Continuing with the weekly look at Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, today we’re reading chapter 9 on “work” from Psalm 127.
“The Christian has to find a better way to avoid the sin of Babel than by imitating the lilies of the field, which ‘neither toil nor spin'” (p. 106). God’s people over time have tended to choose one of two extremes: workaholism or laziness. Some in the earliest church took the latter approach and were chastised by Paul for doing so. The issue was and is how to understand work in a world that God has made and his caring for, and in which Christ has worked a salvation for us that we receive as a gift. Perhaps we can see why the Thessalonians quit working. But the answer lies in a third way between these two alternatives: “Psalm 127 shows a way to work that is neither sheer activity not pure passivity” (p. 107).
“Before anything else, work is an activity of God” (p. 108). The story of creation is guided along by the truth that work is affirmed as good because God works. Perhaps any work is good because it reflects the stamp of the divine image in each man but with the clear and unequivocal message of the Psalm is found in the first line, “If God doesn’t build the house, the laborers labor in vain.” Building on the theology that work is good, Peterson also addresses the issue of passion and/or calling when he says, “The curse of some people’s lives is not work, as such, but senseless work…work that takes place apart from God” (p. 109).
“The character of our work is shaped not by accomplishments or possessions but in the birth of relationships” (p. 110). It is hard to follow Jesus genuinely and at the same time measure our work by “accomplishments or possessions.” Rather, “people are at the center of Christian work” (p. 110). Peterson looks to procreation (the Psalm points in that direction) for an image of what work may have been intended to be like: “We participated in an act of love that was provided for us in the structure of God’s creation” (p. 110). Noting the psalm’s shift toward talking about the blessing of children, Peterson asserts that “what does make a difference is the personal relationships that we create and develop” (p. 111).
“Psalm 127 insists on a perspective in which our effort is at the periphery and God’s work is at the center” (p. 112). The key to a “third way” of understanding and practicing Christian faith in the realm of our work is participation. We are invited to participate in God’s work–not take it all on ourselves or push it all off on God when there are things we could do. God is at the center, but we are invited to a genuine participation with God in the world through prayer and through our responsiveness to the Spirit’s guiding us into God’s work for us. This sort of participation implies following the lead of God, going with his plan, and pitching in our own energy and creativity and intelligence in the service of his agenda. This sort of participation demands close observation and listening for God. And it involves great joy in celebrating what God has done and is doing in our midst and through us.