I got my first “job” when I was 10 years old. To keep me out of trouble and my babysitter sane, my parents made me clean the gunk out of the cracks on our back deck with a paring knife. With a simple power washer, or even a Shop-Vac, the task would have taken maybe an hour. With a paring knife, though . . . well, more than 20 years later, I’m still not done. My only respites from the digging were afternoon baseball games, where I’d constantly strike out at the plate. It was a great summer.
I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that season solidified my view of work as nothing but toil and trouble. Culturally, we often think of work as a means to an end. It’s the thing we “do” so we can have “stuff.” It’s all about us—our happiness, our needs, and our dreams.
The truth, however, is that work is so much more than a burden. It’s more than what it does for us. It’s more than a product or an end result. Work is a gift. It’s how we serve one another. In a way, it’s a beautiful demonstration of “God with us,” providing for us. As Martin Luther said, “God could easily give you grain and fruit without your plowing and planting, but he does not want to do so. . . . [Our vocations] are the masks of God, behind which he wants to remain concealed and do all things.”
If you ask me, the best way to think about “work” is to think about trees. Yes, trees. Consider, for example, the apple tree. Does an apple tree horde the fruit of its labor? Does it call the police when we scale its limbs or breathe its air? Hopefully, and thankfully, not. Its nature is to give. In a way, it wasn’t created for itself, but for us. Its very existence is service.
Similarly, God created us in his image to work, create, and serve. Our work is not merely about us. The fruit of our labor is meant for the needs and desires of others (Phil. 2:3-4). We are the masks of God, behind which he works to provide for others.
Many times in our work-a-day lives, we come to think of our jobs merely as providing a particular widget or service. We think of our work as one thing we do, that concerns only us, and that stands alone to serve a certain purpose. To a certain extent, this is true. A cashier, for example, scans and bags my groceries, counts my money, and (usually) smiles at me. That’s what the cashier does, and that’s why he or she is rightly compensated. But there’s more to that encounter than a simple exchange; there’s collaboration.
Consider another tree—the oak tree. The fruit of its labor is more than just acorns and wood. A farmer who clears a patch of oak trees from his field creates more space to plant his crops. That, in turn, creates more crops to sell, more food in grocery stores, more money for the farmer, and more opportunities to hire farm hands or fix equipment or send the kids to college or maybe just have a really good time at the local bowling alley.
The wood itself, of course, went to a mill, where other people used their talents to cut, shave, and sand. They were rightly compensated for their work, too. The wood then was shipped to a distributor and purchased by a craftsman. The craftsman chiseled, pounded, sanded, and stained, in order to create a dining room table—a table that will be a place of fellowship for years to come.
In this way, the fruit of the oak tree is more than just wood. The fruit of the oak tree is relationship, collaboration, fellowship, and meaning. In its presence—and absence, too—it contributes to the flourishing of the world.
This is the nature of our work, too. We don’t operate in a vacuum. Whether or not we know it, our work thrusts us into relationship with millions of people for generations to come. From street sweeper to CEO, all our work is a mighty collaboration with millions of others for the life of the world.
In this way, our work points to God’s work; it is collaborative because he is collaborative. The triune God works in community: “Let us make . . . ” (Gen. 1:26). He works with, and for, us: “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). And our work bears much fruit when we abide in community with him (Jn. 15:1-17).
The fruit of cleaning out the gunk on my back deck, then, is more than unclogged cracks. It’s a clean place where our family can eat and talk. It’s a welcoming spot for neighbors to relax, play, socialize, and fellowship. It’s an inviting space for people to gather, commune, and feast. The fruit of my work is relationship.