The Spirituality of Work
By Brian Diehm
Human work participates in God’s ongoing creation, and leads to holiness in the world.
It seems difficult at times to reconcile the toil and “worldliness” of work with a Christian’s call to holiness. For the lay faithful, however, work is a means of sanctification, not only for himself but for the world around him. In obedience to God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it,” our daily work participates in extending His will through every part of His creation. Christians are called to be conscious of how their work contributes to building the Kingdom of God on earth, to their growth as human beings, and to their growth in holiness.
For many Christians, holiness is matter of weekly public worship and private prayer. They would not call themselves holy, in the way that they see the Church hierarchy as “religious” by nature and calling. However, secular vocation is part of our holiness as lay Christians. Through our work, we achieve sanctification and return to God the gifts of life. If we fail to understand the sanctity of our work, we can fail to revere God’s ongoing creation in our daily tasks, and be unable to draw strength from the communion with God that our work represents. Work has a singular dignity in God’s plan, and we must understand the sanctifying nature of our work.
In both Genesis and the New Testament, the duty to work is clear. “In toil shall you eat … by the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat” were God’s words to Adam at the Fall of Man (Gen 3:17-19). The apostle Paul said: “if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat” (2 Thes 3:10). The Second Vatican Council said: “The Christian who shirks his temporal duties shirks his duties towards his neighbor, neglects God himself, and endangers his eternal salvation” (Gaudium et Spes, 43).
Paul tells one community “work with your hands, … and not depend on anyone” (2 Thes 4:10-12). Self-sufficiency is at the heart of the Genesis passage after the Fall. Self-sufficiency is a form of Christian charity in that it prevents our needs becoming an unnecessary burden on others.
But work is also of value in the divine plan in its own right. Genesis tells us that human work came before the Fall. The Holy Father writes: “Man is the image of God partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe” (Laborem Exercens, 4).
The nature of work changed at the Fall of Man. What had been a direct partnership with God became burdensome and difficult. Work now involves toil: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17). Despite toil, work remains a part of our shared nature with God, and completes our nature. The dignity of work is an extension of our human dignity, because we are made in the image of a creator God. We have a share in the ongoing creation!
The Christian is called to perform this work in this world. Holiness does not call us to abandon the world through spiritual escape, but to embrace and build the world. God not only created us, but created the world for us. The Holy Father writes: “The ‘world’ thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ” (Christifideles Laici, 15).
The Second Vatican Council said: “…it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. They live in the world … that they may contribute to the sanctification of the world” (Lumen Gentium, 31). “That men, working in harmony, should renew the temporal order and make it increasingly more perfect: such is God’s design for the world” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7).
Work and family are also interdependent realities: both are created and instituted by God as part of creation, and they help form each other. The Holy Father says: “The family … is simultaneously a community made possible by work and the first school of work, within the home, for every person” (Laborem Exercens, 10). The same analogy extends to the larger family, society at large. As we expand our sphere of influence and interaction to the workplace, to the wider culture, the community of the family is expanded into the family of God through shared work.
Some misunderstandings about work are widespread in the secular world. The error common to many of these is placing the value, and the dignity, on the work being performed rather than on the human performing it. A society where work is valued by wages alone makes this an easy error to fall into. For the highly paid, this is an inducement to pride which denies the value of all persons before God. In the poorly paid, it can lead to economic subjugation and stress families to the breaking point. The Holy Father speaks of “the danger of treating work as a special kind of ‘merchandise,’ or as an impersonal ‘force’ needed for production (the expression ‘work force’ is, in fact, in common use)” (Laborem Exercens, 7).
Our work can never transform this world into an earthly paradise. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore this world in our expectation of the next. The Second Vatican Council said: “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. … When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise…, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to His Father an eternal and universal kingdom” (Gaudium et Spes, 39).
So, our work can also be a sharing in Christ’s redeeming. “By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in His redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish” (Catechism, 2427).
The lay vocation has the potential to be a sacred enterprise, for the individual, for the family, for the community, for God the creator and Jesus the redeemer. The Second Vatican Council summed it up: “For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. … the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God” (Lumen Gentium, 34).
Copyright © 2000 by Brian Diehm