The following post is fifth in a six-part series on worldview and work taken from Darrow Miller’s new book LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day.
In some developing countries you will find men with very long fingernails on their pinky finger as a sign of their disdain for work. Because one cannot do hard physical labor and at the same time grow long fingernails, they are broadcasting to the world that they are above manual labor—that they are elite. When work is a curse, what you want to do is get other people to work for you. In many countries where there is an aristocracy, the aristocrats exist because there is a low view of work. Believing that work is bad, aristocratic people have slaves and servants to do the work for them. This culture of poverty is found in the former Soviet Union. Two Russian proverbs illustrate this: “Labor loves fools” and “Smart people don’t work.”
I was discussing this with a friend from Venezuela, Xiomara Suarez. She said, “Darrow, I have a song for you,” and sang it for me. A year later we were at a conference, and I asked Xiomara to sing this song because it illustrated the attitude toward work in her country. As she began to sing in Spanish, people from four or five other Spanish speaking countries all immediately joined in. I thought it was just a Venezuelan song, but it is obviously a song known all over the Spanish-speaking world. The song is “The Black Man of the Batei.”
I’m called the black man of the Batei
Because for me “work” is like an enemy
All work I’ll leave it to the ox
Because God made work as a punishment [italics added].
Now can you imagine if the culture as a whole sings this song all the time? Work is punishment? What is work made for? For the animals, not for man.
I like to dance this merengue music
To dance it with a black good-looking lady
I like to dance it, all night, from side to side
To dance it hugging closely my nice good-looking lady.
I like to dance merengue,
Merengue’s better than work
Because having to work
It causes me a great pain [italics added].
Why are some nations poor? When you believe that work is a curse, you avoid work and don’t respect the work of others. Work and labor are demeaning. If you have whole nations where the goal is to avoid work and where those with power corruptly live off the efforts of those who are less powerful, what will that tend to produce? It will produce poverty, not productivity. At the root of the poverty is a moral and spiritual impoverishment just as tragic as that of the West, with millions cut off from the true story about themselves and the world.
Even if we live in affluence and think we have no relation to animism, we still can find reflections of ourselves in the animistic worldview. The words to “The Black Man of the Batei” and the crowd’s identification with them are really not that shocking to a lot of us. With a different cultural flair, the same sentiments are flying back and forth across the tables of a million restaurants, pubs, and family dining rooms every Friday afternoon. Most everyone knows the familiar acronym TGIF. There’s even the restaurant T.G.I. Friday’s, where we can duly celebrate the end of the workweek. Like kids released by the school bell, when work lets out we thank God that it’s finally Friday, when our time is our own, when “real life” happens. Of course, we can be happy about work well done and happy to rest as God intends us to do. But the sentiment doesn’t usually run on that wavelength.
For years the American country-music legend George Jones ushered in every weekend on radio stations all over America with the hit “Finally Friday.” Like those of “The Black Man of the Batei,” the words of “Finally Friday” are a window on how people think and feel about work. The lyrics contrast the “workin’ blues” of a barely survivable workweek with the good times of the free “wild weekend” flush with money and time to burn. While most of us probably don’t rush out after work on Fridays to exercise our freedom with booze and women as this song describes, we may be all too familiar with the dread of Mondays . . . and Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays.
We might identify strongly with the contrast between the working blues and the anticipation and sweetness of freedom. Even though its exact images may be as foreign to some North Americans as those of the Latin folk song, this country classic resonates even in the midst of the workaholic culture of the West. This anthem could be our own: It’s finally Friday; I’m free again.
In this, too, Christians are not immune from the thought life and emotional landscape of their cultures. Just as we experience a tug-of-war with the self-serving materialistic elevation of work, we may feel a great dissonance between what our Christian faith says about the sacredness of our work and what we may experience as the drudgery of work. Even though we know better, there are times we act as if work is a curse. Even though we may sometimes enjoy our work and on our best days even experience it as a calling, other times we catch ourselves acting or thinking as if we are slaves to it, as if we would abandon it at first chance, as if it has no intrinsic value and no inherent connection to who we really are or what we’re really about.
We may know that God didn’t institute work as a curse; we may know that God created us in his own image—made us to work as he does with great purpose and reward. But to our disappointment and unease, in our actual experience work is often more about survival than the fulfillment of our destinies. We may work solely to provide the necessities for ourselves and our families, even as we’re not sure exactly what is necessary, but surely food and shelter and clothing are. We may work simply to get by. On some level we may feel trapped, as a true animist does, at the mercy of forces beyond our control. For the sake of these necessities, because of these hard facts of life, we sacrifice the working hours of our lives—but no more than that. When the weekend comes, or our days off, we greet it with sweet relief.
Sadly, the sweetness often doesn’t last. When we’ve spent all week being dissatisfied and waiting for life to start, we often continue in the same mindset, stuck in a rut. Our days off, and all our hopes pinned on them, are often a disappointment. Our view of work is impossible to separate from our view of life. We find that our expectations for a happy and meaningful life cannot be met in a few days to the exclusion of the others. We run into the truth: rather than a curse, or what we do to get by, work is at the center of our identity and foundational to our purpose.
We invite you to explore our new website, www.MondayChurch.org where you can learn more about Darrow’s new book, LifeWork: A Biblical Theology of Vocation, as well as discover a host of resources to help you connect your work with the Biblical worldview.