The Work of Our Hands

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James 1:19-27

The older I grow the more I find what I once considered important changing.
The writer of Ecclesiastes writes, Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (2:11) Therefore, should I have been surprised when I returned to Pine Bluff, after I had left my previous parish five years earlier, and was confronted with the brevity of my reputation?
It is amazing how in five short years everything can change. There were those with their hugs and kisses, ones who had fond memories. There were the new ones who had no idea of who I was or what I was like. I am reminded of a friend who went back to a former church he had served. Walking down the street in the town, the same place where he had given four years of his life, he encountered the husband of a woman who had been active in the church. Admittedly, the man only came to church periodically, but nevertheless, he had given many hours to counseling his family, supporting his two teenage daughters, and working on various church projects with his wife. They met on the street and he greeted him warmly. They talked for a few minutes and he said something about how much he missed living in that town, to which he said, “Did you move? Are you not the pastor down at the church anymore?” Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

Most of us will spend the majority of our lives at work. On this Labor Day weekend, I ask you, “What does our work mean? Will what we do last? Is the significance of our work solely in its eternality?”

People go to college for a variety of reasons, but Bob Kuechenberg, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, may have given the best reason yet in an interview with Newsweek: My father and uncle were human cannonballs in carnivals. My father told me, “Go to college or be a cannonball.” Then one day my uncle came out of the cannon, missed the net and hit the ferris wheel. I decided to go to college.

What is the point of our work, what does all our labor add up to? We and our accomplishments are not eternal. Yet, in the great purposes of God, even what we do can have value and lasting significance. The best thing is for us to work faithfully, to take joy in our labors and to leave the rest to God.

Scripture teaches that labor is a two way street. There is a Biblical relationship of the employee to the employer, and there is a Biblical relationship of the employer to the employee.

The employee is to give and do the best that he can for his employer. One of Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” items pictures a plain bar of iron worth $5. The same bar of iron if made into horse shoes, would be worth $50. If it were made into needles, it would be worth $5,000. If it were made into balance springs for fine Swiss watches, it would be worth $500,000. The raw material is not as important as how it’s developed. God says we have spiritual gifts, but their worth to Him and the world will be dependent on how we develop them.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we have discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Our attitude is important, it is the difference between just earning a pay check and being committed to a task assigned by our employer. James writes, Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

Jim was such a good worker, he had just received another raise in pay. But when his brother called him and asked how things were going, Jim said that things were not going so well. His brother was surprised and said that he had heard about the raise. Jim agreed that he had received a sizable raise and enjoyed his job. His brother asked him what the problem was, then. Jim answered, “I’ll tell you what bothers me. I’m making so much money now that I can’t afford to take a day off.”

Good living and good work go together. Life and livelihood ought not to be separated but to flow from the same source, which is Spirit. Spirit means life, and both life and livelihood are about living in depth, living with meaning, purpose, joy, and a sense of contributing to the greater community. A spirituality of work is about bringing life and livelihood back together again.”

The employer is accountable to God for how he treats the employee. Jesus Himself says, … for the worker deserves his wages. (Luke 10:7) Firing an employee is one of the toughest jobs a supervisor ever faces. An insurance sales manager was known for his tact and diplomacy. One of his young salesmen was performing so poorly that he had to be terminated. The manager called him in and said, “Son, I don’t know how we’re ever going to get along without you, but starting Monday we’re going to try.”

My best friend from seminary days was called to his first church. The parsonage was right next to the church, the worst possible place for a parsonage. For several years he tried to get the congregation to make repairs to the parsonage. Members would say things like, “That is a mighty fine house, you should be happy.” The congregation grew and needed to expand so they bought a new parsonage across town. Their plan was to convert the parsonage to classrooms. They decided that the house wasn’t in good enough condition to use as classrooms.

Philemon was a member of the church of Colossae, who owed his conversion to the apostle Paul, for such is the interpretation generally assigned to the words “You owe to me even your own self as well” (Philem 19). To him, Paul addressed his epistle on behalf of Onesimus. His character, as given in that letter, was one of great nobility. The apostle commends his faith and love, his benevolence and hospitality, and his docile, sympathizing, and forgiving spirit.
He asked Philemon to treat Onesimus as Paul would have treated Onesimus.

I marvel at the faith of the man in Michigan who when he sold his business for millions of dollars gave part of the selling price to his employees who had helped him to make the business a success. So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7:11-12) Every seventh year the landowners, the slave owners, the rich, were to release everyone in slavery or in servitude. The issue was to treat all workers justly.

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