Patrick Preaching—Proverbs: Working Well

When we come to Jesus, he’s not a superhero shaming you for not saving the world like he is. He’s a man who knows what it feels like to be exhausted and burdened by work, and he’s the God who took all our burdens upon himself on the cross.

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Click the picture to watch the recording!

On September 4, I had the privilege of preaching at King’s Cross Church in Ashburn, Virginia. KCC has been joining my church, McLean Presbyterian Church, in our summer series on the book of Proverbs. This was our last week in our series, and fitting with Labor Day weekend, we finished with a sermon on work. Below is a manuscript of the message I preached. At the end of the manuscript is an extended application I didn’t have time to include in my sermon. You can also watch a recording of the sermon by clicking the picture above! Visit King’s Cross’s website here! 

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Kids, this weekend is Labor Day weekend, which means you don’t have to go to school tomorrow, and that is awesome. Parents, hopefully you don’t have to go into work tomorrow either, which is also awesome. I remember when I was in elementary school, whenever I had a day off from school, one of my favorite things to do was to watch a movie in the middle of the day. I’d still be in my PJs and I’d make some popcorn and make a whole thing out of it. And one of my favorite movies was The Incredibles. I’m just assuming most everyone in here has seen The Incredibles; if you haven’t, maybe you can watch it tomorrow!  

One of the best scenes in the movie is right at the beginning; it shows Mr. Incredible wearing a suit, crammed into a tiny cubicle working for a dreary insurance company. Mr. Incredible is literally a superhero and yet he’s getting bullied around by his angry little boss. I remember growing up seeing Mr. Incredible look absolutely miserable, and laughing and saying “Oh my gosh, that’s soo true. Work is miserable.” Now, I was like 9 years old. I had never worked in a cubicle or had a demeaning boss. I’m now 26 and I’ve still never had those things. But there’s a part of my heart that even as a fourth grader resonated with that image—work is such a drag! 

Is that how you feel about work? Kids, is that how you feel about school? If so, you’re in the right place. We’re going to be digging into some of those feelings and, Lord willing, finding a better way to approach work. My goal is that by the time we’re done with this service, you will be as grateful for this Monday as you are for this Tuesday—that you see both work and rest as great blessings. Does that sound too ambitious? Let’s see if we can do it. I’m going to read our passages from Proverbs and then let’s pray before we unpack them. 

The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,

    the first of his acts of old.

Ages ago I was set up,

    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,

    when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,

    before the hills, I was brought forth,

before he had made the earth with its fields,

    or the first of the dust of the world.

When he established the heavens, I was there;

    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,

    when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,

    so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

    then I was beside him, like a master workman,

and I was daily his delight,

    rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world

    and delighting in the children of man. (8:22-31)

 

A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, 

    but a just weight is his delight. (11:1)

 

Do not rob the poor, because he is poor,

    or crush the afflicted at the gate,

for the Lord will plead their cause

    and rob of life those who rob them.

Make no friendship with a man given to anger,

    nor go with a wrathful man,

lest you learn his ways

    and entangle yourself in a snare.

Be not one of those who give pledges,

    who put up security for debts.

If you have nothing with which to pay,

    why should your bed be taken from under you?

Do not move the ancient landmark

    that your fathers have set.

Do you see a man skillful in his work?

    He will stand before kings;

    he will not stand before obscure men. (22:22-29)

 

How Do We Work Wisely?

Before we dive into those verses we just read, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. If you were here last week listening to the sermon and thinking, “The way of the sluggard sounds rough, but if it weren’t for all the downsides, I’d sure love to sit around and do nothing,” you’re sorely missing God’s vision for work. Work is not evil, it was created as good—that’s our opening assumption this morning: work is good. Good work is difficult in light of the Fall, but work is still good. 

We are all called to two kinds of work: “kingdom work” and “garden work.” By kingdom work, I mean what Jesus calls us to do in the great commission: go and make disciples, be witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the world. Every Christian is called into this work in some capacity, even if it’s not your full-time job. By garden work, I mean what Adam and Eve were called to do in the garden of Eden: to tend to the garden, to make things grow, to make the land productive and beautiful. This is sometimes called the “creation mandate” or the “cultural mandate” God wants us to bring order to the chaos of our world just like he did in creation. That sounds really fancy, but it’s actually quite ordinary. The way we bring order to our lives is by being productive members of society and providing for our families. So really, our “garden work” is just our “work work” -> this is our jobs, our day-to-day tasks, our calling. 

Our “work work” might not look like traditional employment—for some of you, your job is being a sixth grade student (which is not an easy job); for some of you, your job is being a parent (which is also not an easy job). In that light, we all have lots of different kinds of “garden work” we have to do. Something to note is that our “kingdom work” and our “garden work” are not unrelated—consider the exemplary woman in Proverbs 31, her jobs are what enable her to provide for the poor and her diligence in her work is what earns her renown as a faithful woman of God in the community. So when we think about our work, let’s remember the overlap that comes in how we do our jobs and how we serve as God’s witnesses. 

All that to say, work is good. That’s the assumption up front. Our verses today show us how we can go about our work wisely; we’re given three priorities. 

First, we’re to prioritize care. Last week we learned that the fundamental issue with laziness is a lack of caring, or caring about the wrong things. One of the things Proverbs tells us we should care about is showing mercy to the poor and afflicted through our work. See Proverbs 22:22-23.

       Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, 

      or crush the afflicted at the gate, 

       for the LORD will plead their cause 

      and rob of life those who rob them. 

The stakes are high here, God is serious—don’t use your work to exploit people, but rather, use your work to protect and uplift others. Again, look to the wise woman in Proverbs 31; she uses her work to show mercy to the needy. Students, you might excel at a particular subject in school; consider how you might use that gift to help your classmates who struggle with it. Working folk, it is wise to consider how you might extend mercy to your coworkers—offer to pick up slack when someone is struggling, take responsibility when a proposal flops or a project fails, extend forgiveness when people let you down. If you’re a boss or business owner, it is wise to model mercy to your employees by caring for your community well—partner with local non-profits, find ways to do corporate community service, give days off for community service, or more. Whatever it looks like in practice, working wisely involves caring for those around us. 

Second, we’re to prioritize character. It matters who you are and who you associate with in your work. Our verses here give us warnings against wrathfulness, greed, and dishonesty. Keep reading in Proverbs 22, here’s 24-25. 

Make no friendship with a man given to anger, 

    nor go with a wrathful man, 

    lest you learn his ways 

        and entangle yourself in a snare. 

Anger is contagious, and it’s pretty obvious how destructive uncontrolled anger can be. Greed is also dangerous—if it causes you to enter into unsafe loans or dubious agreements, you might end up digging your own grave, or at least throwing away your own bed. See Proverbs 22:26-27. 

Be not one of those who give pledges,

who put up security for debts.

If you have nothing with which to pay,

why should your bed be taken from under you?

And lastly, we’re warned against dishonesty for personal gain: see Pr 22:28

Do not move the ancient landmark

    that your fathers have set.

This had to do with ancient property rights—it’s basically saying, “Don’t move your neighbor’s fenceposts to steal land from them.” Moving landmarks was hard to prove, especially if it was done gradually; subtle changes over the course of generations could leave some families with nothing and powerful families with everything. All these warnings against vicious character in work can be summarized in Proverbs 11:1. 

A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, 

    but a just weight is his delight. 

God expects us to be merciful to the poor and afflicted, but also calls us to be just in our work. Notice that a lack of character in work inevitably leads to a lack of care—by being harsh or greedy or dishonest, you’re demeaning others and serving only yourself. We are to prioritize both care and character. 

Finally, we’re to prioritize competency. Diligence isn’t just about caring about what you do, it’s also about doing your work well. Proverbs commends high quality work; look at the way our passage from Proverbs 22 closes. 

       Do you see a man skillful in his work? 

      He will stand before kings; 

      he will not stand before obscure men. 

Whether or not you earned an “A” for effort, the real world judges by achievement. Pursue excellence in what you do, no matter how mundane your job might be. Now this doesn’t mean you need to be The Best at whatever you do—we’ll talk about that in just a second—but it does disqualify laziness. And laziness can take many different forms. Think about this example: I’m sure there are a number of high achievers in here right now who could probably produce quality work while half-asleep and watching Netflix in the background. That still qualifies as laziness; if you have the capacity and ability to do better work than what you’ve done, even if what you’ve done is good by everyone else’s standards, you’ve done yourself a disservice and you’ve not prioritized competency the way Proverbs recommends. 

 

Why Isn’t That Enough?

This is what diligent, wise work looks like—care, character, and competency. How are you feeling about all that? You might be thinking, “Patrick, I’d love to work that way—care, character, and competency sound great—but to be honest, I’m already burnt out and at my wit’s end. I’ve gotta be this morally upright, hard-working, save-the-day super worker or else I’m disappointing God? Really, it feels like you’re asking me to stop being Mr. Incredible in the cubicle and start being Mr. Incredible the super hero. You’re asking me to accelerate but the tank is empty.”

If you’re feeling like that, you’re not alone—millions of Americans are feeling totally fatigued by work these days, whether Christian or not. So what do you do when the tank is empty? Some might want to turn off the car and throw the keys away—“if this is what work is supposed to be, I’m out”—and there are plenty of Americans who are taking this route. You may have heard of “quiet quitting” as the new trend, which aims to do as little a job requires as possible without getting fired. That’s one way of responding to this crushing view of work. 

Others might want to try to keep driving on fumes, and this is the choice most common in our area—dive headlong into workaholism. But that can only last so long. Eventually we’ll run up against our own limits—not sinful limits, like we can’t work any harder because we’re lazy, but our literal, physical limits, like we can’t work any harder because there’s just not enough time in the day to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, go to work, and do all the other things life demands. That kind of workaholism kills us, and not just physically. Not least physically—there are plenty of scholarly reviewed studies which correlate workaholism with insomnia and heart disease, anxiety and depression, and even divorce and family resentment. But even more than that, workaholism spiritually sucks the life out of us by selling us on Satan’s lies that we can be like God—we can be limitless, we can do it ourselves, we can build our own kingdom for our own glory. 

Whether we give up on work or turn to workaholism, the destination is the same—we’re burnt out and work is miserable. Neither of those are solutions that match the problem; no amount of life-hacks or schedule reworking or even job changes will be able to fill the tank up. So what is the solution? 

Well maybe there’s something more fundamental that we’ve gotten wrong with work. Maybe we’ve made work into something it’s not supposed to be. Proverbs helps us here, too. It doesn’t just affirm that work is good, and it doesn’t just tell us how to work well. It tells us why work is good, what the purpose of work is—and it’s not about productivity, it’s not about doing more or doing everything flawlessly. Really, God isn’t asking you to be Mr. Incredible in the cubicle or Mr. Incredible the superhero. He gives us a better vision for who we are and what work is about


What is The Solution?

Look with me to our passage from Proverbs 8. Here we again see Wisdom personified, but this time, it’s not as a woman street preacher or an exemplary wife. This person Wisdom is old—really old, like before the creation of the world old—and even older. He is present before even the creation of the heavens, with God and equal to God in power; in other words, God Himself. At this time you can shout out the Sunday school answer: who is this Person Wisdom? It’s the Son of God, the second person of the trinity, who we call Jesus. But here’s the part I don’t want us to miss—this is what sets us right on our view of work. Read with me starting at the end of 29. 

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

    then I was beside him, like a master workman,

and I was daily his delight,

    rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world

    and delighting in the children of man.

Isn’t that beautiful? This all powerful, triune God sets out on the work of creation, and the result is rejoicing and delighting in relationship. All the intricate, complex beauty of this world, from the quantum level to the intergalactic—the very reason creation exists, the very reason you and I exist, was because the Persons of the Godhead wanted to express their delight for each other. Here is the key to properly understanding work: At its heart, work is about relationship—we work to delight in God and each other. 

That’s a far cry from the lies workaholism and resignation try to sell. Work isn’t about power or prestige or financial security or anything else, it is about delighting in relationship with God and each other. It’s a vision we see lived out perfectly by Jesus, who is not just Wisdom Personified, but Wisdom Incarnate. Jesus’ incarnation shows us what it means to be a diligent human. 

All Christians believe in the incarnation—that Christ is both fully God and fully human. But many Christians are confused about how that works and end up assuming Jesus is something he’s not—some kind of super human. The truth is, Jesus isn’t Mr. Incredible. His divine nature is not at all confused with or compensating for his human nature. What does that mean? It means that Jesus needed just as much food and sleep and rest as you do. Yes, Jesus was perfectly caring in his work, his character was spotless, and his competency speaks for itself. Who else can raise people from the dead? But Jesus was just as tired at the end of a long day as you are—tired enough to pass out on a boat while it was storming. Jesus really did work in ordinary ways like you and I, whether he was a carpenter or he was healing people and raising them from the dead. 

Most importantly, Jesus relied on God’s provision in the exact same way that you and I can. We’ve been given the same Holy Spirit that sustained Jesus through all his labor. More than that, it’s in light of Jesus’ incarnation that we can properly understand where we fit into God’s vision for work. Jesus shows how to work well, but he also tells us what work we’re called to do, and it might surprise you how realistic his expectations are. He’s not expecting you and I to single-handedly solve all the world’s problems. You are not Mr. Incredible, either. For some, that’s offensive and disappointing, because we really wanna be the man or woman who saves the day. For some, that’s relieving, because we’re exhausted already and totally overwhelmed by how much there is to do. 

When we come to Jesus, he’s not a superhero shaming you for not saving the world like he is. He’s a man who knows what it feels like to be exhausted and burdened by work, and he’s the God who took all our burdens upon himself on the cross. He’s a man who truly, perfectly, diligently labored for the kingdom of God, and he’s the King of heaven who sits upon the throne inviting us to join in his labor. That’s an amazing blessing especially in light of God’s vision for work. 

Friends, think about it this way: God doesn’t need you to work for him; he wants you to work with him. God doesn’t need you to save the world, or to establish the New Heavens and the New Earth. We are not the ones who are building the kingdom of God, God will bring the kingdom down from heaven. God doesn’t need for you to go and make disciples. He could raise new disciples out of stones in the ground. God doesn’t need you to be the best employee in your company, or a leading figure in your field. To think so is to put a crushing weight of responsibility on your own shoulders, or to inflate your own ego. Instead, God wants you to join him in this labor, just like how the three Persons in the Godhead joined together in creation. He graciously includes you in his work, like a Father bringing his children out to the yard. 

My wife’s parents have a neighbor they don’t know the name of, they just refer to him as the “Good Dad.” Every weekend when he’s out doing yard work, his two young boys, maybe 3-5 years old, are constantly chasing him around with their own trowels and toy lawn mowers. The dad goes out of his way to include them in his yard work, and the kids absolutely love it, because they’re doing what Dad is doing and they’re with him while they do it. 

That is God’s heart for you, both for your kingdom work and your garden work. He loves having you participate in the redemption of the world. And it was God’s delight to give you the talents and opportunities to do your garden work well, not necessarily the best, but with care, character, and competence. So you can work hard out of a shared love for the work with your Father. You can also rest well, knowing it’s not all dependent on you. Jesus slept, you can too; God rested from his work of creation on the Sabbath, you can too. And whether working or resting, you can delight in the God who created you and calls you to work alongside him. 

So, to conclude: Work isn’t about productivity, it’s about relationship. We have the freedom to enter into Monday knowing God created us with limits and calls us to rest. And we have the joy of entering into Tuesday knowing God invites us to work alongside him as a loving Father. That’s more than enough a reason for us to worship him today. 

 

Arrive at the Tension 

This sermon is asking you to live in the tension between rest and work. Rest because God’s not asking you to be a superhero and work hard because God has called you to participate in something amazing. How can wisdom help you navigate this particular tension? 

As a first step, it’s a good goal to honestly evaluate where you are on the spectrum of lazy to workaholic. Most of us are probably closer to workaholic, but how bad is it? Or maybe you’re an outlier and you’re really lazy. It’s good to know where you stand. Second, reflect on why you are where you are—think back to last week, how laziness is a care problem? Workaholism is also a care problem. What do you care about? What do you love? What do you fear? How does that motivate your work? Maybe you grew up in a family that had a lot of financial instability and you are adamant you will never let your children feel that pain, so you overwork at a job that pays insanely well. Maybe you only find a sense of purpose or accomplishment or worth when you’re in the office. 

This also could be a subconscious matter, so try to dig under the surface a bit. Does what you say you value actually line up with the way you live? I once heard a story from a pastor friend about a woman in his church who constantly talked about how important her faith and her church were to her, and yet she could never find the time to volunteer in the nursery (something that she had vowed to do when she became a member). It was a one hour commitment a month on Sundays, but she insisted she had no time to spare in her calendar. Then one day, the pastor gets a call from her; she’s very excited and tells the pastor all about this amazing opportunity that came her way—a highly reputable company in her dream career field had offered her a part-time position. She was still going to keep her full-time job at her current company, and this new position was an additional 20 hours a week, but she was so excited. While still celebrating this opportunity with her, the pastor tried to gently point out to her the inconsistency—you can’t spare one hour a month for something you say you love and have committed to, but you can find 20 hours a week to advance your career? What do you really love? 

Third, assess where you need to adjust to align with wisdom (and remember, wisdom teaches us that work is about relationship with God and each other). If you’re thinking, “man, I really need to find ways to integrate better rest into my 60 hour work week; maybe I can squeeze that in between taking Jimmy to soccer practice and picking up Lucy from ballet” then what you probably need to do is start ruthlessly cutting responsibilities. This is not me or the church asking for more of your time, this is me asking you, “What is the most important thing to you?” If it’s to know God, to love God, and to serve him, that necessarily includes rest, and the church is a place where you come to rest in the God who delights in you. 

Remember, Proverbs is about principles, not formulas. The devil would love for you to treat this like a formula: “If you go to church and read your Bible and spend an hour in prayer every day, then you will feel rested. Therefore, you must always do all this no matter what and you must feel rested afterward.” Maybe some Sundays, it’d be better to sleep in; maybe some days, you can only spend five minutes in prayer. Don’t be slavish, be wise and diligent. 

This is all a starting point. Let this fuel your conversation with your significant other, your roommates, your children, or your community group. And integrate these thoughts in your prayer life. Ask our Lord for an abundance of wisdom. He delights in giving it. 

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