June 17, 2017 • Life for Leaders
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
1 Corinthians 3:6 (NRSV)
In our industrial and technological age, much work happens indoors. What once took place in expansive and uncontrollable conditions, now mostly takes place within contained and controlled spaces. As a result, how we see our work is altered. Our working environment shapes our imagination about our work. While there are without doubt advantages to this development, not everything is an improvement. As the narrator of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy says, “Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.”
So what has been forgotten and lost? What can we learn from an older, biblical vision of human work? In today’s text, Paul picks up the original creation story imagery of human work as gardening. While Paul didn’t work in an actual garden, he saw his gospel work imaginatively within that framework. Gardening as a metaphor for human work reminds us that, first and foremost, human work takes place in the larger context of God’s work. That’s an essential insight, especially in an environment that intentionally screens out forces other than our own. Of course, God is still present. But, conscious and intentional reminders are necessary that “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Further, our human work, while significant, is limited nevertheless. In the language of the garden, human planting and watering are expressions of important and meaningful work. They form a small but essential contribution to the garden’s flourishing. But, they are not “all important.” Unfortunately, the curse of a modern, secular vision of human work is that our work has become all encompassing, and thereby all consuming. In a vision that excludes God’s work, humans become the principal, if not only, actors on stage. No wonder work has become relentless. “24/7” is thus the new standard of serious, committed work. But, to quote Jesus on another matter, “from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8)
Instead, today’s text reminds us that human work is intended to be, fundamentally, a divine-human partnership. Work is meant to be a communal activity. Our work engages us in a relationship. Usually, as is the case in this text with Apollos, there are other participants. Most importantly, our work takes place in the context of God’s good work, which is animated by God’s active engagement with our worlds of work. And as today’s text implies, God’s work is the most significant and consequential. He alone is the one who causes growth in a garden. If that biblical vision is at all applicable to my work, then I have to hold my responsibilities more lightly. As an entrepreneur, it is easy to see myself as solely responsible for “growing my business.” A biblical vision of my work challenges me to reimagine that growth as fundamentally God’s work, but one in which I get to participate by making material contributions.
Finally, such a partnership requires that we learn the art of waiting. Waiting is not a virtue in my world of work. It is what you do when you are not working. But, the biblical vision of work assumes that waiting is both a necessity and a virtue. That’s incredibly countercultural as it is difficult in my experience. Still, the call to discern in our work when we have done our part and need to wait on God to do his part permeates the pages of Scripture, as it is implicit in the text for today. Wendell Berry captures well the challenge of this reimagined vision of human work in his poem, From the Crest:
“I am trying to teach my mind
to bear the long, slow growth
of the fields, and to sing
of its passing while it waits.
The farm must be made a form,
endlessly bringing together
heaven and earth, light
and rain building back again
the shapes and actions of the ground.”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
In what ways do you see God at work in your work? What might be useful reminders to you of that reality in your daily work?
To what degree does your work have expectations of a 24/7 commitment? Do you struggle with work becoming all encompassing? Why or why not?
Do you find seeing your work as a divine-human partnership helpful? Why or Why not?
Lord Jesus Christ, we are grateful that you have called us into partnership with you in the work you have given us to do. Open our eyes in the places where we cannot see you at work in our work. Teach us to walk in rhythm with you. Give us grace to act in faith and with courage when that is our work, and give us grace to wait with patience for your work when that is our work.
We ask in your name, Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary: It Takes All Sorts (1 Corinthians 3:1–9)
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.