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Rediscovering the Work Ethic

American workers have recently come in for some harsh criticism. Some of that criticism is justified, some is not. All of it lifts into view once again the question of the nature, meaning, and worth of work.

This subject is all the more important in a pleasure-oriented society–one that shirks work or, at any rate, mainly tolerates it for the sake of the material possessions and sensual pleasures it facilitates. For a growing number of human beings today work is an evil; one is to be envied if he or she gains its rewards by a winning lottery ticket, by peddling drugs, or by theft.

The other night I was chatting with a neighbor who had reason for complaint. He had rented his American home to others while he and his wife were abroad. The occupants reported that a bathroom towel rod needed fixing. The owner authorized calling a plumber or handyman to make the necessary repairs. As things turned out, what was needed was a new screw, nothing more. The bill–for transportation, parts and labor–was $75.00. This doesn’t fit the categories of gambling or of drug trafficking, but it comes very near to theft.

Recently my 1981 Buick Century wagon–which has been kept in prideful repair through its 93,000 miles because of its comfortable accommodation of a six-foot, 199-pound driver–began, not surprisingly, acting its age and demanding more tender loving care. I replaced the battery, belts, brakes, and tires–about $450. Next, the thermostat inconsiderately needed replacement and it developed a leaking water pump as well–another $229. I returned the car to the garage after I noted that the radiator overflow had been blocked off. But now the car was stalling and the timing needed adjustment. I took my transport to another service station where they noted a leaking gasket on the recently installed water pump. Discouraged, I asked for a frank verdict on whether to pursue repairs or bequeath the car for organ transplants or consign it to its final resting place. “Replace the transmission filter and the muffler and exhaust pipe and adjust the timing,” the mechanic proposed, “and we’ll know for sure whether I have one of those rare 150,000 mile jewels.” “While they were at it,” I said, “fix the emergency brake.” In all, another $428.00. In the course of this work the troubleshooters detected a timing chain knock that down the road, might soon give me serious trouble. At that point, doubtless some months later than a mechanically-knowledgeable driver would have waited, I said farewell.

My conviction runs deeper than ever that the science of car repairing–among some American workers at least–is even less reliable than that of sociology, which some critics evaluate with reading the entrails of a chicken.

To be sure, I have known highly trustworthy car dealers and mechanics. And I know full well that it’s possible to make an honest mistake in estimating the life expectancy of both humans and automobiles. And I rather think that the speaker of the Japanese House of Representatives somewhat slandered American workers in general last January when–according to the Japanese press at least–Yoshio Sakurauchi characterized all too many American laborers as “lazy” and “illiterate.” In fact, some Japanese corporate executives, most notably Sony’s founder Akio Morita, think that Japanese business interests should move toward shorter work hours, higher pay, improved dividends for stockholders, more ecological concern, and more contributions to charity.

Yet nobody should entirely escape the shock of Sakurauchi’s comment on American work habits. A recent book by Charles Colson and Jack Eckerd titled, Why America Doesn’t Work, makes much the same point–with abundant illustration from the workplace–that shoddy production and practices are taking a high toll in consumer confidence abroad and at home.

The problem of the American worker, they discern, is more moral and spiritual than merely economic. A society that exalts leisure above all else has much to learn from a spiritual heritage that stresses that God worked six days and rested on the seventh. The lessons are not simply that work is a noble activity–especially so when placed in the service of God and society–but that a life of idleness without work is subhuman and degrading.

The quality of one’s work performance reflects one’s personal character. The works of God are a mirror of the nature of God. Rest is not reducible to leisure; in the Bible the Sabbath rest offers opportunities for worship that renew the spirit, whereas much of modernity’s pursuit of pleasure is devitalizing and demoralizing. So much has the secular temper invaded even the Christian workplace that the church has much to learn from Scripture about the meaning and worth of work and of rest and leisure.

The grade of one’s work, as we have noted, is a commentary on one’s character. When God completed his creation of the cosmos and man, he declared it “very good.”

The church secretary who prepares a Sunday bulletin and misspells the word deity, the proofreader who does not note the difference among “immanence” and “imminence” and “eminence,” need to spend some recreational time with a dictionary. Whatever one’s trade or craft, one should do all to the glory of God and in the service of mankind. Luther emphasized the priesthood of all believers, and that our work should be offered to God as a priestly service. He knew full well that human works provide no basis for salvation and that the atoning death of Christ alone avails as the ground of redemption. But, along with the apostle Paul, he stressed also that the believer is God’s workmanship “created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

God is worthy of the best we can offer, for He has endowed us with creational gifts to be used for the good of all. Even Ruth Graham, the wife of the evangelist, reportedly has a reminder near the kitchen sink: “Divine Service Performed Here Three Times Daily.”

There is an all-seeing Eye that holds priority over both labor and management, over the union boss and the corporation president. His eye is on the sparrow as well as on the hawk;He knows the lonely worker on the assembly line and the ambitious factory boss and He can invest the life and labor of one and all with dignity, design, and consequence.