by Kelli Sallman
Record layoffs. Seclusion. Loss. In three weeks, Americans filed more than 16 million unemployment claims (*data as of April 9). Shelter-in-place rules, age, illness, and the broad loss of livelihoods have stripped away roles and outlets for talents that help form self-identity and our sense of purposeful work. For many, our world has become a maze to stumble through in the dark.
Loss disorients us—not only in the paid-work world but also in the unpaid ways we contribute to human flourishing in our homes, church, and communities. Even if only temporary, the unexpected loss of a defining identity (entrepreneur, hugger, soccer player, host, high school senior, provider, greeter, performer, always available Grandma) feels like suddenly waking up without an arm. We beat our heads against all the things we can no longer do. Even opening the door at a neighbor’s knock seems awkward and strange.
When Work Goes Dark
Seventeenth century British writer John Milton could relate. For more than 40 years, he formed his identity around the gifts God had bestowed on him—a brilliant mind, freedom to study, and a powerful pen. Then he went blind. In the first eight lines of Sonnet 19 written after darkness overtook him, Milton reflects on what must have been his own questions and grief in blindness:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask.
He compares his trouble to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30) as an acutely unfair riddle. In the parable, God rebukes the man who foolishly stewarded his master’s treasure by burying it rather than making it produce. Milton likens his lost ability to the steward’s hiding of treasure and fears God will rebuke him too, despite his wish to continue writing.
He then asks a question that alludes to another parable in which a landowner hires day laborers to tend his vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16): Does God require work (day-labor)? His question resonates in our own hearts during times of loss, if we are honest. Is God disappointed by my lack of productivity? Does His inclusion of us in His kingdom require that we perform? How can He require work from me when He has allowed my most natural means of serving to be stripped away? How do we recover?
These questions bubble up from our core because God created us for work—good work. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). “For we are…created in Christ Jesus for good works….” (Ephesians 2:10). He wired us to long for purpose. And we equate working with doing, in some manner.
Waiting Is Sufficient Work
But Milton—perhaps as a pioneering faith and work leader—gives us in the poem’s final six lines a hard-won, unexpected answer to our questions: in certain seasons, re-envision what it means to work and flourish.
But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands, at his bidding, speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean, without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
God requires nothing. Though we may want to earn our keep, God wants us to continue to learn how to receive. We receive by bearing Jesus’ mild yoke and learning from Him (Matthew 11:29–30). And, as Milton points out, Jesus’ “state is Kingly.” We do well to see the invisible realities of His kingdom.
His thousands of angels do His bidding by carrying messages, judgement, and intervention throughout earth and heaven. Yet His “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” also serve well who stand by His throne and wait (Revelation 5:11). Angels need no rest and suffer no physical frailties. If waiting on the Lord is sufficient work for them, how can it be less than sufficient for us when God calls us to it?
Waiting Is Hope
The Hebrew word for wait also means “to hope.” I pray in these troubling times you don’t lose hope. Milton thought in his mid-40s that his greatest work—as civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell—was behind him. But he completed his enduring masterpiece, Paradise Lost, only after he fell blind, as he accepted help from others.
Let us wait upon the Lord and rejoice in His salvation. He will take away the reproach of His people and wipe all tears from our faces (Isaiah 25:8–9). Only stand and wait.
Links and Sources:
*Patricia Cohen and Tiffany Hsu, “‘Sudden Black Hole’ for the Economy with Millions More Unemployed,” NY Times, April 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/business/economy/unemployment-claim-numbers-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare. *This article has been updated read the complete article for current information.
John Milton, “Sonnet 19,” PoetryFoundation.com, accessed April 10, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet-19-when-i-consider-how-my-light-is-spent. Public domain.
Kelli Sallman writes, edits, and mentors writers for a living. She loves using her theology training and literature and arts background to help people make sense of God’s good world. You can find more of her writing on her blog, Inklings & Inspiration.