Work: Key to Usefulness
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Issues to address
What about the joy of work?
What is the purpose of work?
The pursuit of excellence.
When work goes too far.
What about the supposed “work ethic”?
Inro: What is work?
I want to talk about work. I’ve been telling people that this week. And everyone always goes, “Work? Work what? What do you mean by work?” Then I say it again. “Work.” And they go, “You mean, `work’?”
Why is this? Why do people have a hard time with me getting up here and talking about work? When you think about it, work encompasses probably half of our lives. Because for one, work is something you have to do to make money. For some of us, it is something we do 8 hours or more every weekday. But work is also something you have to do to get things done, like school-work or home-work or work around the house. Even the things that we do around here, by way of serving one another or teaching the Bible we call “Christian work” or “working for God.”
I know that when I use that word, “work,” different images and feelings come to our minds. If you hate your job, then the notion of work is a dreadful one. You were hoping that you could have one last night of forgetting about it before the weekend was over.
Some people have come to enjoy it. They may not enjoy the sweat and toil of it all, but they definitely enjoy the fruit of their labors. Some of you may even be sitting here thinking about what you could accomplish this week at work.
I want to think about what work is. And I want to think about when people get into work to much.
Work has always been in the plan
The first time we meet work in the Bible is right when God created the first humans. The Bible tells us that God placed people here on the earth, “to cultivate it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15).
There’s work. What’s interesting is, if you know about the creation of human beings, according to the Bible, you know that God placed them in a perfect environment. And yet, that didn’t mean it couldn’t be improved upon. That didn’t mean that there weren’t things to do. When we say it was a perfect environment, we should think of that in terms of the absence of various evils. So, there weren’t some of the hardships and fears that are so commonplace now.
But there was plenty of opportunity to grow and improve upon what God had made. And that is the commission that Adam was given, “Grow this. Improve upon it. Make it better.”
And that kind of captures the essence of what work was meant to be. It was meant to be productive. It was meant to take things that were already good and make them better.
Meant to make us useful
But there is another important aspect of God’s design for work, which people often forget or don’t even know about. We have no problem understanding that work is meant to make good things. That’s what motivates us to do it. Whether it’s money . . .
But there’s another part to the plan for work which is equally important, maybe more. And that is, work is designed to make us useful to others. This is the key to your usefulness.
If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Paul, in Philippians, is contemplating the fact that he might be killed soon. And in his thinking he knows that if he stays on, there is a lot of work for him to do. And look why he decides it would be best to stay on and continue to work: it would be best for them. He knows that his work is what benefits others.
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
You see two things here. First, Paul defines work as doing something useful with your hands. What does it mean when it says that it is useful? It means that others benefit from it. You aren’t a piece of fat on society. You are useful to others.
But, beyond that, it reaps the reward of being able to give–further usefulness.
So, work is the key to our usefulness. This is something that people who hate work often fail to realize. They’re focusing only on what they get out of it right now.
Example: What this job gives me? A bad back and a small paycheck!
And it goes beyond the job. It applies to work in all areas of life. When people hate work, it is usually because they are not looking at it from this perspective.
I don’t know if you realize it or not, but the verse that we sometimes toss around as Christians (from the words of Jesus himself), “It is better to give than to receive,” comes as a description of work. To get the full context on this . . .
So, Paul and Jesus are saying that there is reward in work. And that reward comes from focusing on how my work can benefit others, rather than just looking at how it benefits me. This is an area of perspective that will either bring joy or drudgery to your work.
At the same time, this understanding gives us insight into the state of mind of many who don’t work. Or those who work very little. It is sad and defeating because you feel useless. They have to struggle with feelings of uselesness. And those feelings are for real, since work is the key to making them useful.
Example: Some of you may not know this, but this is one of the main reasons I quit smoking. It was because I can’t stand to sit around. When I get sick, I am the most nasty, grumpy, hard person to get along with because I hate to be useless. If I’m sick for even 2 days, to the point that I can’t do anything, I get hard to handle. And then I started thinking, “Cancer patients sometimes have to lay around for 6 months! Or a year!
When we get too absorbed in work
It is precisely this issue, the issue of usefulness, that causes people to become too absorbed in work. We all know that it is a common scenario for someone to become so caught up on work or school that they have very little else in their lives.
Example: I know that when I was in school, I had to work sometimes 12 hours a day studying. Then I also held a part time job on top of that. The net result that almost all of my energy was taken up by work of one kind or another. You can ask my wife about that.
Emphasizing only usefulness
What is happening when someone gets caught up like this? Why do people get so absorbed with work that they have relatively little else of substance in their lives? The reason is that they are focusing on usefulness as the source of their identity, to the exclusion of all other sources.
And there are other sources of identity that are very, very important.
We have inherent value: God loves us
For one, there is our inherent value as a person, which is seen by the fact that God loves us no matter what. It’s not like people-love. If you become useless . . .
But God’s love is different. His love says, “I love you and I want to have a relationship with you no matter what you do.”
You think about it. Why does God love us? Why does God love you? And the answer is that he loves you just because you are you. That’s all. This is so hard for us to believe. Because we have been conditioned to believe that our value lies in how useful we are.
But to look at it from God’s perspective, it’s a different picture. From his perspective, it’s not like humans are running around this earth doing great things that are useful to him. God’s not up there saying, “Man, I really need these guys!” What can you do for the God who created the universe that he needs? What can you do to make yourself useful to him?
Example: Paul, the apostle, spent much of his life trying to prove that he could be useful to God. He was intensely religious and worked for God like none of his peers. But in the end, he says in Phil. 3, “It amounted to a nice little pile of manure.” That’s what it was worth.
God doesn’t need us. And the things we run around and do don’t make us useful to God.
But it’s even more than that. From God’s perspective we are actually alienated from him. We are at odds with him. People aren’t automatically on good terms with God. So, it’s not just that we can’t do things to be useful to him. It’s also that the things we do make us more distant from him. Our deeds are morally offensive to him.
And yet, in spite of all this, the Bible tells us that God loves us. He loves people he doesn’t need. He loves people who aren’t useful to him. He loves people who are actually at odds with him. The Bible puts it this way in Rom. 5:
God demonstrates His own love toward us in this: While we were still at odds, Christ died for us. Now, since we have been forgiven by His blood, we shall be saved from the judgment of God through Christ’s sacrifice. For while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.
That is the extent of God’s love. God loves us so much and wants a relationship with us so much, that he was willing to come and die for us so that we would no longer be alienated from him.
That’s a lot of value. God is saying that you are worth giving his life for. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do. “I love you so much I would die for you.”
“But God, what have I done for you?”
“But God, I’m not a very good person!”
“That’s right. That’s not why I love you.”
So, we have value just because we are who we are. And that is seen by how much God loves us and how much he wants to have a relationship with us.
We have relational value
But there is another type of value we have, once again independant of the usefulness we gain from work. And that is the value we have from relating to people. This is relational value. I matter to others and they matter to me because we relate.
We share. We talk. We express emotions. We support each other. These are all things that are part of relationships. It’s not part of work, although some folks might treat it that way. This is a different realm. It’s the relational realm.
And we matter to each other because we can have meaningful relationships.
Here again is something we’ll find is lacking in a person’s life when they become obsessive about work. When they get all caught up in work, it is to the exclusion of other things. They are taking their identity from usefulness, and completely neglecting who they are as a person (their inate value), and how they can relate to others. And this is evidenced by their lack of a relationship with God and relationships with others.
Here’s something that we should be concerned about. I know that the scenario I am talking about is so widely accepted, it’s almost glorified. But the sad fact is that when you neglect these other sources of meaning and fulfillment, they don’t just stay there and wait for you to pick them up again.
Your ability to relate to others, for example, isn’t like a tool that you can place carefully in its rack and come back and it’s still there waiting to be used. It isn’t like riding a bike, “Once you learn, you never forget.”
It’s more like staying in shape. If you get lazy, and eat all kinds of food, and never get active, then maybe by the time you get around to fixing the problem you’ve got a big predicament on your hands. Your relational ability atrophies over time. When you exclude it from your life, it gets worse.
Example: I remember after that time of school, I finally finished. And I thought, “OK, now it’s time to get back into people!” I was excited at the prospect. But the problem is, I had forgotten how! I remember before I had kind of chuckled at people who were socially retarded. They never knew what to say, couldn’t interact with people. But now I was one. I had the hardest time just walking up to someone and introducing myself.
I’m still pretty retarded I find. The worst part of it is that we get into our work, or our achievements we have this ability to virtually block out our hollowness in these other areas. “I don’t see it, I’m too busy with other things.”
Example: I was just on vacation a couple weeks ago with some of you. And at the end of vacation a couple people came up to me to talk to me about some things that they had noticed. Separately, “Buck, I noticed you were kind of distant. You seemed a little depressed.” “Naw! I had a great vacation!” Then the other guy, “Buck, I noticed you were a little distant from people. Were you kind of depressed?” “Not at all! I’ve been having a great time!” In my mind I was thinking, “I read a Great Tom Clancy book. I got to work some on my computer. I caught some fish . . .” But I stepped back and thought, “What are these guys seeing that I’m missing?” And I started to remember, “Oh yeah! People! That is a novel thought!” And I started to realize that I was very distant from people, maybe even a little bit lonely and depressed! Fortunately, nothing that a good week at work couldn’t solve.
So these are not abilities that you can just pick up and use at a moment’s notice, even though you’ve been neglecting them.
Hard to appreciate relationship with God
And the worst side of this is that it’s hard, once you’ve focused your attention on your achievments and work as your identity, to believe that God loves you just as you are. That grows harder and harder the more identity you stake in your usefulness, your achievements and so on.
Think of it. If you got to the point, as many do, where you were taking your identity from the work and achievments that you have, then to turn to God you would have to say, “I guess none of that counts here.” Because it doesn’t. None of that counts with him. And to get to the point where you say that none of your achievments, none of your work matters before God, that would really hurt the pride.
And that is why it is that the more people take from their work, the harder it is to come to God. It’s a complete shift of gears.
Example: You could imagine someone who for their whole lifetime took their identity from one thing, like their physical abilities. Maybe he’s a great athelete. And then, he finds himself in a setting where that doesn’t matter anymore, not one bit. To say the least, you would feel a little insecure.
But that’s where most folks are with God. God is saying to us, “I want to accept you, forgive you and have a relationship with you just because I love you.” And that is very hard for people to take. This is what is standing in the way of them becoming Christians.
Even after someone becomes a Christian, this is a constant barrier in our relationship with God. Because we continue to try to relate to God on the basis of our work.