Tuesday, March 6, 2012

God Cares About Your Work (Part 1): Martin Luther On Shoemaking

Hot, sweaty and exhausted, I stumbled out of the car. When I had left for work that morning the sun had been rising. Now, the sun had long since set. My body smelt like grim and chemicals. Every part of my body hurt from the long day of physical labor. I limped into my house to find that most of my family was already in bed. Thus, I took a shower, ate some supper and went to bed only to get up repeat the grueling routine.

At the time I was working for a carpet cleaning company. It was very hard work and it forced me to deal with some issues I hadn’t had to confront before. My parents had tried to instill a work ethic in me, but daily chores just didn’t compare to 60 hour work weeks. So I began to wonder, does this even matter? What’s the bigger picture here? Does God really care about dirty carpets?

Our culture says no, God doesn’t care about your daily work. While no one might be bold enough to make that statement, the sentiment is surely there. On the one hand, we in the Church have a false sense of spirituality that states that only pastors and missionaries are really “serving God full time”. This attitude in the church is then amplified by the general sentiment in the world which sees work as a necessary evil that should be done away with in the ideal society.

Laziness is ramped in our society partially because we don’t see work itself as anything important. Work is just something we do to pay the bills and so we’ll only work as hard as we have to in order to live comfortably. And if the government wants to help me pay the bills so I can do even less work than all the better. But this wasn’t always the attitude.

Once the great Reformer Martin Luther was approached by a man who enthusiastically announced that he’d recently received Christ. Wanting desperately to serve the Lord, he asked Luther, “What should I do now?” The implication was that he man was wondering if he should become a minister or a traveling evangelist or maybe even a monk.

Luther asked him, “What is your work now?”

“I’m a shoe maker.” The man responded.

Much to the cobbler’s surprise, Luther replied, “Then make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price.”

Luther and the other Reformers would introduce a startling dogma called the doctrine of vocation. Alongside justification by faith and the sufficiency of the Scriptures, this would become one of the central pillars of Protestantism. Sadly, somewhere along the line we forgot about it.

Theologian J.I. Packer describes the doctrine of vocation this way: “The word vocation means calling and right at the heart of vocation is, I believe, in every case, the sense that God has called one to do what one is doing. The sense of being called comes out of thinking and praying about what one has been gifted and fitted to do and which of the options for life activity is the best one. (Never let the good be the enemy of the best.) Then as one thinks about these things and prays about these things comes the sense that, yes, this is what God’s called me do. And all honest work is worth doing for the glory of God and we may find ourselves called to do any form of honest work that we are fitted for.”

That may not sound like such a big deal, but this little doctrinal point changed the world. If this idea is true than that means that the farmer in the field is just as much called of God as the pastor in the parish and the king in the palace. If that’s the case, people began to reason, then maybe we should start treating the famer with a little more respect. Thus the “Protestant work ethic” would become the basis of free society.

However, this isn’t just a matter of going back to our historic Protestant roots. I firmly believe that the Scriptures would cause us to value work. There is perhaps any number of reasons from the Bible, but in the next few weeks (or maybe months :-P) I’d like to draw your attention to three of them.