A Reflection on Psalm 90 and the Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer —
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 Psalm 90 and a few other treasures from the Bible…timeless words that validate our time at the office, explain the reality and purpose of the daily grind, and offer encouragement for the laborer.
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 an inherently good thing.
We should not see work as an evil or selfish thing, that it is somehow less than noble to work at a job than to serve as a missionary or as clergy. One can get himself caught up in such a delusion and believe that he is “doing God’s work” while his pitiful neighbors throw their lives away at their secular profession. 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 all self-centeredness and self-seeking. It makes us lose ourselves in a task outside of ourselves, and thus becomes a remedy for indolence and slothfulness.
Work can be toilsome, but the toilsomeness of work provides an opportunity for us to do the very thing we were made to do: cling to the Lord. The toilsomeness of work reminds us we live in a condemned world, fallen and corrupt since the sin of Adam. Man’s propensity to suppress the truth about God and to stubbornly go his own way incites a general wrath and condemnation upon us all, something we think very little about (“who understands the power of Your anger…?” (Psalm 90:11)). This general condemnation is why weeds contaminate the sanctity of our gardens, why strife and rivalry exist in our offices, and why we feel weary in the daily grind.
We suffer these things every day. We tough it out. But those who are willing to seek the Lord can pray for relief. They can pray boldly for strength and wisdom every morning. The Lord welcomes this kind of dependency.
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.” A good and fitting prayer for the morning is Psalm 90:13-16. The psalmist appeals to God for satisfaction and mercy, for gladness in the midst of prolonged adversity and affliction of work. I think this is a totally valid thing for us to pray. 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).
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).
Work is God’s plan for refinement, and is therefore inherently noble. It drives us to call upon God for strength and purpose. 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).