All this is in the first two chapters of the Bible. It’s God’s plan for work.
And then we get to Genesis 3—and what happens? The first human beings disobeyed God and spoiled everything. Genesis 1-2 explains what God intended for us. Genesis 3 explains why things are not as God intended, why the world (including us) is such a mess. Human sin and rebellion not only affected the humans who sinned, but the world they were charged to care for. Theologians call this “the Fall.” We fell into sin and the whole world fell with us. Here’s the story from Genesis 3.
God had placed Adam and Eve in Paradise—the Garden of Eden—and charged them to cultivate and care for it. They had the run of the place—they could go anywhere, do anything, eat anything—with a single exception. God told them they could not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, and if they did, they would die. What was special about this tree? Scholars differ, but perhaps it’s best to simply understand the tree as a test. God was saying, “I want you to do something for me, not because you understand why, not because you can see whether or not it would benefit you. I want you to obey me, simply because of who I am, simply because you love me and trust me.” It was an opportunity for the first humans to voluntarily make their relationship with God the primary value of their lives, and to obey God simply because it was His due.
They didn’t do it. They took upon themselves the right to decide how they would live and what was right and wrong. In essence, they rejected God and usurped His role for themselves—they became their own gods—little “g”. This was catastrophic, not only for them, but for all of us, and for all of creation over which they ruled. Human beings were made to know, love and serve God, and when we do that, we flourish. But when we live for ourselves, we are “living against the grain of the universe, against the grain of our own making and purpose.”
ILL: How many of you like to get out on the lake? You’ll recognize this: a boat. What is the boat designed to do? It’s designed to get you on the water—to enjoy the lake! But what if you decide that you know better than the designer. You decide that the purpose of a boat is to be towed behind a truck. How many of you bought a boat so you could it tow it down the highway? Then you went a step farther and decided, “Who needs a trailer?” The purpose of your boat is to ski the highway. This is a catastrophe! Towing your boat down the highway like this will only ruin the boat and endanger yourself and others.
This is what we’ve done. We thought we knew better than our Creator, and we’re living against the grain of His design and purposes, damaging ourselves, others, and our world.
When God said they would die, we assume that they would drop over dead immediately. That didn’t happen. What did happen was that death and decay infested every part of their lives. They began dying physically and eventually passed away. But more broadly, death and disintegration spread to every area of life: not only physical, but emotional, spiritual, and social as well. Everything was spoiled. Paul writes in Romans 8:20-21 that all of creation was subjected to “frustration and decay.”
Romans 8:20–21 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
The word “frustration” means “emptiness, futility, purposelessness.” Human rebellion subjected the world and all who live in it to frustration—a sense of meaninglessness. The word “decay” means “to dissolve, disintegrate, deteriorate.” Human rebellion caused the world and all who live in it to start falling apart.
Like dominoes, one thing after another began falling apart. The first to fall was their relationship with each other.
Genesis 3:7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Prior to their sin, Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” Now, for the first time, they are ashamed and must cover themselves. Everything was perfect, but now they know something is wrong with them, and cover themselves in shame. They moved from a relationship of complete openness, transparency and trust, to one of being guarded, self-protective, and hiding from each other. Human relationships have never recovered.
The next domino to fall was their relationship with God.
Genesis 3:8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
Not only did they begin to cover themselves and hide from each other, but they hid from God. Previously they enjoyed face-to-face fellowship with God; now they are hiding in fear and shame. And when God confronts them and asks them, “What have you done?” rather than owning up, they cover up again, and each engages in finger pointing and blame.
Adam said, “The woman…that You gave me…she gave me some fruit and I ate it.” Not my fault.
When asked the same question, Eve responded, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” The devil made me do it. Not my fault.
And we’ve been engaging in the blame game ever since. Not my fault. In fact, it’s popular in our culture to explain all the brokenness around us without reference to human sin. Psychology helps us understand how the traumas of our childhood are to blame for our present behavior. Not my fault. We blame our parents, we blame our culture, we blame entertainment, we blame the government—anybody but ourselves. Not my fault. We’re still hiding and blaming.
The first two dominoes to fall are our relationships with each other and with God—the two most important things about us. Then this:
Genesis 3:16–19 To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
So let me ask you a question: do you find the two great tasks in life—love and work—to be difficult? Painful? Frustrating? Here’s why. The natural consequence of our sin is that love and work, which should be good, now involve painful labor. God ties the pain of love and marriage and the pain of work very closely together.
To the woman, God says that child-bearing with be painful: “with painful labor you will give birth to your children.” Scholars debate the exact meaning of God’s statement that, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (verse 16); but all agree it means at the very least that misunderstanding, frustration, conflict, and unhappiness are now the norm in relationships between men and women. Marriage, love, childbirth—all became painful labor.
To the man, God says his work will be become “painful toil.” Notice the parallel—there is painful labor or toil for both the man and woman. The ground will not yield its bounty easily. In this story, farming represents our work, whatever it may be—the way we earn our bread, our livelihood. Work is going to be hard—painful toil.
So the Fall changed everything, including our work. The world is broken, and this is why. Only the Biblical story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration explains what we and the world should be and can be, how we got where we are, and how we’re going to get where we were intended to be.
How does sin affect our work? Here are four ways—Keller devotes a chapter to each. I’m only going to cover the highlights in a few minutes each.
- How does sin affect our work?
- Work becomes fruitless.
In Genesis 3, the Lord told the man that the ground would produce “thorns and thistles.” Rather than the fruit, the produce he hoped for, the man would be harvesting thorns and thistles. In other words, all of our work will be marked by frustration and a lack of complete fruitfulness. Keller asks, “What do we mean when we say work is fruitless? We mean that, in all our work, we will be able to envision far more than we can accomplish, both because of a lack of ability and because of resistance in the environment around us.” We don’t mean that work is completely fruitless; only that it rarely accomplishes everything we hoped for.
A company works for months to give birth to a new product, only to have it die a quick death in the marketplace or it putters along well below expectations. A great athlete’s career, seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame, is cut short by injury. Brilliant people get fired—think of Steve Jobs. Farmers harvest a bumper crop one year and are blighted the next. A doctor’s best efforts may not save the patient, and even outstanding parents have rebellious kids. We’ve done our best and gotten far less than we hoped for our efforts. How many of you have experienced this frustration: your work is fruitless, doesn’t accomplish what you hoped for?
ILL: I’ve got a hundred stories for this. Here’s one. In 1980 or 81, a group of pastors in the city got together and invited Keith Green to come. We envisioned packing out the Opera House and seeing a lot of people find Jesus. We were all young and leading small churches, so it stretched us to pay for the Opera House and all the publicity. Plus, we wanted the concert to be free because the gospel is free and we wanted people to hear the gospel. We worked and sacrificed like crazy. The big day arrived and we packed out the Opera House—standing room only. The place was buzzing—it was awesome! Laina and I had invited our neighbors, who were not believers, to come with us. We had seats on the front row. The concert lasted 2 hours, and Keith sang 4 songs. The rest of the time, he talked…and talked…and talked. He talked about how bad the church was, about how hypocritical Christians were, about how hard our hearts were…for two hours. It was awful. When we took our neighbors home, we asked them what they thought. “Well, that’s why we’re not Christians—everything he said.” We were heartbroken. All that work—not the fruit we hoped for; just thorns and thistles.
I know that’s happened to you too. You’ve worked hard, done your best, but the results weren’t what you hoped for. It’s work in a fallen world.
Here’s the thing: You have to live with the tension of what we said last week about God’s plan for work—work is good—and what we’re saying this week about the problems with work—work is frustrating. We hold in tension the goodness of God’s creation with the damage of the Fall. Of course, if your work is fruitless, it’s possible you’re doing the wrong thing; you may need to do something different. But it’s also possible that you’re doing the right work, but are simply experiencing the frustration that all of us feel in a broken world. The one thing you shouldn’t do is go on a fruitless search for the perfect career that has no frustration or failure. It’s not out there!
In this world, our work will often fall short of our expectations. We have to understand this and keep giving our best.
- Work becomes pointless.
Have you ever thought about your work and wondered, “Why am I doing this? What is the point?”
ILL: My son Andy, who is brilliant and a hard worker, coasted through school. I can’t tell you how many times I’d get after him about his homework, and he’d reply, “Dad, what’s the point? I’m never going to use this stuff.” Have you heard that one? Have you ever felt that way? “What’s the point?”
Andy was right—some of what we do feels pointless. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote:
Ecclesiastes 2:17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The phrase, “under the sun” refers to life on earth without reference to anything greater or transcendent. In other words, without God, work becomes meaningless. In a fallen world, work can feel pointless. This has been exacerbated by several revolutions in work that have removed many of us from the end result of our work. For example, you may work in a factory where you do the same small task like bolting one part on a car, over and over, hour after hour. In the face of such dehumanizing monotony, it’s easy to lose sight of the end product—a car, and those who will use it—and it feels mindless and meaningless.
Professor and best selling author Adam Grant has written about this. He says that for decades, Americans have ranked purpose as their top priority at work—above promotions, income, job security, and hours. Studs Turkel wrote that work is “a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” Yet all too often, we feel that our work doesn’t matter. Turkel said, “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
Is there anything we can do? Grant asks the question, “What makes a job meaningful?” There are many factors: autonomy, variety, challenge, performance feedback, and the chance to work on a whole product or service from start to finish. But there is one that matters more: does your work benefits others? Lots of research has been done, and it confirms that work is meaningful when we can see that it benefits others.
Sometimes we are too far removed from the persons who are benefitting to see the meaning in what we do. This is why more businesses are connecting their workers to the beneficiaries. When university fundraisers met a single student whose scholarship was funded by their work, they increased 142% in weekly phone minutes and over 400% in weekly revenue. When radiologists saw a patient’s photo included in an x-ray file, they wrote 29% longer reports and made 46% more accurate diagnoses. Make sure your radiologist sees your face! This is why leaders at John Deere invite employees who build tractors to meet the farmers who buy their tractors.
The other way to add meaning to work in a fallen world is to do it not only for the benefit of others, but for the Lord.
Colossians 3:23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,
This was written to slaves who had no control over what they did—they simply did what they were told. And yet Paul says that they can do it with all their heart for the Lord. Work becomes worship.
How does sin affect our work? Work becomes fruitless; work becomes pointless; and third…
- Work becomes selfish.
Keller says, “One of the reasons work is both fruitless and pointless is the powerful inclination of the human heart to make work, and its attendant benefits, the main basis of one’s meaning and identity. When this happens, work…becomes a way to distinguish myself from my neighbor, to show the world and prove to myself that I’m special. It is a way to accumulate power and security, and to exercise control over my destiny.” Work becomes selfish; it’s all about me, rather than serving God and people.
Keller uses two stories in the Old Testament to explain this: the Tower of Babel and the story of Esther. In the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, people wanted to build the tallest building in the world to “make a name for themselves.” Work had become selfish—they wanted to construct an identity for themselves—to become a “somebody.” So often our desire for success at work is tainted with selfishness. Don’t misunderstand me—we’re all selfish and if we wait to do something until our motives are 100% pure, we’ll never do anything. Everything I do has some selfishness mixed in it, and that includes my work.
I said last week that we naturally tend to identify ourselves by what we do. I am Pastor Joe. When we meet each other, we ask, “What do you do?” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but we tend to take it too far. Our identity gets so enmeshed in our work that if we lose our jobs or our work changes, we face an identity crisis. Who am I now? Or we rely so completely upon our work for our identity that we sacrifice anything for success.
I know pastors whose identity was so wrapped up in the success of their church that they sacrificed family, friendships, and sometimes their own soul. I can say the same thing about businessmen and women—in fact, about any profession. I certainly wrestle with this.
ILL: I like being Pastor Joe. I like the respect that I receive because of the success of our church. But I’ve learned I have to check that. For example, I used to pray that God would make our church grow. Then one day I asked myself, “Why do you pray that?” Yes, I want more people to find and follow Jesus. But I also realized that I wanted the kudos, the affirmation that accompany a big church. I realized that there was too much of my identity, my selfishness wrapped up in that prayer. So I changed my prayer. Now I pray that God will shrink our church! No, I don’t need to pray that; I can do that entirely on my own. I pray that God will make us more effective—that we’ll do a better job helping people find and follow Jesus. It’s not about me—it’s about God’s mission and people.
In the end, our identity must be in Christ, not in what we do. My work will change and one day end, but this will remain: I am a deeply loved, fully forgiven, completely accepted child of God. That’s who I am. I am a Christian, and you can’t make a better name for yourself than that!
In a fallen world, work is fruitless, pointless and selfish. And here’s the last one:
- Work becomes an idol.
God wants and deserves first place in your heart. All of us have something that is most important to us, something in the hierarchy of our values that is #1. God alone deserves and wants that spot in your life. And yet our affections and attention consistently wander. We elevate other things to that spot: our spouse or family, a friend, money, recreation, pleasure, status…or work. Because our work is a major source of not only income, but meaning, purpose, and identity, it is easy to make an idol of it, to make it the most important thing in our lives. But idolatry is destructive. When we make an idol of something, we load it with more weight than it was designed to bear. We end up destroying the very thing we look to for life. Your spouse wasn’t designed to be your god—he or she can’t carry that weight—your expectations will crush them. And neither was your work. Idolatry distorts and destroys the very things we love. This is the reason for the first commandment.
Exodus 20:3 You shall have no other gods before me.
This is not God being petty; this is God loving you, protecting you from the disappointment of looking anywhere else for what only He can provide.
Jeremiah portrays this beautifully when he challenged Israel about their idolatry.
Jeremiah 2:13 My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
What an image! We need water to live. God said that He is a spring of living water—the source of our life. But they abandoned Him, and instead turned to idols that were broken cisterns that can’t hold water. Notice the connection to work: they dug these cisterns—does that look like a lot of work? All that work to get water, to get life, to get what only God could give. All that work—wasted. They were looking to something else for life—but it was a broken and empty cistern.
Your work is a good thing—we established that last weekend. But when you make it the main thing, you turn it into a broken and empty cistern. And you won’t find the life you seek there.
In a fallen world, work is fruitless, pointless, selfish and can become an idol. Bummer. Is there any hope for our work.
- Is there hope for our work?
The short answer is Yes! And we’re going to unpack that next week in the final talk in this series, “The Gospel and Work.” The gospel speaks to our work in many ways—we’ll look at those next week—but here’s one. I am a deeply loved, fully forgiven, completely accepted child of God. That’s who I am, and I didn’t have to work for that. God doesn’t love me because I work so hard and deserve to be loved; He loves me because He is love. I’m not forgiven because I deserve it; I’m forgiven because of Jesus. The gospel isn’t spelled DO—it’s not about what you do, your works. It’s spelled DONE—it’s about what God has done for you in Jesus. Understanding this will change your work forever—you’re not working to win God’s love; you’re working because you’ve already got it! That’s the good news!
Keller, Timothy. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (p. 84). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 ibid, pg. 85
 ibid, pg. 88
 ibid, pg. 90