A Reflection on Psalm 90 and the Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer —
Work is inherently good for it reminds us of our needy and transitory state before God, and leads us to humbly pray for satisfaction in our labor.
It’s May and that means another school year is winding down. Kids are off to summer jobs. I have two sons doing internships this summer. I know it’s important that kids learn to work and be self-sustaining, but there’s a little part of me that mourns their entry into the adult workforce. No more extended periods of downtime, no more sleeping in. They are up at the crack of dawn, through the morning routine, and off to work by 7am, Monday through Friday. They are learning the reality of long-term work, giving their all from 8 to 5. But I’m sure that when the clock hits 5pm and they’re done for the day, they are happiest…off to the hikes through the woods , couch time with the feet up, or socializing with friends.
I sympathize with my sons as they learn the daily grind. I like my job and generally look forward to it, but there is still a side of me that prefers dawdling in the flower garden even if it means being a little late at the office. Like them, I struggle with doubts and fears that perhaps the time I’m investing in my job is not time well spent. Life’s speedometer rises a few notches when we accelerate onto the 40-hour work week highway, and before long, we’ve aged and left a significant chunk of our existence within the four walls of work. None of us want to get to the end of our life and have nothing but status reports and project records to show for it. We look for something more than that, and it’s troubling when we don’t have the answers.
Several things I’ve been reading recently offer help. They come from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phenomenal work, Life Together, plus Moses’ psalm (Psalm 90), and a few other treasures from the Bible. There I found precious validation of our time at the office. I found words that define a purpose for the daily grind, and offer encouragement for the laborer.
Work is Good
Like everything, work is part of God’s plan for our world. He is working. He appoints storms, bugs, plants, and people to do His work. He holds regular staff meetings with the angelic hosts. He is busily preparing a place for His followers. God works, so we can know with certainty that work is a good thing.
We should not see work as evil or selfish, that it is somehow less than noble to work a secular job than serve as a missionary or as clergy, that only the latter “God’s work.” This is far from truth. There is no one occupation that is holier than another. Working for a church is no more righteous than working at Burger King, for the true kind of righteousness is never earned.
There is plenty of biblical justification for quietly doing plain ol’ work. The Apostle Paul himself urged the church members at Thessalonica to do just that:
“…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” — I Thessalonians 4:11-12
Work is a valid, viable way to engage in life. It is also a means by which we worship God. Work sanctifies us, makes us focus on something outside ourselves. It is God’s instrument to purify us from self-centeredness. It makes us lose ourselves in a task outside of ourselves, and thus becomes a remedy for indolence and slothfulness.
Work is good because it reminds us we are transitory, dust in the wind compared to the eternal God (Psalm 90:1-4). When we’re young, we sprout up like grass. But one of life’s guarantees is that the beauty of our flower will fade with age (Psalm 90:5-6).
Nothing reminds us of our transitory nature more than a retirement party. We go, eat a slice of sheet cake, and shake hands with the retiree. We are happy for them, but also sad, for even the proudest worker feels a bit of sorrow after their 30 or 40 years of service come to an end. They will soon be sleeping-in past 8am on Monday mornings, wondering what to do with their time, replaced and soon forgotten by the younger and more energetic next generation (Psalm 90:10b). Yet retirement parties are good because they remind us we can’t keep working forever. We should not get too comfortable. This place is not our home.
Work can be toilsome, but even that has a purpose. The toilsomeness of work can help us look outside ourselves for relief from the daily grind. Toilsomeness is part of the condemnation that has shackled the world since the sin of Adam, sin that has passed on to us. We are good at masking sin from each other, but it’s clearly visible to God (Psalm 90:8) and it incites His general anger on mankind (Psalm 90:7), something we should fear, but can’t seem to comprehend…
“Who understands the power of Your anger and Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?” — Psalm 90:11
The general sin of mankind is why weeds contaminate the sanctity of our gardens, why strife and rivalry exist in our offices, and why we get dismayed at the toilsomeness of work. Toilsomeness can thus be good–as long as it leads us to a much-needed humility before a Holy God. It suggests that we should not be a know-it-all, but instead seek instruction from the Lord. It teaches us to “number our days.” We should live intentionally and soberly, not wasting the days away, drowning out the monotony of life with carousing and drunken stupor. Toilsome work teaches us to present ourselves to God rather than live exclusively for self-gratification.
Work is good because it shows us our need to pray. Bonhoeffer ties prayer and work inseparably together. As he says, “without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer, and without prayer, work is not work.” The one who is humble and wise prays about his work. A good and fitting prayer for the morning is Psalm 90:13-16. The psalmist appeals to God for mercy, satisfaction, and gladness in the midst of prolonged adversity and affliction of work. He prays for God’s good works of faithfulness to continue, to inspire and encourage. These are a totally valid prayers for us. We should pray boldly and regularly for strength, inspiration, and clarity of thought. We should long for the enjoyment of our labor and its rewards, and seek the God who is solely able to give it (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).
An Opportunity to Share
Work can become an idol, a thing we worship and use to ignore God’s will for us. Like Jonah, I can get more concerned about the plants in my field than the souls of people around me (Jonah 4). Like the rich noble, I can work exclusively for my own benefit, building up my barns to expand my fortune and provide security (Luke 12:13-21). Like the men in James’ letter, I can become arrogant and presume that by my own efforts, I can make a profit (James 4:13-16).
Work should never take the place of our compassion, generosity, or humility. Instead of an idol, it can be a means of service. The profit the Lord gives us can be our opportunity to share with those in need (I Timothy 6:18-19). Generosity with earnings is yet another way work can be good.
Support from the Church
A good church will speak to the working man and woman. We should be careful not to glorify missionary or clergy roles, as if secular work was not noble or valid or spiritually significant. We should validate the occupation of the working parishioners and recognize their need for strength and endurance to survive the grind. One of the nicest words of encouragement I ever received was from a pastor’s wife who told me she empathizes with the peril of the working father. It encouraged me that someone cared enough to notice, to feel the burden of responsibilities a father carries not only in the home, but also in the office.
Let us acknowledge the validity and affliction of work, and echo the prayer of the psalmist when he pleads to God, “confirm for us the work of our hands, yes, confirm the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17).