On Leaving Things Better Than We Found Them
Whether our work is done at home or out in the community, as volunteers or for a paycheck, an essential question has to do with how faith relates to our work.
Currently, there is a global, emotional crisis related to work. Most people in the world deeply dislike their work. One Gallup poll revealed that more than anything, what the world wants is a good job—more than food, shelter, safety and peace—a good job. And yet, as another poll revealed, a full 87% of workers are disengaged from and miserable in their jobs.
In the movie, Office Space, the main character, Peter, visits a hypnotherapist to help him with his lack of motivation and disdain toward his mid-level job. In that meeting, he says the following:
So I was sitting in my cubicle today and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s the worst day of my life…I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.
Though intended to get a laugh, these words hit home for a lot of us. Our work doesn’t feel meaningful but because our perspective about work lacks a biblical imagination. Dorothy Sayers says that the church is largely at fault for this crisis. According to Ms. Sayers, rather than foster a robust vocational imagination in its people, the church has allowed work and religion to become separate departments.
Assuming she is correct, what is the way forward?
The Reason For Work
We need to work because work is in our blood. As carriers of the divine imprint, as bearers of the image of God, we are by nature vocational beings.
Have you ever considered that the very first thing God reveals about himself in the Bible is that he, God, is a worker? “In the beginning, God created…” That’s right. God, the Maker of all things, put his hands in the dirt. He started by creating water, earth and sky, all designed as hospitable spaces for life. Then came the plants, the land creatures, the birds, the fish, and they the crown of his creation—man and woman. Then, at the end of his work, God looked at everything he had made and called it very good (Genesis 1:1-31).
But work did not stop with God. After creating everything, God put Adam and Eve in his garden and told them to work it and tend to it, to cultivate it…to make culture as they exercise dominion on God’s behalf over the world God had made (Genesis 2:15).
My former mentor and colleague Tim Keller is fond of saying that history began in a garden and ends in a city. In Genesis, the first chapters of history past, everything starts in Eden, the garden of God’s delight. In Revelation, the final chapters of history future, everything will culminate in a New Heaven and New Earth, also referred to as the New Jerusalem—the Holy City of God (Revelation 21:1-2).
Why is this significant? Because it suggests that we live in a world that’s under development, a world that’s heading somewhere. And the work that we do in that world, whether creative or restorative or both, represents a significant contribution to the cosmic mission of God.
So then, as those who bear God’s image, work is necessary not only for our obedience but for our fulfillment. When God put work in the world, he put work into Paradise. The fall of Adam and Eve that ruined everything—relationships, nature, and work—had not happened yet. Work, in other words, is part of the ideal human existence. We cannot and will not flourish fully unless we are doing creative or restorative work that mirrors the work of God, the consummate Creator and Restorer. We cannot and will not flourish fully unless we become contributors seeking to fulfill the universal Christian job description—to use our time, energy, imagination and resources to leave God’s world better than we found it.
If you’ve ever wondered why children instinctively “get to work” each morning, whether it be with crayons and paper or with a pile of Legos…or if you’ve ever wondered why retiring from a career rarely brings greater fulfillment to the retiree, this is why. We have been created to mirror God by creating and restoring, and in so doing leave people, places and things better than we found them.
The Glory of Work
Work is glorious because of how it intersects with God’s ongoing creative, restorative mission in the world. It is glorious because of how it moves God’s Garden toward becoming the Holy City it’s destined to be. But how do we determine whether our vocational endeavors are genuinely good endeavors?
The answer to this question is simple. Any kind of work that leaves people, places or things in better shape than before—any kind of work that helps the city of man become more like the City of God where truth, beauty, goodness, order and justice reign—is work that should be celebrated as good.
Consider music, for example. Creating music involves taking the raw material of sounds and words and fashioning them into a cohesive whole. When carefully arranged, previously disconnected sounds and words have potential to add order to our lives, bring us more deeply in touch with reality, stir our souls, heal our wounds and give us hope. Even Nietzsche, whose worldview was predominantly dark and cynical, said that in music “the passions enjoy themselves” and “without music, life would be a mistake.”
Also, consider janitorial work. Several years ago, I met a man named Joe. In the course of getting to know each other, Joe asked me the standard get-to-know-you-question: “So, what do you do?” As a minister, before I answer that question I prepare for one of two standard reactions: excitement followed by a long conversation about God and church, or that oh boy, this-just-got-awkward look. There’s something about being a minister that causes people to either trust or distrust you instantly.
(But I digress…)
Back to Joe. When the conversation turned to him and I asked him what he did for work, he responded in a way I will never forget. He said, “I just push a broom.”
What? Just? He just pushes a broom? Who in the world told him that he should say or think “just” with regard to his work?
I thought to myself, “What would the world be like without janitors, or for that matter caregivers, shelf-stockers, repairmen and women, mothers and fathers, seamstresses, bus boys, police officers, construction workers, mechanics and others who, though their jobs may be lower in profile and pay, are such high impact and importance that the whole world could not move forward, and in many cases would also fall apart, without them?”
And what about the dignity of Joe and his essential work? Regarding Joe’s work and all work, there are two statements incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther, but that are deeply important statements nonetheless:
The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors…[and]…The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
I love the story about President John F. Kennedy’s visit to NASA space center in 1962. During his visit, he noticed a man who was carrying a broom. Pausing from his tour, the President approached the man and said, “Hi. I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”
“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor said, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
The NASA janitor understood the truth about all work, and especially his work. He wasn’t just pushing a broom. He was making history.
History began in a garden and will end in a city. And every vocation is a calling from God (the word itself comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “call”) to nudge that Garden toward becoming that City. And as we do this in our work, we don’t just do anything. We make history.
Rethinking the Meaning of Mission
Frederick Buechner said that our work is an essential part of our calling, and that every good job exists on some level because the world needs for the work to be done. The work itself is a means by which to satisfy what Buechner calls “the world’s deep hunger.”
We participate in God’s incarnate work through our work. And in this, we become micro-conduits of God’s creative and restorative hand in the world. As the image of God, we leave the people, places and things better than we found them through our work.
How is this so? Mothers image the nurture of God; artists and entrepreneurs, the creativity of God; government leaders and business executives, the rule of God; healthcare professionals and counselors, the healing hand of God; educators, the wisdom and knowledge of God; non-profit workers, the mercy of God; fashion inventors and stylists, the beauty of God; marketers and advertisers, the evangelistic energy of God; authors and storytellers and filmmakers, the drama of God.
Are we able to see this, that every good vocation is just as much a part of God’s mission in the world as the vocations of pastor and missionary? What if, believing this to be true, we began to re-think “missions” altogether? What if, in addition to commissioning pastors and missionaries for God’s work, we also began commissioning artists, physicians, homemakers, educators, baristas, athletes, parents, intercessors, attorneys, landscapers and salespeople for mission as well?
Madeleine L’Engle says that “there is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
Similarly, Nashville Institute for Faith and Work Executive Director Missy Wallace recently reminded me that Jesus spent more of his adult life working as a carpenter than he did in ministry.
So please, never say or think “just” about your or anyone else’s work.
The Groan (and Future) of Work
We’ve already seen that God, after he completed his work of creation, looked at what he had made and said it was very good. God looked at his work and celebrated. He was satisfied. And because God put his image in us, we, too are wired to take pride in our work.
But something went wrong along the way. Unlike God in his work of creation, our work fails us, and we fail our work. Due to lack of motivation and skill and capacity, we struggle to produce the kind of work that will truly satisfy us. Even with our best work, the enjoyment gets ruined when someone or something comes along and ruins it. Cars break down, children choose foolishly, parishioners sin against God and each other, lawns grow weeds, roofs leak, food spoils, investments flop, and the best books don’t get read.
There are theological reasons for this reality. Ever since Adam and Eve sought independence from God, work, just like every other good thing in God’s creation, has been under a curse. God said to Adam:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it…thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).
Because of this cosmic curse, even people with the best jobs experience frustration and anticlimax in their work. Always seeming to envision more than we are able to accomplish, we become stuck…stuck between our innate, primal need to work and an inability to do it well and to sustain it for the long haul.
In a sense, we are all like Sisyphus, the Greek mythological character, whose story doesn’t seem like a myth at all. Because of selfish ambition and deceitfulness, Sisyphus was condemned to eternal punishment. His sentence consisted of rolling a large rock to the top of a hill. Once he got close to the top, the rock would roll back down the hill. For the rest of eternity, he was doomed to repeat this frustrating task.
One time JRR Tolkein wrote a similar story to help him process his own frustration with work. The story, Leaf by Niggle, was about an artist who had been commissioned to paint a mural on the side of city hall. Niggle spent the rest of his career attempting to complete that mural, a large and colorful tree that would inspire for years to come. But in the end, the artist was only able to eek out a single leaf. And then he died. On the train to heaven, Niggle saw a vague but familiar image in the distance. He asked the conductor to stop the train, and so the train stopped. Niggle got off the train and, as he approached the object, discovered that it was a tree—his tree—complete and more lovely than he had imagined. And there, in the middle of the tree, was his contribution—Niggle’s leaf for the whole world to see. In the end, Niggle discovers that all of it, the tree and even his single leaf, is a gift.
I’m told that Tolkein wrote this short story as a way of processing his frustration with another work of his, one that he had spent years of his life creating but was convinced would never be seen or appreciated by anyone. The name of that frustrating work? Lord of the Rings.
When my friend Brian, a professional writer, was dying from cancer in his mid-thirties, I asked him what he looked forward to the most in the New Heaven and New Earth. Do you know what he said? He said that the thing he looks forward to the most is having no more writer’s block.
Scripture promises, “no eye has seen, no ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). It also promises that the good work he has begun in us, every good work—whether it be the work of becoming more like Jesus in our character, or the work of painting just a leaf when we dream of a tree—the God who is both Creator and Restorer, and the Architect and Builder of his great city—will be faithful to complete that work (Philippians 1:6). And as he completes that work, he will also look to us through the finished work of Jesus and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).
The work you do now will go on into eternity. It’s a leaf on the Creator’s tree. Don’t ever forget that you are putting a man on the moon and you are making history.
And please, whatever you do, never say “just.”