Mark DeVine is associate professor of history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School.

Page 3 of 5

Video from Work Matters Conference

Posted by Betsy Childs at Thursday, April 24, 2014
Share |

Work Must Serve More than the Bottom Line

By Mark DeVine

I have written about the importance of work and the biblical injunctions against idleness, but should we work for the sake of working? What about workaholism?

I have not read the book Life is not Work, Work is not Life by Robert K. Johnson & J. Walker Smith, but I like the title. A chief aim of this blog is to champion a recovery of the importance and the goodness of work for people of faith. Such a recovery serves the divinely disclosed vision of “the good life,” the “abundant life” meant for humanity from creation and issued afresh and in its fullness in Jesus Christ.
Still, Johnson & Smith’s title provides a needed warning. It expresses both a contrast and a priority in harmony with the teaching of Holy Scripture. Work occupies an essential place in the good life. But that’s the point; work belongs to and must serve life, not the reverse. The world within which Wayne Oates coined the term “workaholic” readily adopted it as an especially fit and needed description of an all-too-common enemy of healthy families and communities—the enemy work becomes when it consumes one’s life.

Warnings about the dangers work poses often issue from the mouths of those who have themselves allowed work to take captive their very souls. Oh the regret! Oh the irretrievably lost time with spouse and children syphoned off through decades of fierce ladder-climbing, networking, all-nighters, and relentless travel, while clawing their way to the top of their professions. At that same summit they remain perched only now poised to assure us “underachievers” that the prominent cushy cultural couch in which they now recline came at a too high a cost. I’m not sure such “lately-enlightened” gurus make the best mouthpieces for the message they bear, but the message borne does bear telling. The antidote to sinful idleness is not workaholism.

Paul’s outrage at the idlers in Thessalonica was not exactly or particularly that the “idlers” were failing to exert themselves. In fact they were exerting themselves—as busybodies. They were busy idlers! The outrage would not be lessened if they had been playing around with poetry or puttering around at polo or even producing some intriguing product nobody was willing to purchase. Paul’s outrage was that, whatever they were doing or not doing; however meaningful or not they or others found their activity or lack thereof, THEY WERE NOT MAKING MONEY and THEY WERE NOT EARNING THEIR OWN LIVING. Their busyness was blameworthy idleness because it failed to serve others and, in fact, burdened others unnecessarily.

But, however despicable are the eating idlers, we must also acknowledge his obverse twin—the workaholic. Though he brings home the bacon and lots of it, his work manages to poison, undermine, and destroy life. “Life” identifies an absolute value; “Work” does not. Work may facilitate life; it may serve life. But it must not be allowed to swallow up life. Work can never be an end in itself. We are all life-aholics aren’t we? We neither need nor want a cure, do we? Even supporters and purveyors of the new politically correct cultures of death usually admit that abortion and euthanasia, while necessary in their view, remain necessary evils.

The workaholic fails in relation to the divine mandate regarding work, not through idleness, but through obsession and possibly idolatrous “serving” of work in the place where work is meant to serve. We must maintain this restriction and circumscribing of work’s meaning in terms of its functional and relational character no matter how high a value might be placed upon the work or the work product. We shall have to explore this relativizing of work’s meaning and place within “the abundant life” in subsequent posts. For now we indicate that this relativizing of the place of work appears already in its primordial and permanent relationship to the Sabbath. 

This blog makes much of the disproportionate time God allots to humanity’s work—“six days [out of seven!] shalt thou do thy work.” But God’s division of time between Sabbath and not Sabbath, rather than between work and not work warns against exaggerated and wrongheaded estimation of work’s place within the created order. The place of work, though essential and profound, is a circumscribed location. Work done by us creatures can claim no inherent worth or value. Our work, by God’s good creation, remains derivative, responsive, instrumental, and relational. It does not stand and ought never be seen to stand on its own. 

Indeed, it is misleading to suppose even that human existence itself (much less the work of their hands) has inherent, intrinsic, or better, “independent” worth. One and only One boasts such independent worth—the triune God, the creator and redeemer of the universe. Every person has their legitimacy, and so their value, only  in relation to the One to whom they belong. There they not only may find legitimacy but may both praise God (Ephesians 1:14) and even win the praise of God himself (1 Corinthians 4:5).

Posted by Betsy Childs at Thursday, March 20, 2014
Share |

First Question—What Does it Pay?

By Mark DeVine

I found it hard to complain much about the dirty, exhausting, and dangerous work in the cotton mills of Upstate South Carolina. I relished what seemed a sort of primal enjoyment the physical exertion itself afforded. Pride in the finished product—high quality, heavy duty, cotton work gloves—also seemed to compete with and limit occasional groaning over sore muscles and deep exhaustion.

But the chief chastiser and squelcher of potential complaint emerged from neither the work product nor the working itself but from a little thing called money. What sustained my “work ethic” and bolstered my weary spirits on the long slog from 4 till 12 pm, Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week every week at age 16 is no mystery—it was the once per fortnight delivery of filthy lucre into my eager hands. It came in the form of a crisp check cut (in those days the checks were literally cut) by the business manager of Arkwright Mills.

I earned three whole dollars above the minimum wage at the Mill and, in time, would earn six dollars above the minimum. We know from the inspired word of God that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and so it proved to be in my case. 

The exhilaration of the receptions of those cut checks sprang from the promise they boasted. And the promise of those bright, pristine, official-looking, fancy signature embossed documents did not dissipate in a flash or even in a few hours. The promises the money made proliferated in my mind, laid hold of my heart, and acquainted me intimately both at once and over time with a whole plethora of truths and lies about money and wealth. That little conversation indulged in by Jesus’ man with the barns makes perfect sense to me.

Most immediately there was just the pure pleasure of the power to purchase and consume. And purchase and consume I did—cheese burgers and milkshakes and that then very recent but spectacular newcomer to the culinary scene—PIZZA! But then there were the more “relational” purchases that promised much more than immediate pleasure—Clearasil and Vitalis to combat those pimples and shine up that hair and support the spine to ask Sharon Green with those green eyes to take my hand and skate the roller rink under dimmed lights, a glittering disco ball, and the illuminated neon “Couples Only” sign. Oh what tantalizing possibilities a few dollars dangle before us!

And then there were the creature comfort purchases to excite the mind and soothe the soul and provide periodic, temporary escape from having to think about my parents’ divorce, my mother’s suicide attempts and her schizophrenia. Here too, money made a path forward through the procuring of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, alcohol, marijuana, hashish, LSD, and cocaine. There would have been no need for eighteen candles on a cake had Crack and Meth been available to me in 1976.

But let’s not go totally dark just yet. The purchase list goes on to big ticket items my Railroad working father could not provide—motorcycles, automobiles and trips to Myrtle Beach where I encountered exotic female creatures from squarish northern states who’d never heard of grits and who spoke with wild accents saying things like “we’re from O-Highey-O.”

Money now begins to dangle the big prize, the one that tells the big lie about wealth. Money promises independence and power over the future. Money lures us into conversations with ourselves that run something like this, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). 

Independence is not only wrong, it is a lie—it is not achievable. The reach for it in the Garden proved abortive. Our utter dependence upon God and mutual interdependence upon each other belong to a permanent structural and irreversible and very good divine design. The fall has not and cannot undo this. Sanctification leads us out of, not into the shiny but sinister mirage of independence and the lies it tells.

But let us be careful here. The same God who remembers and prompts us to remember that “we are dust” and warns the one who “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God,” also insists upon work that earns money—enough money first to take care of ourselves and then to provide for legitimate dependents and others in need (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 5:8). By itself, the idleness of the idlers in Thessalonica cannot account for either the character or the intensity of Paul’s rebuke to both the idlers themselves and their enablers. It was the joining of the idleness with the eating that proved combustible for Paul. The combination is what ticked him off.

Paul might have waxed profound and poetic about the service his tent-making provided to the ubiquitous first-century tent buyers, but he did not. Likewise, sufficient biblical warrant was available for a quick lesson in the imago Dei implications of the tent-making itself. You know, having dominion and keeping the Garden and all. No time or need for that though. Because what Paul couldn’t see but demanded to see first and foremost was not personally meaningful or satisfying labor but simply legitimate work that pays cash money. Paul’s concern here was not for work’s supposed inherent value but for its instrumental purpose; its power as a means to unburden others and so serve the community.

My teenaged love of money exhibits not only a certain exhilarating innocent coming-of-age but also hallmarks of the fall of mankind and original sin. That the love of money is a fruit of all kinds of evil finds adequate confirmation in my own experience. Many pernicious elements permeated my pursuits in those days. But the desire for and expectation of remuneration for work done was not among them. Expectation of fruit from ones’ labor, like everything else, lies under the shadow and curse of original sin—but the promise to prosper the work of our hands was and is God’s idea and remains a vital dimension of divine activity where healthy communities serve one another by providing for themselves, caring for dependents, and serving those in need.

Photo by Tracy O via Flickr
Posted by Betsy Childs at Friday, February 21, 2014
Share |

Un-Burdening Love

by Mark DeVine

“You ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day that we might not be a burden to any of you.”  (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8)

What off-putting words! Aren’t they? Where are Christians admired for such sentiments and speech? If Paul had a wife and talked like this in polite company, surely she would draw him aside and try to teach him a thing or two about how folks tend to receive such braggadocio.

It gets worse. Paul not only sets himself up as a model for imitation but does so in contrast to believers right there in Thessalonica who were idlers eating the food of others. Does he not realize that of course if these idlers had enjoyed the opportunities and benefits Paul obviously had, then sure, they would love to make tents and pay for their own food and forgo deserved pay for preaching. “There but for the grace of God goes Paul, right?” Paul’s strutting around is unseemly and unfounded, is it not?

It’s a fascinating passage on many fronts, not least because of how politically incorrect it sounds today. Paul sets himself up as a model for imitation precisely because he is able to pay and actually does pay his own way among the Thessalonians. Paul makes a big deal here and in 1 Corinthians 9 of his offering the gospel “free of charge”. Some (not many because preachers have to eat too!) have used these scriptures to impugn acceptance of pay by proclaimers of the gospel. But Paul is very clear that his practice involves the forgoing of a right, not the laying down of a rule.

So why do it? In Thessalonica Paul wants to reprimand, shame, and prompt to repentance the idling busybodies who, though they “will not work” still expect to eat. His message essentially is, “Look, I pay for my food. I come here and labor among you as an apostle of Jesus Christ and am due my rightful wages! Yet I take nothing from you. No, I labor at a second vocation with my own hands so as to triply serve you. I preach and I pay and I take nothing for my services.”

It’s a very heavy, blunt, and impolitic message. Idleness alone (the devil’s workshop and all) deserves reprimand. God carves out one day for the cessation of “our work”. The other six exist precisely for the accommodation of that work. “On six days you shall do your work.”

But Paul’s reprimand cannot be comprehended according to the mere inherent perniciousness of idleness and sloth—the mere refusal to work, blameworthy as it is. No. The fire in Paul’s words, his in-your-face tone, requires recognition of a second element. It’s the eating without paying combined with the idleness—that’s what sets him off. “I pay for my food! You do not. You should. You could. But you don’t. And that’s wrong. That’s wrong because you are making yourself an unnecessary burden to others who are paying because someone else does pay for that food and it ought to be you!”
Love, Paul is saying, not only does not behave as do the eating idlers; love does not aid or abet or tacitly approve or tolerate such behavior. Love calls out such behavior. Love says to the idlers “such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” because the burden such eating idlers place upon others does real harm to the community.

At a particularly troubled juncture in the raising of my boys, I agonized over what I could do or say that might benefit them. I am their father after all. From the day of their birth I have known with crystal clarity what I want most for my boys—for them to know and love my Lord. But of course this I cannot ultimately provide. During this difficult time, any direct “Christian talk” would have been utterly unwelcomed by them (they are preacher kids!). But in a flash of insight I realized that, in spite of their rebellious spirits, they did, deep down, covet their father’s respect.

As I reflected upon this I realized what it would take for them to gain my respect. I called them into the living room for one of those heavy, electrically charged talks that must occur from time to time. I first reminded them of my greatest desire and prayer for them—that they know and love my Lord. But I told them that they could know and love my Lord yet fail to win my respect. On the other hand, they could go to their graves without Christ (horrific prospect) but still gain my respect.

How? By becoming men others can count on. Men whose wives, children, and friends can count on. By, insofar as they are able, taking care of themselves and gaining the capacity to provide for their dependents. By doing so they would in fact be offering tangible, substantive and significant love to their communities by not unduly burdening others through any sort of eating idleness. To pay one’s own way through one’s own work is an act of real love. Something here needs recovering among us. Something of the connection between love and working, paying one’s own way, and un-burdening others belongs to communities where “the love of God” and the “steadfastness of Christ” prevails.

Posted by Betsy Childs at Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Share |