“Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness”: A Labor Day reflection for pastors

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“Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness”: A Labor Day reflection for pastors

September 5, 2023 -

By Donson/peopleimages.com

By Donson/peopleimages.com

By Donson/peopleimages.com

Robin Williams once asked, “Why do they call it rush hour when no one moves?” We could add other oxymoronic questions: Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway? If corn oil comes from corn, where does baby oil come from?

And this one from yesterday’s holiday: “Why do we call it Labor Day when no one labors?”

We know the answer, of course: the holiday celebrates the achievements of American workers for the rest of the year.

In a larger context, Labor Day is an expression of what is called the “Protestant work ethic,” a concept pioneered by sociologist Max Weber in his 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, he claimed that Protestantism’s focus on vocation as religion lived out in this world emphasized labor, cultural engagement, and family life, paving the way for capitalism as well.

Well and good, but I’m writing to suggest that the elevation of labor begins far earlier. At the very beginning of the story, in fact, which is a fact with direct implications for pastors and our work in the world today.

“Build houses and live in them”

It’s common today to hear someone say, “I’d rather work to live than live to work.” Work is typically seen as a necessary means to a better end—making money so you can support your family, do the things you want to do, and so on. There’s truth here—we should be vigilant against a work-centric lifestyle that turns into a work-centric ethos whereby our value consists primarily in what we do.

However, I’d like to suggest today that a negative view of work as a mere means to an end has its origins not in biblical truth but in pagan philosophy. The ancient Greeks, for reasons we won’t take the space to detail today, became convinced that our souls existed in a pre-incarnate state but were punished for their failures by being imprisoned in our flawed bodies. The point of life, many taught, was to purify the soul (usually through philosophical reflection) so it could escape its physical “prison house” at death to return to its intended home.

As evidence, we might turn in our minds to Genesis 3 and God’s response to Adam’s sin in the Fall:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (vv. 17–19).

However, this is not the first time God addressed the subject of work. A chapter earlier, we read, “The Lᴏʀᴅ God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). “Work” translates the Hebrew obdah, meaning “to cultivate and develop”; “keep” translates somra, meaning to “guard and protect.”

This is a hugely important statement for understanding God’s intended purpose for humans living on this planet. Before sin entered the story, God intended us to develop and protect his creation. He gave us work to do as a means of obedience but also as an end that would glorify himself.

Since the sinless Son of God embraced such a vocation as a carpenter and through his earthly ministry, I suggest that the Fall did not negate God’s intention that we partner with him by working in his world. To the contrary, he instructed even his exiled people in Babylon to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. . . . But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lᴏʀᴅ on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5, 7).

“All that our Lord heeds in a man’s life”

These reflections were sparked by a phrase I happened to see while reading through the book of Jeremiah: “Cursed is he who does the work of the Lᴏʀᴅ with slackness” (Jeremiah 48:10). “Slackness” in the Hebrew could be rendered “negligence, inactivity, idleness, deceit.”

As someone called to do “the work of the Lᴏʀᴅ,” I asked myself: What are ways pastors are tempted by this sin?

An answer that is not an answer has to do with our work schedules. Thom Rainer conducted a survey of full-time pastors some years ago in which only 3 percent reported that they worked less than forty hours a week. The largest number (47 percent) said they worked forty to forty-nine hours a week; next was the 40 percent who work fifty to fifty-nine hours a week. I have never known a pastor who was not busy—many too busy for their own good.

However, there are other ways for pastors to be tempted by “slackness.”

For example, in our tolerance-centric, relativistic culture, many ministers and denominations are “deconstructing” and “reconstructing” biblical morality in ways that are not biblical. What God said of spiritual shepherds in Babylon can be said of them: “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold” (Jeremiah 50:6).

Even pastors who embrace biblical orthodoxy, however, can be tempted to be “slack” with their spiritual priorities. Oswald Chambers warned: “The snare in Christian work is to rejoice in successful service, to rejoice in the fact that God has used you.” However, “You can never measure what God will do through you if you are rightly related to Jesus Christ. Keep your relationship right with him, then whatever circumstances you are in, and whoever you meet day by day, he is pouring rivers of living water through you, and it is of his mercy that he does not let you know it.”

He added: “It is the work that God does through us that counts, not what we do for him. All that our Lord heeds in a man’s life is the relationship of worth to his Father.”

“I used to ask God to help me”

I couldn’t write this article without asking the Lord to show me any ways I have been “slack” in my personal life and public ministry. The answers were immediately forthcoming and instructive.

I invite you to make this prayer yours today. And to reflect upon this statement by the famed missionary Hudson Taylor: “I used to ask God to help me. Then I asked if I might help him to do his work through me.”

Let’s choose the latter, to the glory of God.

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