THE VALUE OF WORK (Labor Day)
A Sermon by Rev. Brian W. Keith
Preached in Glenview, Illinois September 4, 1988
“Everyone who has been faithful, sincere and just in his employment and work in the world is received in heaven by the angels … ” (Divine Wisdom XI:4).
This quote, taken from the Heavenly Doctrines, is useful to reflect upon this Labor Day weekend, when we recognize and give honor to all whose hard work and effort make up the backbone and strength of this country. A day of parades, family cookouts, and rest are how we celebrate the occasion. While this is a secular and not a religious holiday, there are spiritual implications to our employments. For our work, be it caring for children, running a business, or blue or white collar employment, has a significant impact upon who we are and what we become.
An emphasis found throughout the Scriptures is the importance, the value, of work. In the creation story we are told that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Even in the very beginning the Lord expected people on earth to work, to take care of things. Then in the fundamental principles governing life, the Ten Commandments, the Lord says, “six days you shall labor and do all your work.” Yes, one day is for the Lord, but the others are for our work (see TCR 301). And when the Lord sent out the seventy to proclaim the Gospel to all, He told them not to take much money or garments, “for the laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7). He expected that they would be rewarded. “A tree is known by its fruit” (Matt 12:33).
It is not hard to see how valuable work is in our lives. Vacations are delightful, but where would we be without work? When we are forced to be idle due to extended illness or unemployment, how do we feel? Is it not frustrating? And how often does it lead to depression? For the feeling of being useless, of having no meaning, can rob us of our self-esteem, can destroy our desire to do anything. This is why retirement can be a challenge to many. People who had been accustomed to hard work suddenly find themselves without any need to get up in the morning. Until a sense of usefulness is discovered in other ways, retirement can seem like a pointless waste.
The hellishness of being without any use in life can be seen both in the faces of the long-term unemployed who seem to have surrendered, and in the excessively rich. Now wealth has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one gets to heaven or not. But people who had led useless lives here because of their wealth not wealth they earned through their own labors, but usually inherited, which enabled them to avoid all useful employment find little happiness in the spiritual world. For they had spent their days finding new and more exciting ways to amuse themselves, usually in destructive ways. They cared only for themselves, and looked down on others who labored hard (see SD 2501). While some may complain that they have to work to earn a living, it is actually a blessing of Providence that we need to find jobs and are not tempted through wealth to be useless.
Being able to work, to find gainful employment outside the home, or devote one’s attention to rearing a family and taking care of a home, is a vital way the Lord has provided for us to learn to be useful. For what value would our lives have if we sat around waiting to be entertained? We can talk and talk about what we believe, about what ought to be done, but if we do not do it, what is the point? Genuine charity, genuine love for others, exists in what we do for others. And our jobs, when we perform them justly and fairly, become our life of charity (see AC 8253e).
To have regular work establishes a pattern, a structure, for our lives. As the Heavenly Doctrines note, “the love of use and devotion to use holds the mind together lest it melt away and, wandering about, absorb all the lusts which flow in from the body and world through the senses with their allurements, whereby the truths of religion and the truths of morality with their goods are scattered to all the winds” (CL 16:3). Put simply, having to work keeps us out of trouble. It occupies our time; it keeps us busy.
More than that, working is a means the Lord utilizes to teach us to be useful (see Faith 25). Providence oversees the process of growing up and finding work that all might be productive. For initially each child has a delight in learning. In the course of education most students discover subjects or skills that draw their attention. After graduation, their delights lead them to find work in these areas. As novices, though, they are not particularly capable (who would trust a first-year doctor with complicated brain surgery, or an untried mechanic with an engine overhaul?). There is much more to learn. More information and experience is required. But as that is gained, as there is some mastery of the business at hand, then that initial delight is renewed. An affection for the work grows, which is an affection for being useful. From work, people are able to learn how to help others how to be productive how to do something useful for others.
This is especially seen in the story of Jacob. Jacob had to flee his home after he had stolen the birthright and blessing from his older brother Esau, who rightfully deserved them. Without land, without herds, he had nothing; he was nothing. Then he saw the beautiful Rachel, the woman he desired for a wife. Laban agreed to the marriage and to Jacob’s offer to work for him for seven years for Rachel. “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed but a few days to him because of the love he had for her” (Gen. 29:20). Unfortunately for Jacob, after the seven years he found himself married to Leah, the older sister. But after agreeing to another seven years of labor, he was permitted to marry Rachel also. Then, in need of flocks and herds, he agreed to work for Laban another seven years that he might acquire some. Thus, at the end of over twenty years of work, Jacob returned home a wealthy man.
What happened in those years? In addition to acquiring a family and wealth, the work was the means the Lord used to change Jacob, to mature him. For when he finally returned home he submitted himself before his older brother, recognizing his seniority. This could not have happened unless he had grown through the work unless he had developed a new set of priorities.
As Jacob learned to be useful, we do also. Often with selfish goals at first, as we put effort into our jobs, as we learn to be more productive, the Lord can change our attitudes, can gradually shift the emphasis away from reward to a joy in doing something good for others. This is the delight in being useful. It is a heavenly quality. It is actually being of service to the Lord.
In the book of Revelation, letters are written to seven churches. To the church in the city of Ephesus praise is given for “your works, your labor, your patience … and you persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and not become weary” (2:2,3). Spiritually, laboring for the Lord means striving with zeal to do what is right, to speak what is true (see AE 102). This is done in all our works as we attempt to act fairly with others, to provide goods and services which will benefit them.
It also means that all uses are ultimately derived from the Lord. As we perform to the best of our abilities in our jobs, we are serving the Lord, doing His work. For all uses have their life, their value, because they are part of the Lord’s way of helping people. The Lord enables people to participate in His Providence. He operates through human efforts to bring about heavenly ends. So He is present in every single aspect of useful interactions between people, guiding them so that spiritual life may grow.
What this means is that there is no meaningless labor on this earth. Each job, from the most poorly paid menial work to the most exalted executive position, contributes to the Lord’s purpose in creation. He will use every facet of our labor, of our efforts to do our jobs well, to further in some way a heaven from the human race. Although in a materialistic culture we tend to measure our worth by what we are paid, that is not how the Lord looks at us. Rather than look at how highly or lowly esteemed our position is, the Lord sees in each of us how fair we are trying to be, how dedicated we are to doing our jobs well. This determines our quality, the worth of our labors.
What job we do is then not as important as our approach to it. Is it simply a way to earn money to buy more things? Or is it a way to be of service? There are many who, though poor and perhaps seen as less productive members of society, develop heavenly qualities because they “are content with their lot, and are careful and diligent in their work, who love labor better than idleness, and act sincerely and faithfully, and at the same time live a Christian life” (HH 364).
While many jobs are relatively unrewarding in this world, our attitude toward them can make them better or worse. If we focus on the money earned, the prestige acquired, or rapid advancement possibilities, we are likely to become dissatisfied. But if we focus upon the use we are doing, then almost any job can have its delights, its sense of reward. If our love is for being useful, then we will search for better ways to do it perhaps changing jobs or seeking higher positions but these will be but means, not the end itself.
For through our work we can participate in the Lord’s Providence, we can learn to care for others, and can have heaven created within us. This is why the Heavenly Doctrines teach that “everyone who has been faithful, sincere and just in his employment and work in the world is received in heaven by the angels.” Not that just by working hard we somehow buy our way into heaven, but that through our labors, our service to the Lord, the truths of religion can come to life.
As the psalmist said, “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways. When you eat the labor of your hands you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you” (128:1,2). We eat the labor of our hands as the rewards of use are manifest in our lives. From a love of serving others we devote ourselves to our work. We seek ways to help. We grow in our delight in being useful, in bringing others happiness. And we are blessed with a happiness that the angels know, a happiness which can exist only where there is love for one another, even as the Lord has loved us. Amen.
Lessons: Psalm 128, Luke 10:1-12, AC 7038
Arcana Coelestia 7038
“That they may serve Me.” That this signifies elevation into heaven in order to perform uses therefrom is evident from the signification of “serving Jehovah,” or the Lord, as being to perform uses; and as this is said of those of the spiritual church who have been saved by the coming of the Lord, and who before His coming were in the lower earth and were afterward elevated into heaven (n. 6854, 6914), and thereby came into a state of performing uses, therefore by “that they may serve Me” is signified elevation into heaven in order to perform uses therefrom. That “to serve the Lord” denotes to perform uses is because true worship consists in the performance of uses, thus in the exercises of charity. He who believes that serving the Lord consists solely in frequenting a place of worship, in hearing preaching there, and in praying, and that this is sufficient, is much mistaken. The very worship of the Lord consists in performing uses; and during man’s life in the world, uses consist in everyone’s discharging aright his duty in his station, thus from the heart being of service to his country, to societies, and to the neighbor, in dealing sincerely with his fellow, and in performing kind offices with prudence in accordance with each person’s character. These uses are chiefly the works of charity, and are those whereby the Lord is chiefly worshiped. Frequenting a place of worship, hearing sermons, and saying prayers are also necessary; but without the above uses they avail nothing, because they are not of the life but teach what the life must be. The angels in heaven have all happiness from uses and according to uses, so that to them uses are heaven.
That happiness is from Divine order according to uses can be seen from the things in man which correspond to those which are in the Grand Man, as those from the external senses, namely, from sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, which as has been shown at the end of many chapters are correspondent. These senses therefore have delights exactly in accordance with the uses which they perform; the most delightful is the sense of conjugial love, on account of its greatest use, because from this comes the propagation of the human race, and from the human race, heaven; the delight of taste follows next because it serves for the nourishment and thereby for the health of the body, in accordance with which is the sound action of the mind; the delight of smell is less, because it merely serves for recreation, and thus also for health; the delight of hearing and that of sight are in the last place, because they merely take up those things which will be of service to uses, and wait upon the intellectual part and not so much the will part.
From these and other like facts it becomes plain that it is uses according to which happiness is given in heaven by the Lord, and that it is uses through which the Lord is mainly worshiped. From this it is that John lay on the Lord’s breast at table, and that the Lord loved him more than the rest; but this was not for his own sake but because he represented the exercises of charity, that is, uses. John represented these (n. 2135a, 2760, 3934).