In what deserves to be considered a modern classic, Lester DeKoster writes on the relationship between work and stewardship. These reflections from God’s Yardstick ought to be remembered this Labor Day:

The basic form of stewardship is daily work. No matter what that work may be. No matter if you have never before looked upon your job as other than a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial. Know that the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more you will to persevere schools the soul.

Here is a sense of work as soul-forming that anticipates the contemporary Shop Class as Soulcraft discussion.

But beyond the formation of the individual worker’s soul, the order of work has consequences for the larger society.

Work knits the fabric of civilization. We take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.

Those record numbers of people who are unemployed on this Labor Day in 2009 certainly need no reminders about the blessings that work offer.

DeKoster also provides needed perspective about what we can and cannot accomplish in this life, and how what we do has eternal consequences.

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

  • Chrys

    This article addresses issues that are vitally important.
    As I have gotten older, I have found that work can be profoundly sacramental. As the article notes, the nature of the particular work is surprisingly unimportant. What is important is that I offer it for the blessing of God and my neighbor.
    In offering it to God, it becomes a vital expression of prayer. (While it is not a substitute for other forms of prayer, those efforts will wither if they are not extended into every part of life.) In offering it to my neighbor, it is a blessing to him only insofar as what I offer has value as a solution to his needs.

    This is sometimes more evident to us when we are on the other side of the relationship – as the customer. The person who makes the coffee we order may not think their work is terribly important, yet when I have ordered it, it is certainly important to me. (Important enough, at least, to be worth my time and money.) It can make a big difference when we find that person who makes a real effort to bless us: to give us what we expect (if not more) and to do so with care. At a minimum that requires respect for both our time and patronage; if they can “bless” the interaction with genuine concern and kindness, it may be even more fruitful.

    In our own efforts, attention is central to both our offering to God and to our neighbor, though in different ways. If God ceases to be the focus of my labors, the prayerful quality of them atrophies and the effort is stillborn. If I have been inattentive to my neighbor’s needs, the value of my offering will be reduced and it will likewise not bless him. Yet as I grow in attention – in the disciplined offering of my mind, heart, soul and body – life itself (labor and prayer, working together) becomes a sacramental offering for the blessing of both God and my neighbor.

  • PATRICK POWERS

    Ora et Labora: Labor Day, a secular holiday (is that an oxymoron?) is a good time to consider the spiritual dimensions of labor. So much of Jesus’ teaching deal with the various qualities of service, until we hear those words “Well done good and faithful servant.”

  • Chrys

    The post rightly notes that labor itself can have inherently civilizing effect. (An appreciative vantage is also important, however, since the effect – like any experience – can be mitigated by less salutary perspectives and concerns.) Civilization, then, is the social consequence of the maturing process that labor fosters on the individual level.
    If reality is inherently sacramental and work has an essentially sacramental “structure” (as described in my previous comments), then in the same way, God has designed our experience to foster “true” civilization. That is, God has designed our experience to foster – and prepare us for – the City of God. St. Augustine would then be right on many levels: “our hearts (and minds, hands and strength, etc.,) are restless till they rest in Thee.”

  • Peter Swanson

    What about that whole curse thing? Where does that fit in? Also, your related “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments” article did not have a comment box so Ill place it here:

    at its core “work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” It is in putting ourselves in the service of others that our work also finds meaning. For in making ourselves useful to others, we do for them as we would have them do for us.

    What I ultimately want from my wife, my family, and my friends, (and if I were a saint, strangers too) is not “service”, it is not for them to be useful to me, to mow my lawn or build me a pacemaker–it is their presence. Use is secondary. Useful for what? What is the telos of work itself? It is leisure, where others (primarily God) can simply be enjoyed, without any care for “use” and “work” since use and work is oriented towards creating the freedom to enjoy others without concern for tomorrow. God doesn’t love us through being useful to us–how ugly is that thought? God isn’t useful. God transcends the order of use, and rather is in an opposing order I do not know what to call–maybe rest or acuality? We are to emulate Gods love. Yes mowing someone’s lawn can be an expression of love, but we are capable of love of an infinitely higher order than material service. I do not think your writings on work and love and so forth puts these issues in proper order. What is your take on Pieper’s “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”? Important issues!