the thorns of work

The youths are having a short series on ‘work and faith’ this month, with adults from various sectors talking about how they live as Christians in their workplace. It’s been interesting and I think the youths appreciate it in general, but there’s a little nagging voice in me when I realise the people speaking are doctors, teachers, artists, researchers, salespersons… I can’t help but feel like something is missing. Let’s be realistic and practical, of course — the English-speaking church in Singapore is mostly middle-upper class; the people who are willing and able to speak most likely have professional, clean, white-collar jobs; young people tend to aspire to this kind of work, etc. There’s nothing wrong in listening to people like that, and well, it’s a privilege and blessing that for so many in our circles, these conversations are the most relevant.

But for some reason, the last few paragraphs of Brian Dijkema’s essay have stayed with me since I read it early this year. Then, I was still in university, still with the Varsity Christian Fellowship which had a yearly study/conversation about work and faith that inevitably revolved around ‘how to be a Christian in the workplace’, creating culture, touching lives and blessing people. Understandable, to a certain extent. But there is a world of people who will not be influencing culture or changing minds or healing hearts in their work. There are plenty who will do mundane, dry work for the rest of their lives — no less worthy, but much harder to coat with a sense of nobility — and whose only reason for trudging on is that they have children and wives and parents to feed. How does our theology of work serve them?

It’s probably incredibly self-righteous for me to be talking about this, and I’m likely overthinking the whole exercise: As a friend says, our youths are probably not thinking so far and so much at this point of time. I’ll just end off by quoting Brian Dijkema extensively:

But let’s not wax too eloquent. There are many who might not want to speak about their work, or who might not be as keen for their children to join them at work. There are many for whom their daily work is something about which they’d prefer to remain silent. How many kids have single moms who spend their life doing work that, honestly, they hope and dream their children will never have to do? How many people do real work—at home, in their church, in their neighbourhood—without being paid? Work is about fulfilling your potential, but it’s not just about that. Is there room to be honest about drudgery and toil in the faith and work conversation? There should be. Again Alistair MacLeod gives voice to a child’s late recognition and appreciation for the painful toil endured in sacrifice:

“And then there came into my heart a very great love for my father and I thought it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you really do not want rather than selfishly following forever your own dreams and inclinations.”

We need to be careful that our faithful valorization of work doesn’t turn into a realized eschatology. When we forget that work is “toilsome” we presume to be able to achieve a vision that cannot be fulfilled until the Lord returns—as if we could root out the thorns of the curse by making our work “meaningful.” But this is vanity, a chasing after the wind.

Instead we should try to work faithfully among the thorns. Sometimes that means taking delight in our creativity. Sometimes it means speaking loudly against injustice. Sometimes it means doing awful work for the sake of another. Then, in expectant hope of the time when the thorns will be burned in fire, we can find satisfaction in the work of our hands, for it is from the hand of God.

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