What is work for?
Can we find God in work?
“Think of it! Miners had gouged at the stubborn earth, railroadmen had blown on their hands at dawns colder than rigor mortis, machinists had skinned off bright curls of swarth..so that [men].could …be received as.. equal“ (Francis Spufford, Red Plenty, 2010).
“I do not like work even when someone else does it” ( Mark Twain)
“Those of us who are several years into the existential hell of unemployment, who keep scrabbling at our professions for half what we used to earn, can only shake our heads in despair.. A whole section of American society has been cast adrift, like one of those massive chunks of Antarctica that are breaking off with increasing frequency” (Michael Goldfarb, ‘Blog: The Death of Solidarity’ 2011)
Work can be tough; Unemployment can be hell…?
St Benedict is reputed to have said: Orare est laborare, laborare est orare “(To pray is to work, to work is to pray.). In his 6th century rule of life for his abbey, Benedict put prayer and work alongside each other. Does that mean that work is ‘for’ the same thing as prayer: to get closer to God?
Despite work being such a major part of life, in the Bible, and theology, work is a theme that has often been in the background.
In the Bible, work is a way to experience God; God is to be found within work.
For instance, in the Old Testament the liturgy of harvest festivals (eg Deuteronomy 16) and the pattern of working week (eg Exodus 20:8f) offer a rhythm to the lives of the Israelites. A working rhythm gives a sense of control over the unpredictable future: a sense of the stability and consistency of God.
Work brings food and comfort: like the promised land that will be ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (eg Exodus 33:3): knowledge that God rejoices in our fruitful life. Exodus 25 praises the handiwork in the building of the Ark of the Covenant and the Sanctuary: gaining dignity from our work may teach us something about what if means to be a beloved child of God.
Work also teaches us about trust and mutual relationships. Jesus called his disciples and drew them from working lives: perhaps he wanted to use what they had learnt from working (eg with colleagues in the fishing trade) in asking them to become ‘fishers of people’ (Mark 1:17). From encountering ‘the faithful other’ in working relationship, we learn something about our faithful God.
In the 21st century, for many of us, the ways of working have changed. ‘Work’ has arguably become harder to define and more ‘fluid’: boundaries are being erased eg between work/leisure, manager/worker, my work/your work Companies talk about offering ‘solutions’ in a total relationship.
“The more I have thought about how labour markets work, the more I’ve realised that there are hardly any jobs whose tasks you can describe exactly,” said Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England (Telegraph March 2011). A conference at Tate Britain in 2008 discussed “Immaterial Labour”: “we don’t make anything anymore!” is a common refrain.
“We have to learn to love the real work of financial services” argues Janan Ganesh of The Economist in BBC’s Analysis (Radio 4 June 2011). Financial services employs 1.2m people, contribute 11% of tax revenue and £42b to the UK’s balance of payments, he argued. Invisible economic activity is both real and important: banking is making something – enabling material growth.
But is it as easy to know what ‘immaterial labour’ is for, as it might be for ‘traditional work’?
Today more and more people appear to be valuing work by only one measure: salary. It is perhaps the shifting ground of the meaning of work today that pushes us in the direction of valuing ourselves by how much we can consume, rather than how much we can produce. It may be because it is unclear what today’s work is for?
Work is still an enormous part of people’s lives: it occupies most of our working hours. Can the church can find a way in the 21st century to help people discover the Godly values in their work?
Resources to support reflection and learning to integrate Faith and Work:
Individual and Group Exercises:
About our Father’s Business – A Faith and Work Toolkit containing over 40 exercises and suggestions, collated by Workplace Chaplaincy in Birmingham and Solihull (www.cigb.org.uk) and St Peter’s Saltley Trust.
Some popular books connecting Faith and Work:
John D Beckett, Mastering Monday: Experiencing God’s Kingdom in the workplace (IVP, 2006)
Ken Costa, God at Work: Living every Day with Purpose (Continuum, 2007)
Mark Greene, Fruitfulness on the Frontline (IVP, 2014)
Mark Greene, Thank God it’s Monday (Scripture Union, 3rd edn 2005)
Mark Greene, Supporting Christians at Work (Administry/LICC, 2001)
R. Paul Stephens, Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture (Eerdmans, 2011)
William Morris, Where is God at Work? (Monarch, 2015)
On the ‘Theology of Work’
Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (Paternoster, 2006)
Armand Larive, After Sunday: A Theology of Work (Continuum, 2004)
David Miller, God at Work (OUP (US), 2007)
Esther Reed, Work for God’s Sake, (2010)
Miroslav Volf, Work in the spirit. Towards a theology of work (OUP 1991)
Books on Exploring Chaplaincy / your Vocation:
John Adair, How to find your Vocation: A Guide to Discovering the Work you Love (Canterbury Press, 2007 edn)
Francis Dewar, Live for a Change: Discovering and Using your Gifts (DLT, 1988)
Sophie Gilliat-Ray, Mansur Ali, Stephen Pattison, Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy (Ashgate, 2013)
Parker J. Palmer, Let your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 1999)
Victoria Slater, Chaplaincy Ministry and the Mission of the Church (SCM 2015)
Christopher Swift, Mark Cobb, Andrew Todd, A Handbook of Chaplaincy Studies (Ashgate 2015)
Miranda Threlfall-Holmes and Mark Newitt: Being a Chaplain (SPCK 2011)
Steve Walton, A Call to Live: Vocation for Everyone (Triangle, 1994)
Other useful websites:
God at Work have some great resources http://www.godatwork.org.uk/
St Pauls Institute brings a Christian ethical response to our understand of finance
LICC (London Institute for Contemporary Christianity) Aims to help Christians engage biblically and relevantly with the issues they face. Forums and articles on work, media, youth, women, and engaging culture. www.licc.org.uk/
The Theology of Work project is an analysis of Biblical Texts from the viewpoint of work and workplaces. www.theologyofwork.org