Last week I began the process of contemplating the meaning and purpose of hard work, and the necessity of giving our boys (and children in general) meaningful work that builds their character and helps them to develop into persons capable of “doing big things.” But there is also a risk involved in this notion of hard work: legalism.
Let’s begin by looking at the idea of work itself. What is work? Is it physical labor? Studying hard for a test or struggling through a difficult book? A job you go to from 9-5? We use the term “work” in many different ways. There can be a huge difference between going to “work” and, say, a “work” of art. The dictionary definition of “work” (as a noun) is “activity involving mental or physical effort in order to achieve a purpose or result.” Interestingly, Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines the word more simply: “Labor; employment; exertion of strength; particularly in man, manual labor.” Notice that Webster’s definition leaves out the “in order to achieve a purpose or result” phrase. I believe this is an important distinction, for several reasons.
When we work only to achieve a purpose or result, the act of the work itself loses its meaning. If we are just looking for a particular result, then it doesn’t matter how we get there as long as our result is produced. The temptation to cut corners, maybe cheat a little here and there, or be generally ambivalent to the task at hand is very present. In addition, physical tasks quickly become drudgery under this kind of mindset. I find myself grumbling about mundane household chores, often because I just want to “get it done” rather than being intentional and present in the work I am doing.
Working only for the sake of achieving a result trains our minds that the value is only in the product, not in the work. Therefore it’s pretty easy to jump into the belief that if our lives do not appear “productive;” if we are not seeing “success;” then the efforts of our lives are not valuable. As a stay-at-home, homeschool mom, many of the jobs we do on a regular basis do not necessarily have tangible “results.” We work constantly at laundry, meals, dishes, cleaning...but the job is never really done! And educating our children? Well, that is a long, slow, steady process. It is most definitely “work,” but often we may not see the results happening; in fact, some days we may even feel like we are losing ground rather than gaining. But that does not mean that our labor is in vain, or even that we are doing something wrong.
From a spiritual standpoint, “works” should be seen as an outflow of the move of the Spirit, not as our means of salvation. Most of you are probably already familiar with Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In a world driven by performance and productivity, this idea can be harder to fully embrace than we might realize. In my mind, I know that my position as a child of God is secure, regardless of the number of “good works” I accomplish. But on a day-to-day basis, I often find myself undervaluing the person God created me to be because outwardly my life doesn’t have the long list of “achievements” that some others have. The key here is obedience, not achievement. If we are walking with God, listening to the direction of his Spirit, and obeying what He has called us to do, that is enough.
Working to produce a result ultimately undermines the imago dei in each of us. We are made in the image of God, and part of God’s nature is to work. The Bible tells us that God worked for six days creating the heavens and the earth. Why did God create the world? It wasn’t because He was lonely, or because He had something to prove, or to earn anyone’s love or approval. He did that work because it is in His nature to work and create. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ’Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Being the caretakers of God’s creation sounds like meaningful work to me. He created us with a natural inclination - and ability - to work.
So, taken as a whole, I would argue that there is, indeed, value in work itself, not merely in the product of our work. But we need to be careful here, because the human tendency is nearly always to rush to extremes. We tell ourselves that work is good, and so we work...and work, and work. When we lose sight of *why* we work - that work is really our response to the move of the Spirit on our hearts and the exercise of our God given gifts - work can become an idol. The other extreme is, of course, sloth or laziness. There have been times in my life (quite recently!) where I found myself swinging dramatically between these two extremes; first “burning the midnight oil,” so to speak, until I had burned myself right out. While a natural rhythm of work and rest is appropriate, this wild swing between all-out work and then no work at all is unhealthy.
The word that most speaks to this balance between sloth and overwork is diligence. The Latin root for “diligence” is the word diligere, which means "single out, value highly, esteem, prize, love; aspire to, be content with, appreciate." Diligence flows out of what we love and value; it is motivated by a deep and abiding recognition of that which is worthy of our affection. To return day after day to the same tasks, the same calling, with joy and contentment, we must believe deep in our hearts that what we are doing is worthy of our time - it must be motivated by our love. Otherwise our work becomes slavery.
“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:27-28
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10
“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe..” Galatians 3:21-22
Clearly love is to be the driving motivation behind our works. Fulfilling our daily “duties” just because we “have” to is like creating our own law for ourselves; we are putting ourselves in our own “prison,” and guaranteeing days filled with guilt when we fall short of our self-imposed law. But God in His Word promises us freedom that can only be found in serving Him in love. When we serve God in love, “work” no longer feels like work...it is the natural outpouring of devotion to our first love.
So...we have covered quite a lot of ground here! We’ve seen that there is value in serving and working for what we love; that work and rest are part of who God has made us to be; and that diligence (as opposed to frenzied work followed by burnout) is key to lasting and consistent productivity. But what does this look like in our home? I’d like to talk just a little bit about how we view and respond to work in our children. We need to be very careful in the way we present work to our children, as well as how we respond to them after they have worked hard or done an exceptionally good job (or maybe a not-so-good job). The temptation here is to reward their work with showers of praise, boasting of what they have done in front of others, etc. I know I have been guilty of this! On the other hand, it can be easy to start tearing them down when they did not do the best job (also guilty). Of course we need to teach them to be diligent and to do their best, but our words need to be spoken in a spirit of love and discipline, not anger. While acknowledging when our children have worked hard, and even sharing it with others when appropriate, is usually a good thing, we need to always guard against our children feeling that their worth as your child lies in their good work. Here’s a few reasons why:
The child can become dependent on constant praise to feel loved and valued; they may turn into a “people-pleaser,” and may do just about anything to get praise from others.
Their sense of self-worth might blow up into pride. They may begin to see themselves as better than everyone else. (And you know that nobody enjoys being around a kid like that!)
They may begin to project the way you treat them onto God. They may feel that they need to do more and more “good things” to earn His favor, or even their salvation.
Next week we will go on to explore one more concept that I have found helpful in finding balance between work and rest: liturgy. You may be wondering what in the world a liturgy has to do with work, but just hold on and stick with me! We’ll explore the ideas of natural rhythms of work and rest, intentionality, and the meaning of leisure. I’m still working through these ideas myself, so I would love to hear from you! A big thank you to the ladies at the Schole Sisters Forum for helping me get some of these thoughts worked out! If you are not a member there, I highly recommend the Schole Sisters community forum. There are some lovely ladies there who are ready to dive into challenging conversations about the things in life that really matter!
Take the next step:
What is your view of work? Are you a workaholic? Do you swing back and forth between work and burnout?
Have you ever felt like you needed to work harder to earn the favor of others: your spouse, friends, or even God?
How is the way you treat work affecting your children?
Do your actions line up with what you love?