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10 April 2014

What’s wrong with Work?

Sarah Jane Marshall Sarah-Jane Marshall LICC Work Forum
Whole Life Discipleship LICC Blog

Sadly, stories of work gone bad are frequent features of our newspaper headlines: ‘Millions of People Mis-sold PPI Policies; ‘Tabloid Faces Fresh Phone Hacking Charge; ‘Pakistan Factory Fires Kill More Than 300. The likelihood is that we’ll each have some negative experiences from our own lives too – they may be of a smaller scale, but nonetheless play a part in shaping our idea of ‘work’: that volunteering job that received only criticism and never praise, the breakdown of relationships in a team, the stress of being made redundant, the burden of housework that feels never-ending… 

At times our experience of work seems a far cry from all the talk of ‘dignity, maximising potential and human flourishing’, which we explored in the last blog post. The ‘teacher’ in the book of Ecclesiastes expresses the point with disturbing candour, “My heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour under the sun.For a person may labour with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labour under the sun?” (Eccl 2:20-22).

Something has clearly gone wrong with work. Is it the boss? Is it the organisation? Is it the technology? Is it a lack of training? Well, all of these things may play a part, but the Bible suggests a deeper answer. The basic problem lies in ourselves. We were made to live all of life with God and for his glory, but we chose to live it largely without him and for ourselves. The alienation from God that resulted from our rebellion against him mars everything.

God made us to experience his blessing and to bless others, and that blessing enriched and brought satisfaction to all of life (Gen 1:28). But by rejecting God we stepped out of that blessing and this affects every aspect of our lives. The Fall brought psychological dysfunction in our sense of identity (Gen 3:7), relational dysfunction in our relationships (Gen 3:12-15), ecological dysfunction in our stewardship of creation (Gen 3:18) and a wearying and painful sense of ‘toil’ in our work. So ‘filling the earth’ is now accompanied by pain (Gen 3:16) and ‘subduing’ now involves ‘painful toil’ (Gen 3:17-19).

The Bible’s picture of work is therefore both wonderfully inspirational – filling the earth, harnessing its potential, contributing to human flourishing – and completely realistic. It gives us a great vision for the high ideals and expectations that are potentially associated with work and it prepares us for the reality that those ideals and expectations can only be partially fulfilled this side of heaven. 

Workplace conflict, hard work which goes unrewarded, failed projects, unrealised dreams, work becoming an idol, disappointment with colleagues and with ourselves: sadly, due to the fallen state of humankind, these are all part and parcel of what we can anticipate in our work. This doesn’t mean we should accept these things as the status quo – we are to stand up for truth and justice – but it shouldn’t surprise us when they do happen.

Michelle is a personal injury lawyer. Through her work, she seeks to get ‘fair and reasonable’ compensation for those who have been injured through no fault of their own. Very occasionally she has clients who exaggerate their claims to seek a higher award. In those situations, Michelle has a choice to make between using the slightly more “colourful facts” to get a better pay out or being really honest and giving only the actual facts. Temptation in the workplace can be as subtle as that!

The Bible is a relentlessly realistic book. The world into which it speaks is the world in which you and I live - and work. But thankfully, the Bible’s story about work neither starts nor finishes with what’s gone wrong with it. Look out for the next blog post to see how the coming of Jesus really does change everything – including our work!

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