Work and Worship
As a Christian, I want my faith to be the most important thing in my life, informing and coloring all I say and do.
As an MIT student, I spend an obscene number of hours a week working on problem sets. Working about as diligently as all my non-Christian friends.
I love what I study as a physics major. My biggest frustration is that I won’t be able to take more classes before I graduate… and I’ve still got 3 semesters left. I wish I were one of those people who could take 6 classes a semester, not so that I could double major but just because there’s so much to learn.
While clearly not in conflict a priori, these two spheres of life have their own distinct cultures, their own separate languages, and even their own unspoken value systems. Even when they sometimes seem to dictate the same action (“work hard in school”), the framework providing the motivation is different (“work hard as working for the Lord” as opposed to “work hard in order to understand the material…and for the grade”). These motivations slowly shape the way we view our work and ultimately ourselves, and only one can dominate. Sure, you can’t serve two masters if one is good and the other is evil, but you also cannot serve two masters simply because there are two of them. It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain two primary mental/spiritual languages.
I suspect this implicit tension may be a big reason why so many Christians either walk away from the faith during college or put it on the far back burner. They are simultaneously unmoored from their previous life and immersed within a culture that has its own set of values that are not explicitly Christian. Those values may even be good things, but they are not explicitly Christian, and they eventually crowd out the old perspective. As the new framework takes up more and more of their mental bandwidth, their old values just begin to feel less real. I’ve felt this many times myself.
If this is correct, then we need to find in Christianity a framework that can include things like school work and careers, and not just in the sense of passively leaving room for them, but of actively motivating them.
This shouldn’t be too hard. Jesus died for the life of the world, not just to save souls out of the world. Our work (I will use work as a synecdoche for the whole work-school-career-culture framework we find ourselves surrounded in, since it takes up the most time of these at MIT) is part of the the fabric of that life of the world, and therefore is something that Jesus is planning on restoring. As new creations ourselves (see 2 Cor 5:17, for example), our work should taste of the cosmic renewal that we ourselves are caught up in. It is not just something we do on the side while we wait for Him to return, but is included in that very redemptive process that began at the resurrection. His kingdom must provide the motivation for the fact of our work, as well as its manner and results.
After talking with my pastor and several other important mentors, I’m beginning to synthesize a few ideas about what it means to approach our work from this kind of uniquely Christian perspective. In thinking through this, three frameworks have served as lenses for my thoughts: the book of Ecclesiastes, Alexander Schmemann’s idea of sacraments from his book For the Life of the World, and Herman Bavinck’s idea of grace restoring nature.
I want to start discussing Ecclesiastes from what it says about God rather than about man. Within the context of a God-centered vision of life, its various claims about the human experience will make more sense. Regarding God, there is one main theme in Ecclesiastes: He is to be feared. “God is in heaven, and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few….God is the one you must fear” (5:2,7). “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). The Lord is in control, reigning as a king, and ours is to see His governance rather than presuming to reign ourselves. Wisdom realizes its place, “that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun,” which is the work of God (8:17). Though He rules by convoluted ways and leads by mysterious paths, patient trust is our part, for we cannot see what He is doing (7:13-14). “You do not know the work of God who makes everything” (11:5). We are to live our lives knowing that God reigns and will bring all of our actions into judgment (11:9, 12:14). This requires of us a humble faithfulness in all our ways (5:4, 12:13-14). His reign requires that we serve Him in humility, trusting his providence and living our lives in daily faithfulness.
This is especially seen in one of the sub-themes of Ecclesiastes, the existence of injustice and oppression on this earth. The answer to this evil is always the fact that the Lord reigns and will finally judge all men. Just as all things have their time, so God delays the judgment of the wicked until the time that shall most suit his ends (3:17). Though the wicked flourish for now, it will ultimately go well with those who fear the Lord (8:12-13). When the book ends with the comfort (!) that God shall judge every deed, we are not the accused, but rather our enemies are! God’s judgment in this usage is not personal justice on each person but rather His salvific vindication of His people against their foes (CS Lewis makes a similar point in Reflections on the Psalms). He reigns justly; we wait on Him in faith.
From this humble patience springs the attitude with which we approach our toil. In comparison with God’s eternal reign, our works are to be considered vanity, mist, vapor. This should not be understood as meaningless or pointless in the sense a nihilist might use the terms, but rather as small or, perhaps especially, transient and fleeting. Man is not given to know what will come after him, and therefore is to be faithful in his day-to-day life, rather than letting ambition drive him to strive after the wind. The kingdom will always progress and grow, and our part in that growth may be, from some perspective, large (whether as a revival leader or a great physicist or an inventor who improved the quality of life of thousands of people), but we are to consider ourselves unworthy servants, humble and faithful in whatever role we find ourselves, no matter how small.
If we see this vanity as specifically temporal in nature (“transient”), then it speaks to something more like the folly of viewing life in terms of a progression of gain in wealth or honor. This also resonates with the metaphors used in the poetic beginning of chapter 1: rivers flow again to whence they came, and promotions put the same man into a new place that is really not that new at all. Throughout the Preacher refers again and again to the lack of gain in human ventures: Solomon’s labors are more fruitless than inherently worthless (though things become worthless when we pursue them only for gain), and one of the evils under the sun is that a man cannot see what will be after him; all human ambition must fail even as all men must die. The book ends by reminding us of our old age and death. No matter our apparent progress, we do not finally ascend to play God, to see the whole picture; but rather we are faithful in our little share of the world, fearing God and keeping His commandments.
That the thesis of the preacher is not the inherent pointlessness of all things is crucially demonstrated when the preacher says that God has made everything beautiful in its time (3:11). Creation is to be understood as good. Man’s work and toil are beautiful in their place. Nothing is without value; but everything here is small and temporary. On the other hand, “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor can anything be taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before Him” (3:14). The proper response to creation (Ps 19) and to the realization of our own smallness is worship.
In our toil, this worship takes the form of joy in work. This is the conclusion Solomon comes to when he finds that all endeavors fail to provide gain in the final account (2:24-25), and this exhortation becomes the refrain of the book (3:12, 22, 4:6, 5:18-19, 8:15, 9:7-10, 11:7-9). Rather than work because of what we can get out of it, our work becomes a way to embrace the beauty in all things in their time, and thus is a source of joy for the one who seeks it even in the everyday monotony of toil. This is our lot, and therefore we labor earnestly at our work with all our might (9:10), not as a covetous striving (note the warning in 4:4) but as a means of our joy in God’s good world. Tranquility rather than anxiety is the result (4:6).
Note that many of these passages lay the foundation for this exhortation on the nature of God’s gift to man. Though the quality of man’s lot is in question from the beginning happiness in what He has given us is the truest means of joy in this fleeting world. This joy goes with us all our days (8:15), even though there is evil, oppression, and the specter of death looming over us all.
So, then, Ecclesiastes gives us the beginning of our answer: we honor God in our work by approaching it with patient faithfulness rather than ambition for selfish gain (of which there can be none in the end) and with joy that He has made all things good in their time and blessed us in our toil. Our high view of God leads us to wait on Him, who has blessed our work and will reign over all things wisely until the time when He shall vindicate those who patiently serve Him.
This still leaves a lot to be filled in: why is our work important to God? Are we playing a small part in His good reign that tends towards the restoration of all things, or are we biding our time, simply waiting for His judgment? How are we to see God in our work, and how is it construed as a blessing to us?
I want to start addressing these by considering thankfulness. As persistent as the theme of gift is, I find it interesting that gratitude is not more often mentioned as a virtue that Ecclesiastes values. In our understanding of the whole of Scripture, however, the ideas presented must lead us to thankfulness for God’s specific goodness to us, a thankfulness which is indeed not so far from worship. Thanksgiving and praise are paralleled frequently in Scripture, not least in the well-known Psalm 100. They are caught up together in the idea of blessing the Lord (here I begin to borrow from Schmemann; see more below) which is found all over the Psalter.
The idea of gift in Scripture goes all the way back to Genesis 1:29: “I give to you every seed bearing plant…” Man was clearly made king in the garden in being given dominion; he was also made priest in this new temple, a palace servant in God’s magnificent new dwelling. He is the image and vice-regent of God, the self-conscious part of creation that directs the praise of nature towards the One who made all things—a sort of cosmic worship leader. His service consisted of tending the garden given to him. In ordering and nurturing to a full, mature beauty all the works of the Lord that were graciously given to him, he would magnify the One who makes all things beautiful in the fullness of time and thus crown the Lord’s gift to him by offering it back to God, magnificent and complete (note the parallels to Christ’s work in the church, 1 Cor 15:24-28, Jude 24, Ephesians 5:25-27).
In doing so, man will come to know God fully, for all creation reveals God in His glory. As Adam walked with God over the years, he would have grown in wisdom, knowing the character of God ever more intimately, and thus growing in his worship of the Lord. As this relationship deepened, every taste of the Lord’s goodness in the food given him would have evoked deeper gratitude and every sunrise would result in more praise and worship. In For the Life of the World, Schmemann writes:
All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that he makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’
This communion proceeds in Adam’s interaction with creation: he is to name the animals as part of having dominion over them, and “to name a thing is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God.” Thus all of Adam’s work and toil was to be a means to bless God in thanks and praise by connecting each thing back to the God who is revealed therein. Life ought to be one perpetual act of worship by the cosmic priest:
He stands at the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.
It is worth remembering that the word eucharist (not used here specifically for the Lord’s Supper) comes directly from the Greek word for giving thanks.
What Schmemann means becomes more clear if we understand his view of sacraments in general. They are not something discontinuous with the whole of the life of the church, and can only be understood in liturgy. They are not magical, but nor are they merely visual aids. In them God is really present and active, but not in a way independent from the symbolic nature of the sacraments. Schmemann uses the language of epiphany, describing when one thing “expresses, communicates, reveals, manifests the ‘reality’” of another thing. This sacrament is not distinct from the way nature is supposed to reveal God, but differs in its explicitness and its relationship to the New Covenant. In sacrament we have a real participation in the thing that is therein made present. The institution of bread and wine as sacrament does not make them into something they were not, but rather redeems them from the opacity of the shroud of death that lies over the earth and fulfills them in tying them directly to Christ, who was from the beginning the One to Whom all things pointed and in Whom all things hold together (Col 1:17). (Sidenote for theology nerds: Schmemann, an Eastern Orthodox priest, sees in the doctrine of Transubstantiation the root of much modern confusion not only over sacrament but over the whole nature of the sacred and its relationship to creation. The Orthodox just consider the Eucharist to be a divine mystery, rather than seeking to explain the process by which the bread and wine become Jesus’ flesh and blood.)
Thus creation is inherently sacramental (on this understanding of the term), in that by Creation we are always face-to-face with our Lord in a very real and direct way, rather than merely insofar as we make a mental leap from symbol to idea. His presence presses in on believer and unbeliever alike, for in all things He is revealed. There is no pantheism because the distinction between Creator and created always remains; yet the created does mediate between the creature and the Creator. The faithful priest goes through the world in communion thereby with the God who gives life and reveals Himself therein. An overly spiritualized faith which has no use for the tangible things of the world, but only for ideas, is thus a rejection of our priestly calling. Either all of life is sacred, or none of it is.
As distant as Eastern Orthodoxy is from Reformed Presbyterianism, similar ideas can be found throughout the works of the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. Much of his thought returns to the theme that “grace restores nature”—that is, that creation is inherently good, and is not abandoned by redemption but is thereby brought to its full measure. Grace does not replace or add to nature, in a way that is perhaps best exemplified in the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, where heavenly food replaces earthly food as flesh replaces bread. Neither does grace retreat from nature, as if the greatest dream of the Christian were simply to leave this sin-stained world. No, all things are being made new (Rev 21:5).
This means Christ’s ultimate and final work is not to return man to a static state of “peace” with God, but rather, having secured that peace, to finish what Adam failed to do. Creation will be restored and further tended till it is a bright mirror of its Maker. The life given to man will be fulfilled in turning all pursuits of culture to their original aim: the greater glory of the Lord.
Bavinck follows Calvin in seeing in Christianity “not merely a principle of new spiritual life, but also an element, the most important element, of culture; to him, the Gospel was good news for all creatures, including family, society, scholarship and art.” Because of its very nature, the work of Christ must be reflected in the lives of believers in such a way that the faith-relation with Christ constitutes not only the decisive pre-condition but also the driving force for the unfolding of created reality in meaningful cultural work. The faith-relation with Christ is primary. Man must first become a son of God again, before he can become a “cultural creature” in the true sense of the word. But once he is son of God, he can also dedicate himself to culture again. With evident agreement he [Bavinck] quotes the epigrammatic words of Johann Christoph Blumhardt to the effect “that man must be converted twice, first from the natural to the spiritual life, and thereafter from the spiritual to the natural life.” The disciples of Christ do have a calling to bear their cross, to deny themselves, and to follow their Master, but not to practice asceticism and otherworldliness. They must adopt a positive attitude toward earthly life.
In our daily labor, regardless of what it is, we somehow work to redeem this world.
This, then, is how we approach our daily work. This perspective gives a specificity to the way in which we “work for the Lord, not for men.” All things were made good, were made holy, were made a means of man’s knowing God, even of knowing Him intimately, not just propositionally. Therefore there is no human activity (leaving aside the criminal and explicitly immoral) that cannot be fashioned to this end. This fashioning does not consist in turning away from the task in prayer, but in embracing the task as it was meant to be. This might not even seem to change the moment-by-moment experience of working; it doesn’t change the equations of physics, the syntax of Java, or the way laundry machines work. By coloring our purpose, renewing our minds, and reclaiming our attitudes, however, the whole time of work can become an act of worship, a pleasing and acceptable offering to the Lord.
First, we work with joy, based on the conviction that all is gift. Our work is invariably a manifestation of God’s blessing on us. For some of us, it might be a job that keeps food on the table or gives us more than merely our daily bread. For MIT students it might be the talents and interests He has given us, the amazing opportunity that studying at MIT is, and the future opportunities that this will lead to. Other times it might be the opportunity to serve those we love, or simply to do what we love. Once we realize the all-encompassing nature of God’s provision, there is no work that cannot be seen as a manifestation of God’s kindness to us, and therefore no work that should not spark our gratitude and joy.
More often than not, though, our work brings to our minds more gifts. If we work for the sake of our family, then they are a manifestation of God’s kindness. If we study black holes, then we are awed by the Lord of majesty as we see the order and power of creation and humbled by the lowly place of man, to whom much has been given. If we invent new mathematical concepts, we rejoice in the gift of intellect. Many jobs are direct opportunities to serve and thereby to be conformed to the Image of Christ, the great end of all man.
Second, we work with the conviction that our work is holy, because creation is holy. I can think of no work which is not in some way a taking dominion over the earth and seeking to fill it—and even if I could, God has deeper vision than we. Therefore all work is obedience and one step in the journey to the great garden-city. None of us can see the destination or see how large of a step we contribute, but here is where the humble, trusting patience of Ecclesiastes comes in—though we do not see, we rejoice in our portion, content to fear God in all our ways.
Third, we work with the hope that we will thereby grow to know God more. In one sense, this is because work can be a means of sanctification—Bonhoeffer argues that work grows us by freeing us from a selfish focus and thus is a means of liberation for us. If it is hard, it trains us to lay down our lives for others; if it is mindless, it is opportunity to pray; if frustrating, a forge for patience; if in this world, a battlefield for the growth of the Christian soldier.
But this growing in the knowledge of God also comes simply from interacting with His world. His providence is broader than the vistas that come to mind when we say the heavens declare the glory of God, and the humble soul that prayerfully seeks to find Him will learn of His ways in any vocation. This might be as simple as remembering the morning’s devotional passage throughout the day, or it could mean being struck by the generosity of a coworker. Bavinck writes that mankind as a whole images God in a way no one person can—therefore we learn of Him from all those around us. It could also mean learning something about ourselves that leads us to see God in a new way, or just dramatically seeing an aspect of God’s character through something that we might have called mundane were we not convinced that all the earth is by design holy to the Lord. In hope of all these things, we work with a desire to know God better at the end of the day than at the beginning.
While we do not wish to replace work with prayer, it seems that if our goal is really to know God better, we will almost instinctively address ourselves to Him in little moments of distraction throughout the day. Yet rather than be a distraction, these prayers would only result in turning our focus more fully to our work. Rather than stealing us away to another world, these prayers would remind us of the purposeful presence of God with us, directed towards our work, to which we are thus driven as good.
In all this we work for the Lord and not for men. We address all our work to God, even when we do not see the specific path between problem sets and the Kingdom. We are wary of working for the praise of men or even seemingly innocuous goals of self-improvement and the like, for to make the world no longer a gift from God to us for our deeper communion with Him is to create a secular world which does not answer to His reign and is not purchased by His redemption.
This does not mean that we reject or disrespect our bosses. In fact, the immediate context of Paul’s command to work for the Lord and not for men is His command for slaves to obey their masters. We honor our fellow men more when we do so for the sake of Christ. Though our thankfulness should reshape our motivations for working and the manner of our work, it does not have to punctuate every sentence or equation we write. Things can be done in themselves without being constantly spiritualized—to be unable to do a problem set without simultaneously praying for a friend, to be unable to drink a glass of orange juice without breaking out into a hymn afterward, is actually to repudiate God’s good world and swallow up the physical earth in the spiritual realm. We are not Gnostics. The reality of God’s presence and reign redirects all things and thereby reconstitutes them after the manner of the new creation, and in doing so reinforces rather than violates their sanctity in themselves. The change in the quality of the work, even if not perceptible in any snapshot of time, is now totally different for the task has been placed in the new world.
We must remember in all of this that in order to renew our work we must be new creations ourselves. Gone must be all complaining or arguing, grumbling against God’s provision. The very simplest and best way to do this is to have a determination to serve anyone encountered in the day as Christ would. Love and humility thus pervade the task, and must govern it if it is to be a new creation work. Work that can be abandoned to joyfully serve another and then resumed with thanksgiving is work that honors God. As Bonhoeffer says in Life Together:
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest—perhaps reading the Bible—passed by the man who had fallen among robbers.
Especially at MIT, it is all too easy to let work take on its own supremacy.
To close, I want to connect all human activity to the actions of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper (this idea came from a conversation with one of my high school teachers, Mr. Northup): He took, gave thanks, named (in the language of the new covenant kingdom), distributed, and fulfilled. So too we can sit down to our task, give thanks, proclaim the end of our work in the new creation, perform the task of reassigning/reorganizing/restructuring/recreating, and finally bring all this to its end in Jesus. In thus consecrating our work we make of it a thank offering to the One who gave us all, and by giving to Him our life’s work we give to Him our lives. This is the whole for which firstfruits and tithes were the representative part, for which indeed all of our Sunday worship and Bible studies stood. These “tithes” are not the sacred part that makes up for a secular whole, but rather the most direct and explicit way of offering what is offered finally and wholly in all our lives.
“God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” -Eric Liddel
“True education flows from worship and back to worship, because that is how the world really is.” -James Jordan
1 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
2 Alexander Schmemann, Sacrament and Symbol
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Taylor Craig is a junior majoring in Physics who always seems on the verge of adding a Philosophy Minor (if only MIT had more classical philosophy . . .). He is typically up for discussing theology at any hour anyone else is.Tags: academia, Alexander Schmemann, beauty, Calvin, college, CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, education, grace, Herman Bavinck, hope, humility, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, joy, MIT, peace, purpose, university, work