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