This post continues a series of reflections based on a book by O. Palmer Robertson.
The third and final creational ordinance of the Covenant of Creation that O. Palmer Robertson talks about in his book The Christ of the Covenants is labour. Six days of labour followed by one day of rest is the creational order. Work is necessary to “subdue the earth.” “He quotes John Murray about work:
We can be quite sure that a great many of our physical and economic ills proceed from failure to observe the weekly day of rest. But we can also be quite sure that a great many of our economic ills arise from our failure to recognize the sanctity of six days of labour. Labour is not only a duty; it is also a blessing. And, in like manner, six days of labour are both a duty and a blessing.
Robertson then goes on to say:
The explicit command given to man concerning his responsibility toward the creation enforces the implication concerning labor in the Sabbath ordinance. Made in God’s own image, man has a unique responsibility to “subdue” the earth and rule over every living creature (Gen. 1:27, 28). This subduing involves the bringing out of all the potential within the creation which might offer glory to the Creator. Such an ordinance, embedded in the creational responsibilities of man, clearly intends to affect his entire life-pattern.
Even more specifically, the charge given to man to cultivate and to keep the garden underscores the role of the creational ordinance of labor (Gen. 2:15). Indeed, man is to enjoy his life in the context of God’s creation. But as a matter of fact, labor is to be seen as a principal means by which man’s enjoyment of the creation is assured.
Instead of being a legal aspect of the old covenant, labor belongs integrally to the role of man made in God’s image. This creation-ordinance joins with the Sabbath and marriage to provide meaningful structure to man’s existence under the general provisions of the covenant of creation. (The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 80-81)
This turned into an interesting discussion. I had intended to quote Robertson at greater length to underscore the high regard the Scriptures have for honest labour. That proved both impossible and unnecessary, as both members of our group and guests related excellent observations about the sanctity and necessity of work. I will try to paraphrase as well as I can some of the ideas and observations that were presented, though I know that my recall is far from perfect.
A first-time guest at our meeting noted that there is something holy about nurturing life from the soil. As a student of Jewish mysticism he has been taught that the concept of “love” or hesed in Hebrew includes the idea of pouring oneself into one’s work or into a relationship. So, for him, it flows into the idea of “working in love” – working with joy or enjoying the act or process of working for its own sake. Compassion is also a basic underpinning of hesed, so he also sees the need for a compassion for the material creation to be built into humanity’s labour in the world.
One of our long-time members notes that Sabbath, the flip side of the labour equation, is not just about physical rest, but also about refreshing ourselves and the creation. Sabbath is also about taking time to figure out what life is all about. Knowing what the labour is for helps bring hope and joy into the work itself.
Others commented that much joy or suffering can come from what seems to be a built-in need to feel useful. Those fortunate enough to feel that their work has meaning or is useful to the world are often happy and feel fulfilled. The other side of that coin is that those not fortunate enough to find satisfying work (or any work at all) can feel frustrated or suffer from depression or other mental illnesses. For some, even being awake can become too painful, leading to an attempt to dull the pain with addictive lifestyles, behaviours or substances.
We were not designed to be spectators of passive players in the game of life. We all seem to need to have our moment of making a big play, whether it is scoring, assisting, blocking the shot or setting up the play. (Ok, this is Canada. You had to expect a hockey analogy.)
Since Adam and Eve’s sin there have been frustrations built-in to our labour. The “thorns and thistles” in our work sap some of (or all of) the joy out of our labour. The overbearing boss, the disrespectful subordinate, the inexplicable delays in deliveries of supplies, etc. increase frustration and rob us of the joy that should come from planning and accomplishment.
Even the people of God usually experience the frustrations. For instance, Moses knew that he had been called to have in important role in delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt. He mistakenly believed that his big play, killing an Egyptian slave-master, would spark a revolution that would lead to freedom. Instead, condemnation by Israelites and pursuit by Egyptian authorities forced him into a frustrating 40-year exile as a hired sheep herder in the wilderness.
Eventually, at an age that would have seen any of us happily retired for a decade or more, God gave him the opportunity to finally begin his real life’s work. His career as Israel’s “midwife” lasted from ages 80 to 120. He spent most of that time enduring the ridicule and resistance of the very people he was trying to free.
(This observation is a post-meeting thought that was triggered by the last one: Even Jesus himself had to endure the frustrations of working in a fallen world. At every turn he was ridiculed and reviled by the religious establishment that was theoretically supposed to be teaching faith in him. They eventually turned him over to the authorities of the occupying power and insisted that they kill him in the most brutal manner they could manage. We are blessed indeed that he considers our salvation a worthy enough labour of love to be willing to endure all of that on our behalf.)
The previous sports analogies triggered the memory of an appropriate song by a member of our group. He remembers Paul Henderson, former hockey player who is now a minister of the gospel, singing the song “Jesus Takes the Wheel.” It is appropriate that Jesus be in charge of our life’s work, since he has done so much to make us free.
On further reflection, work can and should be a holy and joyous undertaking. Jesus promises that he will make all things new, beginning with our hearts. There is a day coming when all labour will be “holiness to the Lord.” Think of the joy of properly caring for the creation without the ceaseless toil of working hard in frustrating circumstances just to eat.
In the meantime we can take heart that we can become involved in the most meaningful work possible in this day and age: the work of redemption. We certainly are expected to participate in our own redemption by following Jesus’ lead in our life and work. He also expects his followers, as a group, to participate in the process of redeeming others by proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and Lord through the gospel.
So let’s step up and get in the game.