November 14, 2010

Do not be weary in doing what is right

Passage: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:13

13Brothers and sisters,* do not be weary in doing what is right. 

Doing the right thing is not always easy; in our workplaces the pressure from others to cut corners or the way substandard work/effort is overlooked by management discourages us in doing what is right.  The Apostle Paul had work in mind when he encouraged us not the be weary in doing what us is right.  In this message we reflect on doing what is right with respect to our work.


It was in 2004 the news story appeared; Florida residents Cat and Harlan Barnard went on strike because their teenage children refused to do their chores.  They moved out of their house and into a tent in their front yard; they refused to cook, clean, or drive for their two children until they shaped up.  The children were surprised when one day they came home and their mother was outside with a sign that read “Parents on Strike”.  Neighbours passed by and shouted words of encouragement; “Good for you! You should put the children outside!’

I was unable to find a follow on story to know if these parents were successful—if you are thinking of using this tactic here it would be important, of course, to make it a summertime project.  Is it important that we teach our children to work?  As you know I grew up on a farm; though I complained and though myself hard-done-by at the time, I am grateful that I was taught both to work and how to work.  (I am sure that there were times when my father and grandfather would have preferred to do things themselves—but they persisted to include my brothers and me; it has been a great benefit to me.)

We can think of plenty of practical reasons for why it is important both to know to work—the skill of getting yourself up to get things done—and how to work—the skills of productivity and a job well done.  But is it right that we do this as Christians?  I point out to you that the Biblical axiom—“do not be weary in doing what is right”—was said in the context of a discussion about work.  True, the axiom can be rightly applied to a broad range of things that are right to do; the clear implication of the text is that working is doing what is right.  To work and earn our own living is to obey our Lord, says Paul.

It was only 150 years ago when child labour was commonplace among our European ancestors; fourteen hour work days in mines and factories; in many countries today children are granted no relief.  It seems that we in the Western world have gone the other way on this, perhaps in reaction; it is thought today that children should be free of the burden of financing life right through to completion of a university degree or college diploma.

Culturally speaking, we have this love-hate relationship with work.  On the one hand we value work we love to do; work is valued as long as it is enjoyable.  On the other hand the prize we treasure is the financial freedom to never have to work again.  It was everywhere in the news this week; the story of Quebec poker professional Jonathan Duhamel who won the World Series of Poker title and $8.94 million— “if he wants”, wrote one reporter approvingly— “the Montrealer might never have to work again”.  Conversely, there were no newspaper stories about any of us and how good it is that we went to work on any given day last week and did our work.

1. Is work a good thing? Many regard it as a four-letter word of off-colour variety.  Where do we stand as Christians?

Biblically speaking work is a divine ordinance.  According to scripture God ordains that we work, men and women.  (Homemaking is work; in fact it’s hugely important work, and remains work however divided by spouses.)  Work is as much a part of the God-instituted order as is the earth’s revolving around the sun.  God commands us to work.  His command is a blessing.  Work is therefore good, and good for us in that it enhances our humanness.  God has made us working creatures.

Jesus was a labourer working as a carpenter until 30 years of age.  Paul was a tentmaker.  And since King Saul, royal ruler of all Israel, was found ploughing behind oxen, it’s plain that the Hebrew mind would never disdain work.  The Hebrew mind insists that work is good; God, after all, works himself, and has constituted us working creatures whose humanness is threatened by non-work.  Without work we lack something essential to human wholeness.

It’s for this reason that unemployment is so very serious.  The worst consequence of unemployment isn’t poverty (dreadful as poverty is); rather it’s loss of self-esteem.  As self-esteem evaporates, self-deprecation sets in.  Demoralization follows.  Soon the unemployed feel themselves dehumanized, even disgraced.

2.  So if work is a human good given us by God for our benefit why are we so wearied by work?  Why does Paul have to say “do not be weary in doing what is right” when it comes to this matter of work?  Work appears often to be regarded like diphtheria: to be avoided if at all possible.  Work is spoken of as a curse. People who speak like this have seized half a truth: work itself isn’t a curse, but in a fallen world (according to Genesis 3) work lies under a curse.

When we speak of a fallen world we mean a world that rebels against God; a world that defies him, disdains his way and word and truth; a world that flaunts its disobedience of him.  In such a world work becomes an occasion of frustration, and the workplace a battleground.  God intends work to be the sphere wherein humankind exercises its stewardship of the creation and cooperates under him for humankind’s well-being.  In a fallen world, however, God’s purpose is contradicted, with the result that work becomes the scene of self-seeking and quarrelling, exploitation and rancour.  In a fallen world the blessing of work is riddled with the curse of frustration and hostility.

Someone once said that employers get the unions they deserve.  There is some wisdom to the recognition that extreme is always matched to extreme.  The treatment of workers in the early part of the last century was in many cases despicable—both with respect to wages and working conditions.  If employers behave indefensibly, so do employees.  Few things are more frustrating, not to say costly, than hiring people to do a job only to find that their “protection” allows them to do as little as possible, as slowly as possibly, and as shabbily as possible.

Obviously it’s silly to suggest that employers as a class are demons while employees as a class are angels.  In a fallen world employer and employee alike are going to be exploiters, given the opportunity.

3. It is the fallen nature of our world that makes aspects of work wearisome. As Christians we know that God ordains work to be a human good, an essential ingredient in our humanness, even as we are aware of hostility and conflict in the workplace.  How do we bear witness to our faith in light of this reality?

In this letter Paul wrote: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.”  Is Paul advocating a workaholic’s attitude?  I don’t think so.

Workaholics don’t merely work hard; they work compulsively.  (Plainly a psychiatric assessment) Workaholics are obsessed with work; they work fifteen hours per day, day-in and day-out, sacrificing spouse, children and health.  They need work like the “junkie” needs the drug fix.

What Paul was talking about was the work they did in getting the church established.  Though the scriptures clearly teach that the spiritual leader should be compensated for their work Paul did not insist on this right; instead the church planters found other gainful employment and offered their spiritual work “evenings and weekends”, so to speak.  Special occasions sometimes require special effort.

Workaholism was not the problem at Thessalonica.  It was the opposite end of the spectrum: idleness.  The ultimate paradox and perversity, of course, is the person who works ever so hard at avoiding work.  Some people—misunderstanding Paul’s earlier letter—thought that the world was soon to end.  Why work?  Then as now some sought to live off the largess of others taking advantage of the communal support of the church and other people’s work.  Paul’s approach to them was blunt: “If you don’t want to work, don’t expect to eat.”  God ordains work. It’s good to work. (Paul did not say—if you are not able to work but if you are not willing)

Idleness never leads to anything good; in the church at Thessalonica the idle became busybodies sticking their noses into everyone else’s business.  You all have enough experience in life to know that mischief often increases with increased time on your hands.  Paul may seem harsh here advising to keep away from believers who are living in idleness; I know this that in the workplace when the idleness of some employees is overlooked it discourages the productivity of others.

4.  I invite you to consider something that I suggest is akin to idleness because it expects to “eat”, in a manner of speaking, and have others pay for it.

The Western world has voted itself a lifestyle it is not willing to pay for; this is simply to observe what is obvious—public spending has been financed by borrowing money predicated on ever expanding numbers of working people.  In essence we are buying services for ourselves expecting future generations to pay for it—namely our children and grandchildren.  And we don’t want to give these services up—in France there were riots over the modest proposal of raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.  This week a wage freeze instituted by the government of Ontario was overturned by an arbitrator who found the wage freeze to be “unreasonable” and awarded raises in a dispute with a union representing health care workers.

Our birth rate is such that we are not having enough children to pass this expense to; they cannot afford it either.  This past week Immigration Minister Jason Kenney suggested that Canadians can choose between higher immigration levels or having more children; he leaves out one option, for Canadians to stop spending as a rate that demands population growth.  Isn’t our current policy tantamount to consuming services for ourselves we expect someone else to pay for?  Is this not a near cousin of idleness?  The reason no politician will suggest we stop spending is because we would soon vote them out of office.

This word Paul gives to believers to do their work quietly and earn their own living has much wisdom for promoting life; it is one that governments would be wise to heed and promote.

5. One thing that wearies us with respect to work is some work is especially stress-riddled, or is especially unfulfilling, boring, even mind-numbing.  Some of us work at jobs we find stimulating and rewarding.  We are very fortunate; we are also very few.  Many people work at jobs that don’t use anywhere near their resources and abilities.  We must endeavour to understand the plea of people when they speak of the dehumanization peculiar to their job.

Across the spectrum of our work a fundamental aspect of our Christian witness is both plain and simple: we are to do as good a job as we can.  Integrity in the workplace is bedrock.  A day’s work is to be rendered for a day’s pay, or else our “witness” is no witness at all and we are merely part of the problem.  Paul tells Timothy, a much younger man, that work done should be work of which a worker need never be ashamed.  This kind of work, the apostle continues, “adorns the doctrine of God our Saviour.”  It’s a most unusual notion, isn’t it: what we do conscientiously, consistently, competently in the workplace “adorns the doctrine of God our Saviour.” The quality of our work lends attractiveness and credibility to the truth of God by which we are known.

Additionally it is important that our congregation reflect the gospel truth that work is what people do; work is not who people are.  We must never be seduced into the mentality that sees people as more valuable or less valuable just because the job they do is paid more money or less.  Paul insists that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.  For “neither slave nor free” read “neither minimum wage-earner nor company executive.”

Perhaps these proposals seem modest in combating the turbulence of our work world; our seventeenth Century Quaker foreparents liked to say, it’s always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.  Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.