When Work Goes Sour

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Sept. 2, 2018  John 5:15-25

When it comes to their work, eighty per cent of all Americans hate to get out of bed in the morning–especially on Monday.

A majority of all Americans wish they did could do something else.      Twenty-five per cent of all Americans suffer severe symptoms of job stress–absenteeism, substance abuse, divorce, physical illness, and the quality of their work is poor.

A few years ago, a popular song captured the frustration people have with work.  “TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT.   Many people are not happy in their work, and many of us have had jobs we hated.  So on this Labor Day weekend , let’s take a look at work and what our work means to us. Why are do so many people hate to get out of bed on Monday.  What would it take for work to be meaningful and joyous?


There’s a very good little book I find myself coming back to again and again.  It’s called “When Work Goes Sour,” and it’s written by James Dittes, a professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School.  It is a book written about work from a male perspective, but with more and more women now in the workplace, what Dittes says applies to both men and women.  Dittes says that we expect a lot from our work, and usually don’t get it.  We expect fulfillment and contentment from our work.  We expect work to give us a sense of self-esteem, to help us find our sense of place in life.  We have modified Rene Descartes’ dictum: “I think therefore I am” to “I work, therefore I am.”

Dittes says that it is not too strong a term to say that we make work an idol.  If you remember what idolatry is in the Bible, an idol is something which isn’t God but which we treat like God.  We give allegiance to an idol that only God deserves.  We expect more from an idol than it can possibly deliver, because we expect from it what only God can deliver.   We expect our work to give us what only God can give us.  That’s why we make an idol out of our work.

When we find ourselves frustrated and disappointed with our work, then a good question to ask ourselves is, “Have I made work an idol?”  Am I expecting more from my work that it can ever possibly deliver?  Am I expecting my work to help me feel worthwhile, to build my self-esteem, to tell me that I am valuable?”  In short, am I expecting from work the salvation that only comes from God in Jesus Christ.

Over the years I have talked to many to  many parents  who worry because their children aren’t successes.  Their definition of success, invariably, has to do with having a professional job that pays a good income.  A dead end job with a minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.  It’s like the Jewish mother joke.  A Jewish mother can easily say the words, “My son, the surgeon.”  But it’s impossible for a Jewish mother to say, “My son, the garbage  man.”

Erma Bombeck has written a column about success that rates 4 stars in my estimation.  She writes:

“I can’t remember the name of the man who spoke at my high school commencement, but I remember what he said.  He told us the future of the world rested on our shoulders, and charged us with finding our destiny and fulfilling it.  He went on to say we alone must cure disease, hunger and poverty throughout the world and above all, we must find success.

“I glanced over at Jack, the class deficient who couldn’t even find his parents after they parked the car and I got an uneasy feeling.  Not only that, but or those of us who planned to sleep in for a week, the speech was very depressing, as it seemed to call for a lot of work from such a small class.

“After the speech, the entire group scrambled out of the auditorium in search of success as if it were the first item on a scavenger hunt.  We had no idea what it was, where to look for it, how much it cost, whether it was in season or what it looked like, but from that day on, we go up early in the morning and pursed it until night.   Sometimes we heard that another classmate had found it, but when we confronted him, he assured us that if he had, he would be happier.

“By our tenth reunion, no one had found it yet.  The men struggled in their jobs and fertilized their lawns on weekends, and the women raised babies and polished the bottoms of their Revere Ware.  It seemed we were never rich enough, thin enough, secure enough, educated enough, fulfilled enough, or important enough to qualify for success.

“Could it be that success is not a judgment of society, but can only be self-administered?  is it possible that success isn’t a plateau of wealth or honors, but a condition that lies within each of us.”

Erma Bombeck is suggesting something here that is truly Biblical.   If we let other people define success, we’ll never succeed.  But if we decide that we are successful enough, if we feel successful inside, then the standards of the world can never affect us.

There’s one verse that I want to suggest that we carry in our heart over this Labor Day Weekend.  It’s John 5:30, where Jesus says, “I seek not to do my own will but the will of the One who sent me.”  One translation puts it, “My work is not to do what I want to do, but what God wants me to do.”  What a novel definition of work, that our work is to do what God wants us to do, to live our lives to the glory of God.

In 1883 two young medical students graduated from the University of Michigan.  They were best friends, and they had been talking for months about their future.

“Come on Will.” Come to New York with me.  We’ll make a great team.  We’ll set up a partnership.  There are a lot of wealthy people there–we’ll have it made in no time.”

“I’m sorry Ben,” Will said, but the more I think about…I really want to practice with you, but I don’t think New York is for me.”

“Well, at least come East with me.  We’ll go to Europe, meet some beautiful, rich women.  With our talent, we can’t miss.”

Will was silent for a moment then said, “It’s a tempting picture you paint, Ben, but it’s not what I want.  I want to be a great surgeon.  But I want to serve my people back home.  These people need good doctors too–even if they can’t always pay.  No, I think I should go home to Minnesota and give them all the help I can.”

Well, you probably are getting ahead of me.  Ben went to Manhattan.  Will went to Minnesota, where he and his father, a GP, gave themselves to minister to the sick of the small towns and farms in and around Rochester.  In the years that followed nothing more was heard of Ben.  Undoubtedly he lived out his life as he wanted.  Undoubtedly, he made a lot of money.  As for young Will, he and his younger brother, Charles, built the Mayo Clinic.  And the world came to him.

There is something inside us that does not let us rest as long as we are living–and working–only for ourselves.  There is something that beckons us to a life that is joyfully and gratefully given away.

“My work,” Jesus said, “is to the will of the one who sent me.”   The possibility of meaningful and successful work lies within the reach of each of us.  That kind of work involves finding some need and filling it, finding some hurt and healing it.  When we do that, when we have aligned our work with God’s will for our lives, we will find our place, our role, our destiny.  And, we will be pleased with ourselves, and I think, make God smile.

Categories: Pastor's Message

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