In Genesis, the work of God in creating the entire universe is distilled into six “evenings and mornings,” Hebrew-speak for “days.” The repetitive use of this phrase is more than just a poetic device. To those first entrusted with God’s mighty creation story, time was not a yardstick on which daily units were marked off. Rather, work – the extent of a task – defined the measure of a day. Thus, the story of creation encapsulates an artifact of Hebrew culture that takes for granted the centrality of work. A “day” is nothing less than a God-ordained rhythm of work and rest. Humankind, created in the image of God, is thus given the basic framework for abundant life in the very first chapter of the Bible.
Throughout history, the church has recognized that true joy in work is irrevocably tied to prayer and union with God. Ora et labora (“prayer and work”) is the wisdom passed down from Benedictine monks of old. Before them, the Didache gave us this stern warning:
If someone wants to settle among you, let him work in his trade for a living. In case he has no trade or craft, use your discretion and see to it that no idle Christian lives in your midst. But if he will not act accordingly, he wants to make a business proposition of his Christianity. Beware of such men.
And even earlier, the apostle Paul exhorted the church community at Colossae:
Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve (Col. 3:23-24).
Today, we segment off the “work day” – nine to five – as distinct from the rest of the day. Our “days” are tolerated until we get to Friday, when we breathe a collective sigh of relief, take two days of rest, then mourn a case of the Mondays. Some of us mechanically put in the hours required, while others of us bury ourselves in our jobs, neglecting the essential work of raising a family and being an attentive parent or spouse. Some are content to avoid working altogether. What has happened to our collective attitude toward work?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. As a community developer in the inner city of East Chattanooga, Tennessee, I see daily the physical and spiritual malaise caused by a lack of work: the unemployment rate is 22 percent. That is about four times the national average of 5.7 percent. Having no meaningful work to do creates a whole host of issues, not least of which are gang affiliation and violent crime. The lack of a steady income contributes to an inability to secure affordable housing and a general trend of economic downturn because money does not get filtered back into the floundering local economy. This further discourages local businesses. Shopping centers avoid our neighborhood, creating both an employment vacuum and a food desert with a lack of access to nutritious food.
The effects of malnutrition on children in our neighborhood are well documented: low birth weights, poor academic performance, and obesity. What’s a child to do if he is failing in school because he has not had a substantial breakfast and therefore cannot focus? How can we expect such a child to sit in class for six hours a day, and take away recess because of bad behavior? How is a young person to get on in an environment like this? By finding solace, security, dignity, and fellowship in a gang, of course. These are the “evenings and mornings” of the inner city.
Seen from the perspective of Genesis, the Benedictines, and the apostle Paul, chronic unemployment is far more than an economic issue. It damages the heart and soul. If work is truly tied to prayer and done for Christ, what does the inability to work lead to, spiritually? Beginning with crippling poverty, it plunges families into a pure survival mode in which savage self-preservation reigns. Don’t we as believers have a duty to promote godly work opportunities that can give people not only the dignity of providing for themselves and their families, but also a spiritual foundation from which to reach out to God and, in turn, their neighbors? Because work can overcome an individual’s need for simple self-preservation, it is critical in building the unity (“shalom”) of the people of God in any particular location. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, do good work with his hands, so that he may give to those in need” (Eph. 4:28).
And we are blessed to see small signs of this shalom happening every day. Meet A. J. Sanford, a coworker in our ministry. His story puts a name and a face to the reconciliation that is taking root in East Chattanooga. In his own words:
I was out there. Way out there. The streets were my family. I sold drugs and fought every day; I was a leader of a gang – The Desert Dogs and B-Boys (Bad Boys). That’s what I was – a bad boy running around like a deserted dog. I remember fighting with my squad and being stabbed in my head. The knife was stuck. I continued to fight not knowing the knife was still in my head, until my homeboy yelled out to me. I started hollering and crying. But it was Jesus who took care of me, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
As I got older, I got into some real big trouble and went to prison. I did my time but society held that against me ’cause I was a convicted felon. I got a job as a construction worker but was not making much – not what I was used to. Plus, when it rained or snowed there was no work. The streets were calling me. So I picked up a pack (drugs) and went back to the only family I knew.
Jesus kept trying to get me to give him some time, but I said, “No.” He started to tell me to give him some time, but I said, “No.” He said, “Bow down before me.” I said, “No.”
In 2008, I was in a car wreck that should have taken my life. Instead, it left me on my stomach, crawling like the serpent I was being. I could not walk, care for myself, or feed myself; nothing – for a year and a half. My girlfriend had to work, take care of the kids, and take care of me, from feeding me to wiping my backside. She is now my wife of fifteen years. Yeah, I had to marry her. What a friend we have in Jesus. She was God-sent.
After gaining some strength, I stood and looked at myself in the mirror and cried out to God. I confessed with my mouth that I was a sinner. I knew then that it was he who had carried me through the storm.
As I began my new journey, I was not used to not having big bucks – no job, no stress. My mother called me one day and told me about a place called Hope for the Inner City. I had no idea who they were or what they did, but they gave me a part-time job working in the kitchen for the summer. Every Monday the staff had a meeting discussing what Jesus had done and where he was taking us. At the time I made up all kinds of excuses not to attend.
The next summer came and Hope for the Inner City’s director, Paul Green, called and asked if I would work with them again. He said, “God has work for you and so do I, my brother!” Now I am their facility manager. Yes, me. The dope-selling, gang-banging convicted felon: facility manager for a Christian organization.
Work without prayer, in which profit is the only aim, comes at a terrible cost. But the opposite is also true. Jesus tells us that what we do to the least of these his brethren we do unto him (Matt. 25:40). Jesus, the quintessential human being, was not afraid to work hard: a carpenter in those days had no access to a hardware store. He defined what it means to be dignified, embodying true peace, fulfillment, and purpose. And he often retreated from the masses that followed him, turning to his Father in quiet and prayer. Our calling is the same. We need to make space for people to work hard and to find Jesus at the center of their work.
So much of what we know about God we know through the work he has done and continues to do. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). And so, just like everyone in the history of God’s people, we must rely completely on God to lead us in his work. The creation story reminds us to take things one day at a time. It is a slow, methodical, strategic work. It is a move from chaos to order. It is proactive, not reactive. It is filled with poetry, artistry, and beauty. And there is space reserved for rest. The people of God could never labor hard enough to bring about the Messiah. Likewise, we will never be able to fully work out the redemption of the people we journey with. We too must wait on Jesus.
Joshua and Bethany Livingston live with their four children at the Hillside Community House, located in the East Lake neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee.