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  • Labor As Worship

    "How we interact with our kids about Labor teaches them a lot about what we value. Does it also teach them faithfully about what God values?"

    Q: What is a good grade?
    A: An "A."
    Q: What about a "B?"
    A: OK, but not as good.
    Q: Can a "C" be good?
    A: (different responses) Not around my house. Maybe, but it doesn't feel as good.
    Q: We'll come back to the grade question. What is biblical "Labor?"
    A: Work.
    Q: Like what?
    A: Job. School. Chores.
    Q: How about: serving at church, practicing for sports or music or debate, and things like that?
    A: Sure.
    Q: Why do we Labor?
    A: (lots of different answers) Get stuff done. Take care of family with necessities like food, clothes, shelter. Get stuff I want. Get more stuff I want. Get a scholarship or into a better school. Get a better job.
    Q: So we work hard to gain things to take care of our families so our kids can work hard to gain things so their kids can work hard to gain things, and so on?
    A: Well, yeah...I guess. And my parents make me. And it also pleases God.
    Q: How does our labor please God?
    A: Um...it makes Him happy when we work?

    Here we get to an important realization: Most teens don't know why they are laboring...or even what biblical "Labor" really is -- even though they theoretically spend a lot of their time doing it. They know they are supposed to work hard, and they loosely connect it with accomplishment, pleasing someone, or getting things...but don't really understand biblically what Labor is, or why.

    Q: What is the opposite of Labor?
    A: Fun? No, "Rest."
    Q: So biblical Labor is anything that is not biblical Rest, and vice versa?
    A: Sure.
    Q: Why do we rest?
    A: God says to. He rested. And it recharges us.
    Q: What is biblical Rest then?
    A: Doing stuff that isn't work.
    Q: Circular definition. So Rest is doing fun stuff and Labor is doing stuff I don't like?
    A: Well...it does actually seem that way...but it should be that Rest is connected with worship and being recharged through focusing more directly on God and not on our gain through work.
    Q: So Labor is not connected with worship and being focused on God?
    A: Ummm...

    Another important realization: Teens tend to associate Rest with enjoyment or worship-focus, and Labor with drudgery and performance focus. Maybe they get this from us. What does the Bible say about all this?

    Labor is a worship offering.

    (Genesis 2:15 (ESV)) [15] The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

    Q: When was Labor first given to us?
    A: Garden.
    Q: Before or after the Fall?
    A: Before.
    Q: So was it negative? Drudgery? Something that tempted Adam to less joy?
    A: Well, no.
    Q: So Adam fully enjoyed all his Labor?
    A: Well...yeah.
    Q: Did God need Adam to labor?
    A: The Garden needed tending.
    Q: Could God not have made the Garden self-tending?
    A: Well, yes, He could have
    Q: Did God want Adam to earn something from Him, such that his Labor was performance-focused?
    A: Hmmm...no.
    Q: So what function did Labor serve? As a hint, what function did Rest serve?
    A: Rest was based on God resting. It focused on Him. And Labor was based on God laboring...ohhhh, so it focused on Him too, in a different way.
    Q: Right! Labor and Rest are two essential aspects of our reflection of God's image. Both are an integral and positive part of our worship relationship with God.

    In fact, the Hebrew word used in Gen 2:15 for Adam to "work" the Garden is also translated as "serve" and "worship" in various places, all contained under the single idea that when the focus of the Labor is the Lord, it is a religious service to worship Him. This integration of laboring in the service of the Lord as an act of worship is also carried forward in the Greek word for the same concept (e.g., Rom 12:2).

    A: I never thought of my schoolwork or chores as part of worship. I'm not sure I want to.
    Q: We've talked about before the Fall. What about after the Fall -- does Labor still have its original designed role in our worship relationship with God? Has that role changed?

    (Genesis 4:3-4 (ESV)) [3] In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, [4] and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions...

    (Psalms 51:16-17 (ESV)) [16] For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. [17] The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

    Q: Where did Cain's and Abel's offerings come from?
    A: Their Labor. The fruit of their Labor.
    Q: When the Israelites brought offerings, where did they come from?
    A: Their Labor.
    Q: So there is a direct connection between Labor and sacrificial offerings made to God. Why did God ask them to make offerings to Him? Did God need dead animals or burned grain? Or were they to earn God's favor?
    A: The sacrifices themselves were not the focus, and earned nothing themselves. It was what they represented: the offerer's heart and spirit.

    After the Fall, God wove a sacrificial element into our worship and into our Labor, keeping worship and Labor tied together as before the Fall. He wove a sacrificial element into our Rest too, as Jesus' sacrifice is now the path to our eternal Rest (Heb 4:9-10). Like everything else in Creation, worship gained a redemptive aspect after the Fall that, though it came about through sin, God used to ultimately enhance -- not eliminate -- its original design.

    Though an Israelite's sacrifices and offerings usually came directly from his Labor, they were totally representative, and not inherently anything. The sacrifices and offerings didn't merit or "earn" anything in themselves -- it was what they represented that mattered. When an Israelite offered an animal for his sins, he first placed his hand on the head of the animal, to signify his sins now on the head of the sacrifice being sent to the altar. The animal represented the sinner, and also represented Jesus, who represented us on the Cross in the same way, with our sins placed on Him.

    When we offer a portion of the fruit of our Labor or Rest to God, we are really offering a representation of how we Labor and Rest -- our heart motives and the process (worshipful or selfish) by which we approach Labor and Rest. It is our whole heart, represented by that representative portion, that God desires.

    Before the Fall, and even more after it, our Labor is a worship offering to God.

    Q: When you do schoolwork, particularly in subjects you don't like, do you approach your studying as a worship offering to God?
    A: No...this is a whole new way of thinking about work. And I don't like some of my schoolwork and chores, so it is hard to think of it as a worship offering.

    Why does Labor often seem negative?

    Q: If Labor is a worship offering, why does it sometimes seem so negative?
    A: Because it is hard?
    Q: Is hard work inherently bad? Wouldn't Adam have worked hard and joyfully? Why negative?

    (Genesis 3:17-18 (ESV)) [17] And to Adam he said...cursed is the ground because of you...[18] thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you...

    The issue is not that Labor got hard, the sense of challenging or tiring; it is that "hard" became corrupted. Labor, an important aspect of our worship relationship with God, is now corrupted by sin like the rest of our worship relationship with God. Before the Fall Adam worked joyfully hard, and everything he did was fruitful, with no wasted or failed effort. After the Fall, his efforts became not just good hard work, but were diminished by waste and failure -- and by the temptation to no longer enjoy Labor as the representative worship offering it is intended to be.

    Our offerings are to be excellent.

    (Genesis 4:3-5 (ESV)) [3] In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, [4] and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, [5] but for Cain and his offering he had no regard...

    (Leviticus 22:17-22 (ESV)) [17] And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, [18] “Speak to Aaron and his sons and all the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of the house of Israel or of the sojourners in Israel presents a burnt offering as his offering, for any of their vows or freewill offerings that they offer to the LORD, [19] if it is to be accepted for you it shall be a male without blemish, of the bulls or the sheep or the goats. [20] You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you. [21] And when anyone offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. [22] Animals blind or disabled or mutilated or having a discharge or an itch or scabs you shall not offer to the LORD or give them to the LORD as a food offering on the altar.

    Q: When an Israelite made an offering to the Lord, what was to be the quality of the offering?
    A: Um, high? Flawless. And if we're going to apply this to schoolwork and chores, I don't like where this is going. :/
    Q: lol, stay with it, it gets better. Why was Abel's offering acceptable and Cain's rejected?
    A: Cain didn't offer what he was supposed to?
    Q: What does the Bible actually say was the difference between Cain's and Abel's offerings?
    Abel brought to God the "firstborn" and "fat portions." The contrast in the text implies that Cain did not. Abel gave God his first and best, while Cain waited to see what the harvest would bring before he decided how much he felt OK giving up, and then gave the lesser fruit that he could not gain as much from for himself. Cain gave God the remains. If these offerings of Cain and Abel were a representation of their worship hearts toward God, they spoke volumes more than each offering's trade value as grain and meat.

    This perspective on Labor as a worship offering adds weight and depth of meaning to Paul's exhortation:

    (Colossians 3:23 (ESV)) [23] Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men...

    Excellent Labor is a process, not a product.

    Q: So if our worship offerings are to be "without blemish," where does this leave us? When was the last time we made a perfect offering, of Labor or anything else?
    A: That is what I was wondering, but hoping you wouldn't ask.
    Q: What does God look at as the "quality" of our Labor? How we did? The outcome -- the size and value of the "fruit?"
    A: That is kind of how we tend to see it, even in the church -- yet it also doesn't sound right. But isn't it what the Bible says: "we know things by the fruit," or something like that -- so more bigger fruit is somehow better?

    (Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)) [41] And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. [42] And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. [43] And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. [44] For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

    Q: Why was the widow's offering, though "smaller" by a worldly measure, worth so much more?
    A: Because it was all she had? So it is all about our motive and how much we sacrifice?
    Q: Not exactly, but we're getting closer.

    (Joshua 6:1-5 (ESV)) [6:1] Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in. [2] And the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. [3] You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. [4] Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. [5] And when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.”

    Q: What was Joshua commanded to do? What was he responsible for?
    A: Taking Jericho.
    Q: What does the text say? Who was responsible for taking Jericho?
    A: Ohh, God was.
    Q: And what was Joshua responsible for?
    A: Um...marching? Showing up? Trying? Having a good attitude?

    This passage illustrates some important aspects of Labor and worship, especially when things are hard. It is important to first see that God did not make Joshua responsible for the outcome of the battle. Rather, He called Joshua to do something in faith that was difficult, humbling, and risky -- and a bit peculiar. It required reliance on God even more than on human strength or skill. Furthermore, it was something difficult over a protracted time, without an immediate return. And while taking the city was promised beforehand, the individual outcome for Joshua and each Israelite was not assured. A battle always feels like a battle when it is raging, and we rarely know how we personally will come out of it.

    There is more to be gained this passage than we can say here, but the main point for our context is that God calls us to march while He takes cities. God calls us to a process of visible worshipful obedience, even when it is hard and protracted and the individual outcome is not known beforehand, while also calling us to trust Him in joyful worship for the outcomes of that process. God asks us to focus on how we Labor -- our motives, attitude, and diligence (our heart) -- and to embrace His outcomes knowing He is working all things to good, including our good. From our perspective, excellent Labor -- the kind of worship offering God accepts -- is a process, not an outcome.

    We see the same principle of excellence in Labor (Labor as an acceptable worship offering, while trusting outcomes to God) in Noah, who was called to build an ark in the desert over a long period of time; in Abraham, who was called to leave a wealthy home to live in an underdeveloped area where he would wait for a future son long past his the time he could believe it possible, so God could build a nation he would never see; and many others in history.

    We also see it in Jesus Himself.

    (Philippians 2:5-11 (ESV)) [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, [10] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

    Jesus was not called to save the world -- He was called to die. He was called to worshipful obedience in a terribly difficult protracted process. In the process of His worshipful sacrifice, He trusted God the Father to save the world.

    This principle is no doubt in James' view when he admonishes us not to make our expectation of outcomes into a demand or idol -- or a reason not to do the right thing (process).

    (James 4:13-17 (ESV)) [13] Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit" -- [14] yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. [15] Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." [16] As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. [17] So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

    When James reminds us earlier in the letter that faith without works is dead, he presupposes a biblical understanding of works that sees Labor as a worship offering, not as merit measured mainly by results. James understood "works" for us as a heart-based process, not a final product to be assessed by human measure.

    Excellent (acceptable) Labor is a process, not an outcome. Outcomes belong to God. They may indicate something to us about the process, or they may not, but our focus is to be the process itself.

    What about grades?

    Q: Let's apply all this theology to your schoolwork.
    A: Or we could just not.
    Q: lol. What is a better grade: A or C?
    A: Um, A, usually.
    Q: Let's say there are two students taking a test. Student 1 gets an A, but cheats. Student 2 gets an honest C. Which is the better -- that is, more acceptable and worthy -- grade?
    A: The C.
    Q: Now let's say two students take the same test. Student 1 goofs around some early in the week but tells his mom he is studying, then just before the test gets more serious and studies some -- while facebook chatting and texting and changing iPod tunes every three min of course, because those enhance studying and make it bearable. When his mom reminds him about his chores, he tells her he can't and has to study. When his little sister wants help with something, he tells her to get lost because he is busy. He gets an A. Student 2 manages her time well. She studies steadily throughout the week, along with her other schoolwork. She closes facebook and chat when she studies, staying focused for about 50 min every hour, then taking a short break, then focusing in again. She prays for God to be glorified in her studies, and gives her fears to Him. She gets her chores done, and is kind to her brother when he asks for something she can't do at the moment. She gets a C. Which is the more acceptable and worthy offering to God -- that which culminated in the A, or that which culminated in the C?
    A: The C.

    As a parent, I used to ask my kids how they did on their tests and papers. The answer I expected was a grade, and my response was based mainly on the level of that grade. Gradually I realized that what I was unintentionally communicating to them was that the grade was the ultimate measure of their Labor. I shifted my approach to asking about how they did preparing for the test, including both academic and spiritual preparation. The grade was still important, as it generally reflected the merging of their ability (talent in that subject) plus their Labor preparing for the test -- but that grade was not the ultimate measure of anything.

    How we interact with our kids about Labor teaches them a lot about what we value. Does it also teach them faithfully about what God values?

    What about talent?

    The idea that a well-Labored grade is better than a "higher" grade is not one that comes naturally to us, because even in the church we tend to measure ourselves and others by some combination of talent and performance. The Parable of the Talents offers us wisdom in this. After reviewing the parable (Matt 25:14-29), note that:

    -- The Master had the exact same response of approval for the two-talent servant as for the five-talent servant, though the two-talent servant gained three fewer talents than the other. Part of the point of the parable is that each servant Labored well and faithfully with what he had from where he was, and the Master's approval was for that, not for the numerical outcome. The servant who did not Labor faithfully is the only one who was treated differently. Furthermore, it is of interest that even for this servant the focus was not on a numerical outcome, but on the relationship the servant had with the Master, as reflected in not knowing Him and making disparaging (the opposite of worship) unfaithful assumptions about Him -- so again the focus is on a relationship and heart attitude, not on talent or performance measured by numbers.
    -- Not all servants were given the same talents. We tend to measure ourselves and others partly by talent, and we tend to value some talents more than others. Yet this tendency misses that God (the Master in the parable) assigns talents (gifts, talent, resources, opportunities) differently to each of us for His purposes unrelated to how He values us (which is equal, unconditional, and based solely on His Image and Jesus Righteousness in us).
    -- The Master retains full ownership of the talents even as we carry them, and we are to gain nothing from them -- not even some "shared" glory to falsely boost our esteem. The talents we carry and invest are not ours and have no relationship to our value to God -- nor should our value and esteem of one another be based on them. To use a talent for our esteem or value, or to esteem another based on assigned talents -- would be equivalent to one of the servants skimming some of the return for himself.

    What is our kids' understanding of how roles, talents, and performance affects their esteem or worth? What is ours?

    What about study habits?

    My observation from working with many students over the years is that a typical student, including one who usually gets higher grades, effectively studies maybe 30 minutes out of every study hour. The rest of the time is spent "multitasking" on chat, Facebook or other social networking; changing music on the MP3 player; doing "quick things" (often something for Mom) or having a "quick conversation;" daydreaming; complaining about something being hard or unnecessary; etc. In other words, "study habits" are often not particularly effective or worshipful. Most students tell themselves they are working harder than they actually are, and most of us parents tend to believe it.

    One of the best things we can do for our kids is help them give their study habits -- the process of their schoolwork -- to God in excellence through diligence, worship and prayer. It is reasonable to expect that a student as he matures can discipline himself to focus for 50 minutes out of every hour, take a 10 minute break, and then do it again, for several hours at a time. This is a developed skill that takes training and practice. It doesn't come naturally to anyone, except perhaps in things the student naturally "likes." In that case, that passion for a particular thing (e.g., some kids really like to read) still needs to be trained to an effective study habit that has its place in the toolbox of other effective study habits. Making studying into a biblical process of Labor requires training and effort, with both academic and spiritual emphasis. It does not come naturally, nor by taking medications, nor by just "growing up."

    Summing it up

    Labor is a worship offering. We are to Labor in excellence as unto God in all things we are called to, regardless of whether the task is something we are naturally "good at" or "like" to do. Our Labor is to be done in excellence, but that "excellence" is from our perspective more about a process than an outcome -- in fact, that process includes trusting outcomes to God. In all our Labor we should keep in view that our individual esteem and worth -- and that of others -- are based unconditionally on God's declaration of who we are, not on talents or outcomes. When we biblically consider Labor, talent, and performance as applied to study habits and grades, we should seek to give our first and best in all our subjects, while trusting our grades joyfully to God.

    Of course, for us to model and communicate these things as parents, we have to believe them ourselves first -- or at least be working on that process.

    (c) 2005 Jeff Gilbert. May not be posted, distributed or otherwise used without permission.
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