The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING OF WORK

Delivered 9/2/01
Text: Genesis 2:1-8, 15
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A Christian Understanding of Work...an appropriate topic for a Labor Day weekend. If most Christians were asked for their understanding of work, they probably would say WE OUGHTA. Those words we just read from Genesis are clear in saying that, from the very beginning, God planned for us to work: work was a part of God's good creation. Martin Luther said, "God gives every bird its food, but he does not throw it into the nest."

Our society can buy that. Kennan Wilson, the founder of the Holiday Inn chain said, "I believe to be successful, that you have to work at least half a day - it doesn't make any difference which half, the first twelve hours or the last twelve hours!" As someone has wisely noted, the only place success comes before work is the dictionary.

Now, I could throw in a few Horatio Alger stories of mail boys who, through hard work, rose to become CEO or Abe Lincoln, through hard work, moving from the log house to the White House, and we would have a nice commencement address. But those of us who have been around the block once or twice know there is more to the story than that.

During the 1960 Democratic Presidential primaries, Senator Kennedy visited a mine in West Virginia. If you recall, one of the issues in that campaign was whether this son of Massachusetts privilege would ever be able to identify with the problems of the common folk. One of the miners there that day asked him, "Is it true that you're the son of one of our wealthiest men?"

Kennedy admitted that this was true.

"Is it true that you've never wanted for anything and had everything you've wanted?"

"I guess so."

"Is it true you've never done a days work with your hands all your life?"

Kennedy nodded.

"Well, let me tell you this," said the miner, "you haven't missed a thing!"(1)

One of most common responses to work crises in our generation is to blame us Protestants, and in particular the hard-working Puritans who are our American religious forebears.(2) The phrase "Protestant work ethic" (or sometimes PURITAN work ethic) is used to cover a whole range of current ills - the workaholic syndrome, drudgery, competitiveness, worship of success, materialism and the cult of the self-made Donald Trump-type person. It has become such an axiom that the Puritans started all of this, that we might be shocked to learn that the so-called "Protestant work ethic" is in many ways the opposite of what the Puritans actually believed about work. Let me take a few moments this Labor Day weekend to explain their position because, for the most part, they are right on the button when it comes to a truly Christian understanding of work.

First, the Puritans declared the sanctity of all honorable labor. Hugh Latimer, in a sermon before England's King Edward VI, said, "Our Savior Christ was a carpenter, and got his living with great labor. Therefore, let no man disdain...to follow him in a...common calling and occupation." For the Puritans, all of life - including work of any kind (not just church work) - belonged to God.

Part of that understanding for the Puritans said something about the QUALITY of work. If our work belongs to God, how dare we do shoddy work? Addison Leitch, who used to teach at Pittsburgh Seminary wrote not long before he died about how he made himself unpopular at a college convocation at the end of a semester when everyone was getting ready to go home for the holidays. "Suppose," Dr. Leitch said, "that the last man to check out the jet plane on which you will fly home did his job just as faithfully as you have done yours here during the last semester." A groan went up from the assembled students. Uh-huh. Rightly understood, the daily job is a daily offering to God.(3)

Another belief of the Puritans concerned the motivation and goals of work. The rewards of work, according to the Puritans, were spiritual and moral, not simply financial. Our own John Calvin said that we know that men were created to busy themselves with labor for the common good - not simply to get rich.

One more legacy the Puritans left us concerning work was a sense of moderation. The Puritans were not workaholics. In a day when moonlighting and multiple incomes for families have become the rule, we might benefit from listening to the advice of Richard Steele, another old Puritan preacher, when he writes, that a person ought not to "accumulate two or three callings merely to increase his riches." The goal of the Puritans was moderation.

In an old issue of Presbyterian Survey, there is an intriguing article entitled, "If God Isn't A Workaholic, Maybe We Shouldn't Be!"(4) The column says, "Imagine it, God has created the sky, the seas, the animals of the fields and forests, the birds and fishes and ants and bees, cockroaches and people. Then God says, `I just don't feel like working today! I believe I'll have some fun.'

"And so God created some fun things. Baseball for one; except that baseball eventually required the invention of catcher's masks and Louisville Slugger bats and such. All of which God put off until it was time to work again. And monkeys, it seems certain that God created monkeys for fun, except sometimes monkeys act like people which surely must not be much fun for the monkeys. Hugging. Yes, hugging...that was one of God's better creations that fine day - hugging. Spring...surely God created Spring for fun. Not the Spring that causes people to get their muscles all sore and hands all full of blisters from trying to rearrange what God planted...but Spring with fluffy clouds and lazy afternoons and balmy evenings and which, as a bonus, gives a start to all the loveliness that is Autumn."

The article goes on...."It may even be that God created Presbyterians for fun, except that like some of God's other good creations, they began to take themselves so seriously that they were mostly no fun to God, and in fact, were so serious, that the very thought of fun made them nervous." Hmm.

The article concludes, "God gave us minds and muscles to work with, and certainly we work-driven Presbyterians do our share of that. But God also gave us gifts like baseball and monkeys and Autumn and other things that are called fun. And especially on a holiday called Labor Day, we ought to try glorifying God by enjoying them." Well said.

A truly Christian understanding of work will accept some facts:
  • that God made work a part of life;
  • our work and the way we do it is a response to God;
  • our motivation for work is the service of God and the public good (not simply money);
  • our approach to work requires a balance between laziness on the one hand and being workaholics on the other.
Finally, we recall the splendid invitation of the one who, in his own carpenter shop, sanctified work for all of us. When it finally gets to be too much, and we feel like there is no going on, his words echo down through the corridors of time: "Come unto me all you who labor and are carrying heavy burdens. And I will give you rest."

Amen!


1. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1985), p. 327

2. For an excellent treatment of this subject, see Leland Ryken, "Puritan Work Ethic: The Dignity of Life's Labors, Christianity Today, 10/19/79, pp. 14-19. Much of the above material is from this source.

3. Bruce Shelley, "Why Work?", Christianity Today, 7/14/89, p. 18

4. Vic Jameson, "Musings," 9/90, p. 2

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