Just had a fun time being interviewed by Classical Conversations radio yesterday. We talked about the Christian concept of work, the world as a treasure hunt, and how the Fall inhibits our labor. You can listen to the whole interview here.
One of the questions I was asked, I thought I would elaborate on a bit here since I think it’s actually quite relevant.
As I said, the topic for the interview was a Christian view of work, and much could be said, but this necessarily touches on our view of economics. I was asked specifically about Marx’s contention that one of the failures of capitalism is the separation of man’s labor from its product. Man is made to produce, to create and when his labor is quantified solely in terms of monetary value, this, he maintained, ultimately reduces our satisfaction in our work. So for example, a factory worker feels demeaned because he is reduced to a cog in the industrial machinery. All he receives is a slip of paper at the end of the week with numbers printed on it. A man who sits alone in a cubical all day, writing code for a computer program he will never use, perhaps receives nothing at all because the value of his labor is deposited directly into an account somewhere in the cloud. How could this man not become lonely, frustrated, and nihilistic? Isn’t this a failure of capitalism, reducing the value of labor to numbers, equating work with money?
As with many powerful prophets, Marx surely has a nugget of truth here. God created the world and each day, He saw what He had made and delighted in it, declaring that it was good. All people delight in seeing work accomplished. There is a deep sense of satisfaction in seeing the fruit of your labors. And there are Scriptures backing this up. Israelites were prohibited from refusing a poor man’s pay at the end of the work day, likewise even if his cloak was a pledge for a loan, the cloak had to be returned. The godly must not grind the faces of the poor. Likewise, there are blessings promised for hard, diligent labor. Those who work honestly, faithfully are promised the fruit of their labors, relative safety, security, and blessing. And I don’t mind adding that there are aesthetic components to how we labor. Men are not machines, and employers ought to care about the conditions in which their employees labor. But even this is not as easy as it seems. What are the best working conditions? How do you know? If the lazy guy says he needs more smoke breaks, is it wise for the boss to give them? If everybody says they would have a higher self esteem if you gave them a raise, does that mean you must? Who says?
All of the above are worthy conversations to have, but I submit that they are all peripheral to the central issue which is that God loves people who have faith. God loved Abraham because he believed the promises of God. He trusted the word of God. Even in the garden before Adam sinned, the issue was one of faith, trust, clinging to the Word of God. Adam needed to trust God’s word in the garden in order to continue living under the blessing of God. This meant that Adam had to labor in this faith. He had to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life and the other trees and plants in faith. He had to build a canoe and sail down the river in search of gold and treasures in faith. He needed to refuse his wife’s offer of the forbidden fruit and drive the dragon out of the garden in faith, believing that God’s word was true, even though he could not see the future, even though he could no see all that might result from obedience to that word.
In other words, righteous labor, faithful work is always in faith and this means fundamentally not seeing the fruit of your labor. Hebrews 11 is all about this. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. And this is how Abraham labored, building altars all over a land that didn’t belong to him believing that it (and all the world) would one day belong to his descendants. He was looking for a city whose maker and builder was God.
This is the pattern of all faithful labors. We scatter seeds by the millions. Every computer programmer, every politician, every pastor, every zookeeper, every parent, we are constantly, all day long scattering seeds, dumping them into the air, all over the ground. And then we go to bed and then we get up and we do it all over again. And yes, we get little progress reports from time to time, we see some of the fruit of our labors here and there, but the ratios are way off. If you try to evaluate your meaning, your labor to product value, you’re going to come up one depressed worker. But not one cup of cold water in the name of Jesus goes uncounted. If you are in Christ, if you have been forgiven and declared righteous, you are in the Beloved, and God is well-pleased with you. And this means we labor in faith, trusting that the story of the Beloved Son has become true of all the sons. Jesus cast His seed upon the waters, and after many days, it came back 30, 60, 100 fold.
If this is the nature of the gospel, the nature of the mission of Jesus, how can it not also be the nature of all honest, Christian work? We organize libraries, we fight fires, we care for the sick, we keep track of people’s money, we change diapers, we coach little league, we raise chickens… how? By faith. How much is it all worth? We can’t count that high. Marx was right in so far as commodification lies about the value of labor, but just substituting a new value sign for the labor isn’t the answer. Making sure people see something more substantial at the end of the day isn’t the answer. There will always be gaps, pieces missing, seed still waiting to sprout.
The answer is the pleasure of God, feeling His fatherly smile. When you know that you have been received, that all of your sins have been reckoned to Jesus and fully paid for with His precious blood, and now all of His righteousness, all of His faithfulness, all of His obedience has been reckoned to you, then you are justified, declared righteous, innocent, pure, blameless, and God is beaming down at you. Then whatever you do, in word or deed, becomes just another opportunity to walk in His pleasure.
Be assured, this doesn’t mean you couldn’t be using your time better. This doesn’t mean that there are no career changes for Christians. This shouldn’t make you apathetic toward vocational decisions. But remember this life is just the beginning. These 70 or 90 years are just the minor leagues. We’ve got eternity for the inventing and exploring and discovering that God has planned for us. So sure, take a few practice swings. Use every breath, every moment for Him. Leverage the glory you’ve been given by your Father to point back to Him. Do what you’re good at. Do what you were made for. But don’t absolutize this. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine of freedom, the doctrine of playfulness, the doctrine of adventure.
All has been declared right. Everything paid for. You are free to fail, free to risk, free to mess up, free to fall on your face, free to try new things, free to delight in old things. You are free, you are loved, you are delighted in. So you don’t need to fear failing, fear missing out, fear throwing it all away. No, look up. Because of Jesus, you have been adopted into a family. Your Dad owns the universe, and He made you and loves you and rejoices over you.
A man who works a mundane job in order to give to his family is no failure. He is a hero. A woman who faithfully loves her little ones and cheerfully corrects them is no failure. She is a hero. Sure, some Christians may need a new career path, but lots of what passes for economic scrutiny and philosophical banter is actually just discontentment and insecurity. But we’ve been set free to turn every inch of this world into an altar of praise. We won’t see all the results now. We won’t see the harvest now. But we see Jesus. And so our labor is not in vain. And we await The Great Harvest.
And as it turns out, this is an entirely fitting theme for Reformation Day. So raise another glass to Luther and Calvin and the shockingly good grace of Jesus.