I’ve noticed a recent spat of very positive Christian books about vocation, basically work-affirming theologies, are gaining traction in America, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, I’m referring to “God values your vocation” stuff – Adam and Eve were originally called to be garden-tenders (before the Fall), work anticipates God’s future renewal of the world, etc. All this sounds a little abstract and perhaps isn’t as cut-and-dry as its contemporary advocates would believe, but the real question is: do people in a (by all measures) work-obsessed culture really need to hear that God, in fact, does value our work?
There’s an old adage that “God made man in his image – and man promptly returned the favor.” The advocates of God-values-our-labor are of course culturally conditioned, but the anthropomorphism here perhaps isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Again, do we, at this time and place in our culture, really need to hear our work is valuable? Yes, and no.
I don’t think the popularity (or trendiness), among contemporary Protestants, of the idea that God values work is a direct reflection of a culture that overvalues it (though I do think Max Weber’s insights about work and religion are dead-on). Rather, gaining an unduly high amount of our identity from our vocation perhaps engenders a basic insecurity – the insecurity writ large by the 2008/2009 stories of nervous breakdowns by wealthy, hitherto successful financiers. Work is a primary vehicle of self-justification in our culture, an end in itself which, like any little-l law, is always just beyond the horizon: “rivers like our own that seek for seas / They never find, the same receding shores / That never touch with inarticulate pang” (Stevens). The closer we get to the standard of vocational success, the more unbridgeable the gap becomes – the inarticulate pang becomes silently deafening, the sense of loss all the more poignant for its nearness. Achilles, for all his speed, couldn’t catch the tortoise in a race, as near as it seemed.
The problem with God-values-your-labor theology is that it serves as a palliative for this inburnt insecurity, glossing over our fear that our work is in vain without addressing the insecurity itself. Fortunately, the Bible itself does address this insecurity:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
The pattern of lived Christianity would suggest that the cross come before the Resurrection, suffering before triumph, honesty before holiness. People have said that Ecclesiastes no longer applies because Christ has somehow “redeemed” our labor. This twists the biblical concept of redemption but, more importantly, it attempts to make an eschatological promise immanent, to deny the Fall. Equally importantly, and more obviously, it’s experientially false. And extra-biblical, and the list could go on.
Following Solomon’s lead, I think the insecurity could be addressed right off-the-bat. Anxiety cannot be cured through denial; only through addressing it. All of our labor is under judgment – the negative voices in our heads contain elements of truth. Our vocations are inveterately self-focused, are indeed subject to futility. And God does value good work, but we all fail the standard. Inserting a religious vector into vocation, as the new ‘theologians of work’ want to do, is a totally legitimate move: as long as we recognize our instinctual knowledge that this religious dimension only adds to our other religious failures.
This sounds like bad news, but Christianity always is bad news before it is good. (In many churches, it is good news before it becomes bad – just the opposite.) More accurately, the voices of self-recrimination in our heads are always heightened and confirmed before they can be silenced. Palliatives may numb us for a bit, but they never address the root problem.
What is it to say that we are vocational and religious failures, even after believing? Only to say that we are the “sick” for whom Christ comes, nothing more. Something must be admitted before it can be addressed: God-values-your-work only serves the purpose of raising the Law to its proper height, like Jesus’ injunction to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
Honesty allows for experienced grace just like confession positions one to hear the word of absolution. We all have serious shortcomings in our vocations, but it is the failures for whom Christ died. This may glorify Christ’s grace at the expense of deconstructing our own identity markers, but that can only be Good News for those “who have died,” and whose lives are now “hidden in Christ with God” (Col 3:3).