The Bible says: “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23), and Ben Franklin said: “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Both sayings seem appropriate for Labor Day weekend, because both affirm the value of labor. That’s also the point of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage that “the reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.” The point of these sayings is: It doesn’t matter what we do, whether we’re building a house, planting a garden, harvesting a field, writing a book, or acing a test, when we see the product of our work we can take pride in our accomplishment.
Work is good, but reality can put a damper on our celebration. Sometimes work is dehumanizing, dangerous, or just plain back-breaking. The only benefit of such work is the wage it pays, which too often is a mere pittance.
I count myself fortunate that I enjoy my job and that it pays a decent wage. Though I’ve worked hard and spent many years in school, I’ve also had my share of breaks. For too many Americans “work” isn’t something they enjoy or take pride in; it’s simply what they do to survive. So, work may be good, but not all work is good for you. That’s why the labor movement arose and why our government has passed minimum wage, children’s labor, and safety laws. These are laws that should be celebrated and strengthened, not weakened.
It’s likely that there are many in the labor force that face a different problem. Their work isn’t necessarily back-breaking or dehumanizing, but it has its liabilities. It’s well documented that work is an idol for many. We work, not to survive, but because it consumes us. It’s the reason we live, and it crowds out everything else from our lives. It’s become the modern American dilemma, because in spite of all our modern conveniences Americans are busier working than ever. Researchers say that we have 40% less free time today than when I was growing up in the 1970s, with the average American working a month longer per year than thirty years ago. We may be more productive, but what’s the cost to our families, the community, and our relationship with God, all of which are sacrificed to our workaholism.
Unfortunately, many Americans have also discovered that our economy requires us to work day and night to achieve the American dream. That dream isn’t the castle on the hill but the 3 bedroom ranch-style house we grew up in. Though our identity may be caught up in our jobs, sometimes this idol is not of our own choosing.
Psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote that “Those who rhapsodize about the joy of labor are likely to be persons who are not obliged to do much of it.” Menninger’s statement is worthy of consideration, because whether it’s a matter of choice or not, when work becomes an idol, it keeps us from being responsible spouses, parents, and citizens. My employment is important, but it’s not my most important calling in life. Putting food on the table and shelter over our heads requires that we “have a job.” Sometimes that job gives us pleasure and a sense of purpose, but it can also become dehumanizing and destructive – either to us or to our relationships.
Work is good, but life transcends our jobs. As a Christian, I’m reminded that my first calling or vocation is to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and as such I’ve been called to love and serve my neighbor. As part of this service to God and neighbor, I’m invited to engage in labor that will provide food and shelter for me and my family. From what I earn I can also contribute to the welfare of others who share this world of ours. I may be employed, but my divinely given vocation is to be a blessing to others. It’s good that we celebrate the value of labor, but we must keep our priorities straight and work to make sure that labor in our country is safe, secure, and humane. While not every job will have the same intrinsic value, every job can be life affirming.
Excerpted from Faith in the Public Square (Energion Publications, forthcoming).