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It’s Groundhog Day…Again

The alarm clock beeps incessantly. Morning again. Reaching over, he fumbles with it a little before finding the snooze button. A few more minutes won’t hurt. A few more minutes to rest.

But, he can’t sleep. His mind already swirls with thoughts of the day ahead. So much to do. Little details, big projects, meetings. It’s going to be a busy day.

And, when it’s done, what does he have to look forward to? Doing it all over again. Tomorrow morning, it will be the same: hit the snooze button a few times, get out of bed, and face the same job, the same tasks, the same routine. He feels like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, endlessly living the same day over and over again,trying desperately to hide from the pointlessness of it all.

But hey, at least it’s a paycheck. He’s got bills to pay and groceries to buy. After all, if he didn’t have this job, his family wouldn’t be able to enjoy the good things in life either. Living for the weekends, as they say.

So, he rolls out of bed, stumbles into the bathroom, and starts his own personal Groundhog Day all over again.

And along the way, he messes up the Gospel.

It’s pretty easy to understand what the Gospel has to do with Sunday. But what about the rest of the week? If the Gospel doesn’t have anything to say about this part of your life, then it leaves most of your life untouched.

And, that’s often the impression that we give when we talk about the Gospel. If the good news is primarily that I can have my sins forgiven so I can spend eternity with God, then my job has relatively little to do with the Gospel. For most of us, work is just a necessary evil. It lets us earn money and maybe provide the occasional opportunity to share the Gospel. And even those of us who actually enjoy our jobs have a hard time seeing how it relates to the Gospel. So, work becomes a Gospel-free zone. The Gospel is for Sundays. The rest of the week is about something else entirely.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Remember how the story beings. Imagine Adam standing in the garden listening to God explain what he’s supposed to do. He’s standing in stunned silence trying to process what he’s just heard. Finally, after several slow seconds, he stammers, “You want me to take responsibility for the whole thing? Animals, plants, mountains, streams, oceans, everything? I’m supposed to watch over it all so that you can manifest your glory everywhere? Seriously? Do you see what the monkeys are doing over there? What made them think it would be a good idea to pick that stuff up and throw it at each other? Oh great, now the dogs are eating it. And you want me to be in charge of all this? Do I at least get vacations?”

God created us for work. He set us in creation and gave us work to do as one of the ways in which he would manifest his glory through us. And, if we fast-forward to the end of the story, we’ll see the same thing. The eternity that God has in store for us is not one of unending boredom, sitting on fluffy clouds playing our harps all day. Instead, it will be an eternity of work. Not the endless drudgery that work often is now. But, the joyful realization of our purpose: to serve in creation as God’s image bearers in the world.

So, what does all this have to do with today? How does this help us understand how our work relates to the Gospel? Because God has summoned us back into his kingdom so that we can again be what God always intended us to be, living in the world as citizens of the kingdom, image bearers.

The alarm beeps incessantly. It can’t possibly be morning again, can it? She rolls over and hits snooze. She knows he should get up. Busy day ahead. Of course, every day is busy. Pretty much the same. She looks forward to the weekend and getting some time with her family. It’s not that she hates her job, though she definitely doesn’t love it either. But she does enjoy her weekends.

She lays there for a while struggling with the apparently meaninglessness of it all. She doesn’t like working for just a paycheck. She wishes it could be more.

And then she remembers. Every day is an opportunity to live out her purpose in the world, to image God everywhere, helping people see his glory and through her. That doesn’t make all of the frustration go away. She’s still going to keep her eye out for a different job, one that fits her gifts and interests a little better. But, in the meantime, she’d better get up. She has work to do today.

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

Miroslav Volf on the eschatological significance of human work

I was recently re-reading portions of Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, and I was struck again with his vision for relating human work in creation with the eschatological new creation. Volf devotes considerable attention to rejecting the idea that there will be an eventual “annihilation” of this world following by an entirely new creation. Instead, he contends that a more faithful interpretation of the biblical narrative would be to affirm that this present creation will be renewed and transformed in the eschaton. Thus, the new creation flows from the current creation, rather than being entirely discontinuous with it.

One of his concerns with the annihilation/new creation framework is that it threatens to rob human work of its intrinsic significance. On that framework, any work that we perform with respect to this creation has only an instrumental value insofar as it improves me as an individual or the believing community as a whole. The effect on creation itself has no lasting significance.

In a renewal/transformation framework, though, he contends that we can understand human work has having eschatological significance in that it participates in the transformatio mundi.

The picture changes radically with the assumption that the world will end not in apocalyptic destruction but in eschatological transformation. Then the results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity….will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made. (91)

Thus, human work has eschatological significance even beyond its instrumental effect on the person performing the work. Indeed, Volf argues that this gives us grounds for affirming that even the work of non-believers might transformatively carried over into the new creation. Any “noble result” of human endeavor may be judged by God as having value for new creation.

Volf wants to be careful, though, to make sure that we don’t begin to think that we are actually the ones who bring the new creation into being. For Volf, new creation is clearly a work of God, but in a way that retains the significance of human work.

Through the Spirit, God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way. These historical anticipations are, however, as far from the consummation of the new creation as earth is from heaven. The consummation is a work of God alone. But since this solitary divine work does not obliterate but transforms the historical anticipations…one can say, without being involved in a contradiction, that human work is an aspect of active anticipation of the exclusively divine transformatio mundi. (100)

Drawing largely on the resources of eschatology and pneumatology, Volf presents a compelling vision for the significance of human work and how it contributes to the transformatio mundi, while retaining a clear sense of the divine prerogative in new creation.

To that extent, it reminded me of the semi-apocryphal quote attributed to Martin Luther (at least I can’t find where he said it): “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Given Volf’s framework, this becomes more than rhetorical flourish. Planting an apple tree just might have eschatological significance in its own right. Johnny Appleseed would be so proud.