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The Ends of Work

November 14th, 2023 | 13 min read

By Drake Osborn

In the contemporary world, the fastest way to an identity crisis is to stop working.

Getting laid off will certainly do it, as COVID showed.[1] Anyone who works with college students also knows the questioning that comes as undergraduate or graduate students round the corner of the work of papers and research into the emptiness of endless job applications. For a pastor like myself, the route was even simpler: take a sabbatical. Several months off from the pressures and responsibilities of member care and preaching may sound like a heavenly vacation, but when such a large piece of your identity is removed, you are suddenly faced with mountains of time to spend with yourself. When we can no longer identify with what we do, we must identify with who we are.

In a recent interview, the author Andy Crouch recommends that everyone take a sabbatical.[2] Every seven years, Crouch takes eight months away from his job, saving money in order to sustain his family during his time away. He either quits his job or convinces his employers to adjust their expectations of his time. When I have suggested to hard-working church members the idea that sabbaticals like this could be an option for normal Christians, they tend to look at me like I am advocating for going back to the stone age. Even if they could feasibly imagine such a possibility, they know their employers would never go for it.

Another reason it may feel so foreign is because we have misunderstood the importance of rest and its relationship to work. We are afraid that to buy stock in rest is radical, lazy, immature, or foolish. More terrifying is the idea that rest on this scale might force us to confront the one person most mysterious and elusive to us: ourselves.

But what if we were designed to rest, and not just on some faraway day in the future, but regularly and cyclically? What if the best way to understand ourselves is not by finding the job that propels us to glory, but a place to belong?

Rest as Positive Good, Not Absence of Work

It is impossible to overstate the necessity of work in a Christian understanding of identity. In the beginning, says our creation narrative, God put man in the garden “to work it and keep it.” The first man was a gardener before he was anything else. The commission given to both man and woman to accomplish together, their original purpose that existed before any hint of evil invaded, was to “fill the earth and subdue it”. Or to put it more bluntly: get busy. Humans were created for work—and commissioned to work before the entrance of sin into the world—which means that there is a way to work that is Godly, right, and good for flourishing. There is an edenic way to work.

And yet it’s a grave error to mistake the necessity of work as an excuse to forget rest. It’s true that in Genesis 1, only one day is given to rest, and six are given to work, but it is not because work is more significant. The Sabbath day is the one called “holy” and set apart by God, a reflection of his own character. Rest is not the servant of work, as if the only reason it exists is to get back to the important things like building and doing. Rest is doing, but of a different kind than work. The seventh day is the completion of work: without rest, work is unfinished. This is something that the Jewish tradition has always emphasized in their obedience to the Sabbath, as Abraham Joshua Hesechel explains in his work The Sabbath:

The words: “On the seventh day God finished His work” (Genesis 2:2), seem to be a puzzle. Is it not said: “He rested on the seventh day”? “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth” (Exodus 20:11)? We would surely expect the Bible to tell us that on the sixth day God finished His work. Obviously, the ancient rabbis concluded, there was an act of creation on the seventh day. Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha (rest) was created on the Sabbath… [meaning] here something much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain or activity of any kind. Menuha is not a negative concept but something real and interestingly positive.

The edenic way to work is to finish with rest, a different kind of work, the completion of work. But what does this kind of “positive” rest look like?

There are two Hebrew songs that help us gain a better picture of work and rest as positive concepts: Psalm 127 and 128. Both are part of a larger collection called “the Songs of Ascent”, which were songs sung by ancient Israelites as they journeyed to Jerusalem for feast, festival, and sacrifice. In essence, these are songs of identity, given in order to establish a kind of national ethos.

So what was the identity of the Israelite worker? Psalm 127 sings:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.

Although this Psalm is attributed to Solomon, The word “vain” is different from what is commonly translated as “vanity” in Ecclesiastes, where “vanity” is the word “havel”, which means breath or wind. According to Ecclesiastes, life is “vanity” in the sense that it is elusive and hard to pin down—but not in the sense that it is purposeless or meaningless. The kind of work presented here, Godless work, is true vanity: it is Sisyphus, the man punished by the gods to spend eternity rolling a large rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down every time. The word is “shav”, meaning deceit or falsehood. Ultimately vanity is a trick, a deceit. We think we are working hard to accomplish some good end, but the truth is that our work is useless in the end, it gets us nowhere.

If work that is done apart from God is vain, so is rest, as 127:2 teaches.

It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

There is a kind of work that is futile, and the reward or completion of that work, the “bread,” is not rest but anxiety. The reason is that God not only must be the one blessing work, but the one blessing rest, since God is the giver of sleep. Rest then is not a reward for due labor—like a much deserved vacation where we cease from working—rest is a gift given from God as the completion of labor that is done in his name and with his help.

Psalm 128:2 gives a picture of this rest, speaking of a time when “you shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands, you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.” This Biblical picture of rest, or blessedness, is the opposite of idleness. It’s not sitting on a beach and being waited on, it’s not enjoying the hard work of someone else, it’s enjoying the fruit of your labor. Rest is not an absence of work or a ceasing of work, but an enjoyment of the fruit of work that is not in vain.

So what is rest, positively speaking? It’s not entertainment, amusement, or idleness. It’s enjoyment: that moment of peace and rest when you admire a job well done, that feeling of stepping back after putting the finishing touches on a great meal, an oil painting, a woodworking project, and enjoying the product of our sub-creation. If rest was idleness, an omnipotent God would have no need of it. But God sabbaths because, in surveying his creation, he creates time to say “It is good.” He sabbaths, and teaches us to keep sabbath, in order to experience blessing. Like God, we rest not just to charge up for more work, but to say, in the language of Psalm 128, “it is well.”

This kind of “wellness” is not just material blessing, it’s a wellness of soul, an identity that is not rooted in what we accomplish but in what we cultivate and enjoy. The image of children around the table is purposeful, since children are literal “fruit”, a piece of your identity that has multiplied and lasts far longer than the product of your hands. In the end, the work that lasts, the work that we can find identity in, is work that produces living things.

Work as Cyclical, Not Linear

The Christian way to work first starts with recognizing again that the goal of work is not idleness but enjoyment of fruit. You don’t work in order to stop working, you work in order to cultivate God’s world, to make it fruitful. Notice the language of fruit in these two psalms. In 127:3, children are the “fruit” of the womb. In 128:2, we eat the “fruit” of labor. In 128:3, the wife of the blessed man is like a fruitful vine. This does not just mean she bears children, but that she is beautiful—full of life—that everywhere she goes her work is to be a conduit to  life, like water and nutrients flow from a vine and make fruit. The children of the blessed family are like olive shoots: rich, full, fruitful products.

Ingrained into our cultural psyche is the idea that work is more about building structures than cultivating fruit. This is most evident in our fascination with retirement. Although there is nothing foolish about saving for an imminent future in which you may be too old to work effectively, there is something inherently foolish in working yourself to the bone until some far away day when you are too tired to enjoy any of it. Remember, work is not something evil to be conquered through the salvation of a weighty 401k.

A typical cultural image of work is that of the ladder. “Climbing the ladder” is synonymous with success, just as “higher” is considered better. A visceral example of this is the 1875 print by Currier and Ives, very popular in schools and homes for the better part of 30 years. In the print, the moral and upright citizens are separated from the common rabble given over to gambling. The way to achieve the blessed life, the “fruit” of riches and favor from God, is by going higher on the ladder. The first step, not surprisingly, is “industry”. Hard work is the means to an eventual blessing on the other side.[3]

We might call this vision of work linear. It involves building structures in order to reach a future reward. There is real fruit involved, but the fruit is attained by climbing and building rather than cultivating and growing. In a very real sense, this vision of work is a sure-fire way towards real gain. When we work hard, climb fast, and build bigger, we do get real fruit. The problem is that this kind of work is unsustainable. More often than not, the fruit that we achieve in this model is the fruit of someone else's careful cultivation. What happens when all the fruit from the tree is gone? Even more so, what happens when you reach the top? If mankind is created to work, are we less human when we have achieved through hard work the reward of not working? Mankind tried the structural solution at Babel, and it did not go well.

When we center work as industry in this way, we also forget and leave behind those who are unable to work in the way that we see as valuable. Because the blessing and rest is found at the end of a long climb, there is no guarantee that everyone will get there. Notice in the image the “lazy” workers are striking. The obvious conclusion is that a desire for justice for those who cannot climb the ladder of success is the fastest way to fall off yourself. In the linear vision of work, it’s every man for his hard-working self.

There is another way to work, and rest, that is far more biblical: the way not of climbing but of growing. Instead of linear and structural, it is cyclical and involves cultivating fruit.

For lack of any cultural image, I’ve made my own. Notice the linear version on the left. Once the “structure” has been built, there is idleness that poses as rest, but is really vanity. The only thing left to do is go back to building and toiling.

But in the image on the right, fruit comes from careful cultivation, not climbing a ladder. It requires more patience and more skill. There are no shortcuts to sub-creation. Ultimately, it requires dependence on God.

Fruit is entirely different from structures. Fruit is alive, buildings aren’t. Anytime we build bigger, better houses or businesses or bank accounts, the purpose should be to support the fruit, which is the work of our life that is alive: parenting, being a friend, joining a church. Fruit requires cultivation, but is ultimately driven by spiritual forces outside of our control. Paul talks about this as his own work as an apostle. He isn’t better than any other apostle or teacher, say Apollos. He tells the Corinthian church: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives growth.” We don’t build, we just plant, water, prune. Even God himself is the master gardener, we are just “sub-gardeners”! Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers labor in vain.

This imagery in Psalm 127:1 ascribes the action to God, saying he is the one to “build” the house and watch over it. What kind of house does God build? That is answered in Psalm 128—it’s a living house—a people, a family. No mention of wealth, buildings, bank accounts or business dealings, and certainly no ladders. God’s house is not a structure to be erected but a people to be planted, watered, and harvested. The picture of blessing is not a place of power or personal glory, but a family table; a household, not just a house.

I can’t help but think of the church. The people of God must be those who work in such a way that produces spiritual, material, and sustainable fruit in the world. We should not be tricked into working for that which cannot satisfy. When God set out to build a house, he did it his way. He didn’t send a builder, he sent a son, a living heir. Our hope has always been in God’s provision of a Son, something we could never do ourselves. And the Son didn’t come to build a fortress or a castle, but a family to feast around a table. Through his death and resurrection, God’s Son was like a seed planted in the ground to die. God brought the rain, the Spirit, and he built his house for us, so that we can be welcomed into his house and put to work in his field.

Rest is not what happens when work is done, rest is what happens when the work is valuable. Which is why we must have an answer to the question: Is all our labor in vain? This is the gospel solution to our shame in work, that feeling we get when we compare ourselves to others and feel we don't measure up or our work is not as meaningful in God’s sight. If our work was about building our own impressive lives to gain God's favor, surely our shame would be appropriate. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are loved and welcomed already, regardless of the quality of our work, given the place of honor at the table, not the place of shame.

Which leads us to our true identity as Christians who work: created to rest at the table of God after a fruitful day cultivating his garden. When all is said and done, no one will remember the structures we build, or the titles we acquire, if they do not lead to fruit. Our true selves are not found in what we do, but who we are. Or more accurately, whose we are.[4] Whatever we do, whether work or rest, we are first and finally honored servants in the garden-house of God. Which is, by definition, edenic.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/10/toll-job-loss

[2]https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/finding-rest-in-a-restless-world-with-andy-crouch/id1594454747?i=1000615500944

[3] The Ladder of Fortune, pub. by Currier and Ives, New York, 1875.
[4] Andy Crouch also brings this out in his book The Life We're Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World. “When modern Americans meet someone for the first time, we quickly ask, ‘So what do you do?’ But well-born Romans did not ask that question because in Roman society the question was not what but who—not your occupation but your relations.”

Drake Osborn

Drake Osborn serves as the Pastor of Teaching and Liturgy at Grace Church in Waco, Tx where he lives with his wife and children.