Several years ago, I wrote a book on rest (The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, Thomas Nelson, 2004). Part way through the writing, I realized there was a massive hole in my thinking: I had neglected to reflect on or write about work. So I went back and, near the book’s beginning, inserted a chapter on the meaning and value of work.
A theology of work is as needed as it is scarce. Few people I know – even pastors and missionaries – reflect theologically on their work. We seldom see how bricklaying or selling shoes or studying spreadsheets – or even preparing a sermon – is a form of worship. This is a sore loss, and contributes to high levels of burnout, mediocrity, driven-ness, insubordination, sloth, dissatisfaction, and endless dreaming about greener pastures.
God is a worker. Six days he sets aside for vigorous, ambitious, creative work – making and naming and running things. And when he created man and woman in his image, the key point of resemblance is that we are workers, too. We steward what God has made, join him in naming it, and receive his authority to rule over it. Our identity is deeply rooted in these vocational acts.
The fallout of sin complicates all this. Now, we earn our keep by the sweat of our brows. Now, the soil we work – or words we craft, or computers we tinker with, or machines we repair, or children we raise – are riddled with thorns. The work of our hands raises blisters. And give headaches and backaches, and puts dark circles under our eyes.
But the work itself matters. Moses, after a lengthy prayer (Psalm 90) that both extols the eternal nature of God and bemoans the temporal and afflicted nature of man, ends with a hope and a plea:
May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17).
Moses is asking God to value, honor and further human work. He’s asking that what we do – tending, mending, naming, growing – would participate in God’s eternal purposes.
It’s a good prayer. And it’s the basis for a theology of work. I believe that having such a theology has several benefits:
- It helps us connect our everyday, ordinary tasks with God’s eternal, heavenly purposes.
- It helps us see our work in true perspective – to neither obsess over trivial matters nor miss what’s important.
- It prevents us from making either an idol or an enemy of our work.
- It helps us find balance in our work between fostering relationships and doing tasks.
- It scales back the poor motives we sometimes bring to our work – greed, acquisitiveness, laziness, entitlement, jealousy, the lust for power or control, selfish ambition, etc.
- It turns our work into a form of worship: it motivates us to do all for the glory of God.
- It helps us see ourselves as stewards, not paupers or owners.
- It keeps us dependent on God for fresh energy, insight, endurance, motivation, creativity.
- It awakens and sustains thankfulness.
- It deepens our trust in God during seasons of vocational transition.
Indeed, O Lord, establish the work of our hands.
Systematic Theology is a central part of the curriculum of any seminary. Systematic Theology takes the messiness, the sloppiness, the ambiguity of our God-thoughts and puts it all into neat rows, tidy categories. It gathers key Scriptures and a breadth of historical reflection and debate on a range of topics, and distills it cleanly. A typical Systematic Theology textbook will have sections on the theology of God, the theology of Christ, the theology of mankind, the theology of the church, the theology of last things, and so on.
Systematic Theology is foundational to any pastor’s training. I wouldn’t want to handle, week after week, the challenges of ministry without a deep and solid bedrock of it.
But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I see wide swaths of human experience crying out for theological reflection that no Systematic Theology addresses.
We have, for instance, a poor theology of time.
Or of friendship.
Or of aging.
In the next few weeks, I want to reflect biblically and theologically on a few of these less conventional, non-systematic, but theologically-starved parts of our life.
For instance, few of us have a theology of interruption. And I’ve never seen that discussed in a theological tome.
And yet we’re desperate for one. We have placed such a high value on convenience and efficiency that any interruption – a traffic obstruction, a bad internet connection, a sick child, a flat tire, a phone call when you’re in the middle of something – is seen almost as a personal affront. My habitual thought at such moments – and sometimes what rushes from my lips – is “Why me? Why this? Why now?”
Another word for that is whining.
My default is to hoard time like a miser. It’s to guard it like a Doberman. It’s to resent interruptions like thieves.
And yet the Bible is filled with amazing and holy things that happen in the thick of interruptions. The gospels and the book of Acts can be read, at one level, as chronicles of interruption. Jesus is teaching – and someone breaks the roof open above him and lowers a man down through the hole. He’s interrupted, but healing bursts forth from it. Or Jesus is walking to some village, and some loud beggar or pleading father or chronically ill women hails him or grabs hold of him. One interruption after the next, but the kingdom is loosed through it. Or Peter is fasting and praying, and swooning with hunger, and a vision tumbles down on him. Interrupted, but the entire course of history changes because of it. Or Paul is bent on destroying the church, and Jesus waylays him and turns him inside out. He is eternally and radically interrupted, but you’re a Christ-follower, all these 2000 years later, as consequence of it.
And so on, and so forth.
It happens so often in the Bible, it starts to look like interruptions are anything but. They bear uncanny resemblance to God-appointments, holy ambushes. The mess of human efforts and schemes, it appears, is continually overridden by divine choreography. God hides in the seeming randomness of things. God lurks in the inconvenience of the unplanned. God skulks in the surprise of the unexpected.
Let me put it bluntly: God’s main disguise is an interruption. Just take any gospel – Luke, say – and watch how often the kingdom of God – a healing, a miracle, a parable, an epiphany, a moment of breathtaking divine presence – breaks out through the device of an interruption.
If you watch that enough, three things start to happen.
One, you get a lot more curious about personal interruptions.
Two, you start spying God in them.
Three, you start wishing for more.
Question: What personal interruption did you discover God at work within?
“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”
I was in a coffee shop the other day and a mom announced to her little guy – maybe 2 and a half years old – that it was time to leave. Little Guy didn’t want to leave. At first he ignored her, then he defied her, then he assailed her. To her credit, she remained calm. She spoke quietly. She stood her ground. She didn’t bargain. In the end, magnificently composed, she carried Little Guy out the door, thrashing and wailing all the way.
It got me thinking. It got me thinking about the difference between control and self-control. These two things – control and self-control – stand at opposite ends of the maturity spectrum. The toddler was a live-action reel of a fierce effort to control. And he was a spectacle of immaturity. The mom was a breathtaking portrait of impeccable self-control. And she was the epitome of maturity.
Toddlers brim with the impulse to control (even as they bungle the execution). A 3-year-old will resort to wild-eyed tantrums, incessant whining, ear-piercing screams, coy manipulation, and flat-out demand to try to get their way: to control their parent, or sibling, or playmate, or the situation at hand.
The irony is bitter: as the toddler’s attempts to control things escalate, his ability to control himself deteriorates. His need to control makes him more out-of-control. The results are not pretty.
This all looks different in adults – usually. Certainly, we’ve all met 28- or 33- or 59-year olds (sometimes in the mirror) who, in an increasingly desperate effort to control people or situations, throw tantrums, power up, make threats, emotionally blackmail, and so on.
But most of us, by age 19 or so, have an epiphany of sorts: that the louder we shout, the less others listen. That the more we manipulate, the further others back away. That the more we toss a fit, the more others look at us and think, “What a sad strange little man.”
That’s the epiphany. But what we do with it matters a great deal. It determines whether we really grow up or not. The truly wise become deeply humble. They realize that the only kind of control the Bible endorses – indeed, commands – is self-control. The New Testament has 16 separate exhortations to be self-controlled. It’s a major theme.
So the wise heed that, and work with the Holy Spirit to get a grip on themselves. They receive the comfort, the rebuke, the strength, and the instruction of God himself to discipline their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and actions. They give up trying to control others and step up being in control of themselves.
The lovely irony is that the self-controlled exert wide influence. People listen to them. Heed them. Seek them. Follow them. In other words, the self-controlled accomplish the very thing the controlling desperately want but only ever sabotage.
Fools do the opposite. A full-on fool keeps up the toddler-like behavior right into their dotage. I saw this once in an 82-year-old man. It was… pathetic. But a semi-cocked fool has the epiphany – that just becoming louder, meaner, wilder only ever backfires – and instead of changing themselves they simply change their strategy. They seek to control by subtler, more socially acceptable means: withholding affection, icy silence, veiled threat, simmering anger, nagging, and so on.
Here’s what I’ve learned: every impulse to seize control is the Holy Spirit’s invitation to practice self-control. Every nerve jolt to freak out, melt down, start yelling, fly into rage or panic is a divine cue to slow down, breathe deep, start praying, and lean into God. Every instinct to control something is God’s nudge to control myself.
I don’t always get it right. When I don’t, I not only lose self-control: I lose influence. I lose respect. I lose dignity.
When I do get it right, I gain all around.
Lord, help me get a grip on myself.
Questions: When have you seen this dynamic at work – the more you try to control, the more it backfires? What heart disciplines have helped you get a grip on yourself?