“God smiles when a man changes a diaper.”
One day a week I stand before you and call you to worship God. The conviction behind the act is that time is holy. But how often do you hear anyone say so? More likely you hear, “Time is money.”
— Eugene H. Peterson
Sabbath is the biblical tool for protecting time against desecration. It is the rhythmic setting apart of one day each week for praying and playing—the two activities for which we don’t get paid, but which are necessary for a blessed life. A blessed life is what we are biblically promised. A blessed life is not a mere survival life, but a bountiful life.
— Eugene H. Peterson
God’s law is beautiful. It is the full expression of the character of the one true and infinitely perfect God.
Most people recognize this even if they deny it. Our value of justice, human rights, and truth-telling are grounded in the ten commandments. The idea that we are to love other people comes directly from Jesus. And most of us want other people to love by the code of ethics of God’s law.
The beauty of God’s ways
Starting in the 4th command I want to riff on the beauty of God’s law.1
Here it is:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The meaning of work and rest
Most of the expositions of this command accent observing the Sabbath as holy. But I think this command is about work and rest and Sabbath. It gives dignity to all labor, but it places work in a context of human weakness and divine worship.
Where this command intersects our modern Western culture, it speaks a corrective word and offers beauty in place of distortion. If this command shaped our workplace and rest life it would alter the deep structure of our lives.
Modern politics and economics of work
In a vast generalization, the last 200 or more years we can say that whole nations and economic systems have been formed around the nature of work. Capitalism brought massive wealth creation through a system that organized work in an innovative way. The industrial revolution was a giant leap from individual labors for subsistence to mass production for consumption.
Marxism was founded as a critique of capitalism, especially the exploitation of the worker and the accumulation of wealth by the “owner.” Socialism seems to be similar. They are both a highly moralistic critique of capitalism. They offer various forms of a utopian vision of the ideal society. 2
A better way to see work and rest
The 4th commandment corrects and portrays a different vision.
First, it states that work is good.
God made us to work, to be productive, to exercise rule over our worlds. This perspective is a unique contribution of the Bible to our worldviews. God made Adam and Eve. He immediately gave them hoes and shovels to work, to harvest, to cook. He did not give them video game controllers. And God said this was very good.
All work is good
Work is beautiful. All righteous work is good. There is no important work, no lesser work. Attributing degrees of significance to work reflects our deep insecurity. We use work to bolster our identity and put others down. That is because we reject the One who gives us our identity.
The Walmart greeter is doing work that is pleasing to God. My electrician friend is doing good work. The CEO and the middle manager are too. So is the housewife or the volunteer soccer coach. Isn’t that beautiful?
Why is work good?
In our work, God gives us agency in providing for ourselves. We participate in his work of providing for us. It is part of our dignity. The inability to do so for economic reasons or due to disability is a great loss to our sense of meaning.
Just how central is this view of work to God’s law? Scripture makes some remarkable provisions for the poor. There are two objectives: (1) so that those who cannot care for themselves receive the help they need, and (2) so that those who are circumstantially hindered can get back on their feet.
Work and the good of others
Work and provision for our needs is about serving others. Work is God’s way of involving us not just in the care of ourselves, but in the building of a community. The original Protestant work ethic was not an assertion of the value of work for profit, but the value of work for the community. 3
This view of work rebukes our modern thinking. It corrects all diminishing of the worker as a person, the lack of offering a wage that is livable in a job where such a living is necessary, and the strife between the wealthy and the poor. It also rebukes the lazy, the freeloader, the person who simply does not like to work. And it has no room for the greedy whose wealth is used solely for themselves.
Work is not everything
Second, it states that work has a place, but it is not everything.
Yes, we work for 6 of 7 days, but then we do not work on the 7th. Why is this the case?
Work and rest
There are human reasons. We rest on the 7th day because we are weak. The language of Scripture is that we are dust. Rest is necessary for our bodies and our souls.
Again, what a beautiful picture! This stands against the workaholic, the corporation that demands more and more of the employee to the detriment of family and health. It is clearly against the evil of child labor, the 7-day work week, the 16 hour day – all of which was corrected by law in the early 20th century in the USA. When there is no respect for the worker as human, for his need of rest, for her need for life outside of work in marriage and family and recreation, we are resisting God’s plan.
Work and God
But there are also theological reasons. We also rest to honor God.
In short, we are made to work, but our identity is not work. Rest itself is more than physical. Rest requires honoring God. Honoring God means taking our right place before him and assigning him the right place.
God is Creator and Provider
Rest is the state of admitting our weakness. It states our dependence and is an act of trusting God to be our provider. God can provide for us a day at a time, and to provide enough on the 6th day to last 2 days. That is the lesson of the manna in Exodus 16.
But we trust our work not God. We trust our power over circumstances not God.
Living in Trust and Rest
My wife and I have practiced this all our lives, even in graduate school. When so many used Sunday as a day to catch up on reading and papers, we set it aside for worship and for people and for a nap. We trusted God to use 6 days of work to cover all the requirements of graduate school.
The self-employed faces a different temptation – to not work on one day in serve as an expression of faith toward God. So it was for the agrarian people of Moses day. Nothing makes less sense than a farmer taking a day of rest and worship during the planting or harvesting season. That day off may be a lost day of good weather. A lost day like that could mean the crop is now fully sown or a portion of the harvest is lost.
But God called his people to trust him to be their provider, their meteorologist, the sower and reaper – and to rest and honor God on the 7th day.
God is our Meaning-Giver
When we rest and worship, we reject finding our identity in our work. It is not our work, but the God we serve in our work who gives is meaning and value. It is not what we do but whom we serve.
The Summer Job
I remember a summer job which consisted of cleaning up the factory floor of a steel mill. Every day I reported and took up a broom, or a shovel, and always a pair of work gloves. Some of those I worked with did not like to work. They found a bench out of sight of the foreman and took a nap. Others thought of their work as a necessary evil to gain a paycheck. But a few of us saw this dirty and repetitive labor as serving God.
The Ivy League Quest
My wife, with a degree from Princeton and a Masters in English fought the message of our culture that some work is meaningful and other is demeaning. She gave herself to being a Mom. I faced the same battle – would I put in hours that could have produced a more “successful” ministry or read to my kids at dinner and play with them on the floor and stand by the sidelines at their events?
Not all rest is rest
When we rest to honor God it defines what we will do for rest. God is not honored when workers rest by getting drunk or doing cocaine, unwinding with a prostitute, or binge watching in Netflix while there are people to love. Rest before God is always found in honoring his ways. Rest may even be found in doing justice and caring for the poor (see Isaiah 58).
The 4th command is beautiful.
What would it be like to live as though your work, no matter what it is, is pleasing to God? To trust God to be provider as you work, but to trust him to be provider as you rest? To take one day in seven to acknowledge him?
What would it look like to live in a society where all work and workers were honored? Where wealth was used to help those who could not help themselves or who needed help to be able to work again? Where there was provision for rest? Where anxiety about work was answered by trusting God to be faithful?
That would be beautiful.
- In a certain sense I have covered the first three previously. My insistence that how we see God determines our moral order is why the ten commands begin with God. If you tell me what/who you worship, it will be a good determiner of your ethics.[↩]
- Marxism especially borrows its morals and vision from the Scriptures it rejects. The result is it has no means to address the root problem it identifies (greed).[↩]
- If you have never read the OT provisions, you may be shocked to discover God required interest free loans to the poor, the setting aside of 25% of a crop for the poor, the forgiveness of all mercy debt every 7 years, and the restoration of all land to its God-determined owners every 49. See Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25. This was not for justice reasons, but for theological reasons![↩]