There is a question I cannot get out of my mind. I have been thinking…
I would like to share some thoughts on the godliness of gluten and the holiness of whole grain wheat. Ok not really. But that could be an interesting blog post.
This question comes from the words of verse 2 in Psalm 127 which unfortunately tends to get overlooked by its more popular brother verse 1. Let’s look at both brothers side by side.
Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep. (ESV)
I believe that the psalmist is writing these words as a way to guard the hearts of his readers from the dangers of meaningless work on one hand and idolatrous work on the other. All of us work in some way, shape, or form. And whether that work is paid or unpaid, we all find ourselves tempted at times to expect too little or expect too much from our work.
Let me explain.
There is a direct correlation between the meaning we find in what we do and how clearly we understand why we do it. We will always struggle with the “what” of our work if we don’t have a clear “why” for our work. And the fuzzier the “why” is, the more frustrated the “what” becomes.
There are many days and even weeks when it feels as though verse 2 is describing my work habits. I am busy, I am working a lot, I am exhausted, my task list is a mile long, and my inbox feels like an overflowing toilet…in more ways than one. But it seems as though the metaphorical “bread” I am eating in the work I do is just making me less satisfied and more anxious. And that’s because too often it feels like my work is in vain.
The word “vain” in verse 2 is typically translated as worthless or meaningless. But it really means “that which lacks purpose, intention, or aim.” When we find ourselves feeling as though the work we do is meaningless, it may not be because we have the wrong calling. Perhaps it’s because we have failed to see our work as a calling in the first place.
Professor Amy Wrzeniewski at the Yale School of Management puts it this way:
“People who see their work as a calling are significantly more satisfied with their jobs. They’re significantly more satisfied with their lives. They’re more engaged in what it is that they’re doing and tend to be better performers regardless of what the work is.”
When our work is just work and not a calling, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves lacking purpose, intention, or aim in our Monday life. And we shouldn’t be surprised when that leads to us eating the “bread of anxious toil.” Again, the fuzzier the “why” is, the more frustrated the “what” becomes.
That phrase “anxious toil” is the same root word used to describe the pains brought about by the curses in Genesis 3 specifically around work. And it is often translated as the word sorrow.
What this means is that if our work is causing us sorrow, it may not be because our work is meaningless. Perhaps it is because we are struggling to see God in our work and how God is at work through our work.
Remember, the curses came because humanity chose to live and work in a world where they didn’t need God. And a world in which we love and work without needing God is a world that produces the bread of anxious toil.
So how do we avoid eating the bread of anxious toil on Monday and instead eat the bread of worshipful work?
Trust that God is at work in your work with your work
Remember, the psalmist begins by saying that “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” When we work without a real belief that God is present and active in and through our work, then we will find ourselves eating the bread of anxious toil. But when we enter into our Monday life with a posture of prayer that seeks to be attentive to God’s presence in our work, then we are more likely to find ourselves worshiping as we work.
Do you pray over your work? Do you ask God to establish the work of your hands (Psalm 90:17)? Do you trust that God will use your work for His purposes?
Receive God’s gift of rest from your work
Notice how verse 2 ends. “He gives to his beloved sleep.” One of the surefire ways to avoid eating the bread of anxious toil is to receive God’s gift of rest. Rest allows us to trust God and be rejuvenated in our work. It’s an intentional way for us to slow down and tell ourselves that we can’t do everything. But it also allows us the chance to step back from the “what” of our work to reflect upon the “why” of our work.
At various times in our life we find ourselves somewhere on the spectrum of expecting too much or too little from our work. If we don’t see that God is truly present in and working through our work, then we will expect far too little from what we find ourselves doing on Monday. If we don’t receive God’s gift of rest, then we will expect too much from our work. The flourishing life that we all long to live is found in the sweet spot of trusting and resting. Then, and only then, will we keep ourselves from eating the bread of anxious toil.
We all eat bread on Monday. What kind of bread are you eating?