Why Faith & Work? (Part 2) – Work
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series. To learn more, take a look at Why Faith & Work (Part 1).
We had lost our footing until Stephen Raifsnider showed up. Actually, I ripped it up.
First the toilet clogged in our main floor bathroom — repeatedly. (How is that possible from such little girls?) So, I bought a new toilet from Home Depot, the kind you can flush seven pool balls down and still be good to go.
As I unscrewed the toilet flange bolts which held my throne to the floor, I gently lifted the potty…only to have the cracked tile come with it. After looking at the shower (which didn’t work due to a broker diverter valve) and looking back at the cracked tile floor, I took the deep dive into what all homeowners must eventually face: the bathroom remodel.
After demolishing the bathroom (removing the cheap, builders-grade vanity and tossing it in the trash was surprisingly satisfying) and replacing the subflooring, we needed somebody to tile our bathroom. So, I called no less than five flooring companies. Finally, we got one on the calendar. Two days before the scheduled appointment, he sent a text. “I’m not feeling well. I don’t think I should come in today.” So, we called another. And (not joking), the next guy said the same thing. “Hey, I have a fever.” In COVID world — and in a world desperately short of skilled tradesmen — our bathroom remodel stopped completely.
And then I met Stephen.
Stephen is the 65-year-old owner of StoneFactor, a stone and tile contractor based in Denver. When I reached out, he responded to an email. His quote was fair. His work was highly reviewed. And he showed up when he said he would.
The day Stephen arrived with his assistant Juan to tile our bathroom floor, we struck up a conversation as he was setting up his tile saw on my front deck.
He had been a firefighter for 16 years before getting into the tile business. His business had grown, yet he now confessed he was getting “too old” to do it every day of the week. He also told me he attends a large church on the south side of the Denver area.
As he peered at our wall hanging that read “Every Moment I Need Thee,” he asked about my work, gathering that we likely shared a common faith. After telling him about my job, he confessed that he wasdeeply troubled by one thing he had heard at church.
“You know, Jesus says that ‘the servants are the greatest,’” he cautiously said, recalling a passage from the Gospels. “But what have I ever done for God? I mean, I’m not a pastor or a missionary.” He looked at me with an honest question, “Does this mean I won’t have a reward in heaven?”
Why is focusing on the theme of work so important for the Christian church? I can think of at least three reasons.
First, time. We’ll spend one-third of our adult lives at work; some estimate over 90,000 hours. The reality is, we spend a tremendous amount of our lives working — from laying tile to sending email to attending meetings to tightening nuts and bolts. Life isn’t just work, but it certainly is a big chunk of it.
If we don’t spend time thoroughly understanding why, how, and to what end we work, we end up divorcing our daily lives from our faith. This is rarely done intentionally. But the omission of the real context for our lives in communities of faith leads to living in two different worlds — church and work, values and facts, private and public.
This lack of coherence leads to everything from the bewildering ethics violations in large public corporations by those who regularly teach Sunday school to the fiction that there is a “neutral” space in society where faith is optional. The truth is, we all worship something. And so do our companies, schools, clinics, and governments. Faith or some set of ultimate beliefs is indeed basic to all of human life and all institutions.
Not to bring Christian faith to work means we unwittingly worship at the altar of some other god from 9 to 5.
Second, influence. The total GDP of the American economy in 2019 was $21.43 trillion. That’s not just a lot of money, it’s an immense array of products and services, bought and sold each year. It’s also one measurement of the enormous influence of everyday workers.
Work is where we shape one small corner of the world. For my mom, wife, and sister, it’s been public education. For my dad, it was print advertising. For my father-in-law, it was engineering everything from roads to sewer systems. For my grandpa, it was in a wood shop. For my kids, it’s in the classroom. Work is where we form human civilization, in all its specificity and beauty.
What we see in so many ministries, churches and theological communities today is a tacit assumption that “ministry” is only for those who are paid by Christian nonprofit organizations. The Bible knows nothing of this. Though there is an important call to be a leader in a local church (1 Timothy 3:1), it also affirms that work of all kinds should be seen as “ministry” or “service” (Ephesians 4:12), whether that be driving kids to theater practice, grooming dogs, or selling earbuds at an Apple store. Work is one arena of our spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1-2).
The question for Christians when they leave church on Sunday is whether they stay activated during the week. (This illustration of red dots by Neil Hudson at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity is one of my favorite pictures of the gravity of this truth.) The challenge is to bring the life of the resurrection from the worship, preaching, baptism and Eucharist of church into the lesson plans, client calls, or job sites of our daily life.
Finally, pain. The truth is, work is a source of pain for nearly all of us: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, secularists, and everything in between. Projects don’t turn out as we hope. We’re humiliated by a boss or superior. Our career trajectory tanks rather than takes off. We struggle to afford the increasing costs of education, health care, or housing.
One Gallup poll showed only 15% of the global workforce is engaged in their work, and nearly all of us are still longing for that holy grail of a job where “my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
The secular story of work is one of success, a neat life of “up-and-to-the-right” stories, whether rags to riches or simply college to a well-paying job. Though Christians have their own prosperity gospel, the secular prosperity gospel of individual success and living my “personal destiny” is even more pervasive.
The truth is, each of us suffers. Work is where we sense the “thorns and thistles” of a broken creation that groans for redemption (Romans 8:19). It’s also often the place we’re happy to flee at 5pm on Friday (or 3pm if you live in Denver).
Only the cross can truly make sense of the suffering we experience in our work and daily lives. Only Jesus can truly understand the poor Latino laborer, for he too was a laborer. Only Jesus can truly walk alongside the dejected banker when he’s been fired, because he too endured the utter isolation of Calvary. Only Jesus can answer the deepest longings for purpose in work, because he was there when work was created and he’ll be there when work finds its final culmination in the heavenly city (Revelation 21-22).
So why faith & work? Work is far too pervasive, expansive, and painful for the global Church to ignore.
When Stephen asked me this question about rewards in heaven, I was somewhat dumbfounded. He had gotten the impression from his church that the only truly valuable work was in paid occupational ministry.
But here he was, on his hands and knees, laying tile, while I watched. Here he was humbly asking a question and eager to learn. Here he was laying tile and reflecting the work of him who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Here he was doing a task for me I could not do on my own, with a gentle kindness I would not soon forget.
What’s the value of “faith and work” for Stephen Raifsnider? Perhaps it’s simply the knowledge that with each tile laid, the value of his work is much more than a contract.
“Well done, good and faithful servant,” is the final reward for Stephen and all those who offer their work to God in love.
This is the second article of a three-part series on “Why Faith & Work?” The previous article focused on the gospel and why it matters for our work. The next article will talk about work and its importance to culture.