loving your neighbor,Purpose in all work, common good

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I Stacked Salt for the Life of the World

Sales associates, fast food workers, administrative assistants. We need them.

One of the worst jobs I ever had was fresh out of college. It was my first “real” job in that I wasn’t working for my father’s plumbing business, which I did for several years in high school. I won a prestigious student athlete award at my high school and graduated as the big man on our small Christian campus. I felt proud of myself, taking literally all the cards and well wishes of family and friends who insisted I was going to change the world.

My boss at the hardware store didn’t really care if I won that award nor did he know about my world-changing future. He only cared about if I arrived five minutes late for my shift, that I couldn’t quite cut house keys that opened locks, and I was terrible at stocking shelves.

At the time I was so naïve about the nature of work. Sure, I was willing to work hard. I disciplined myself to get in shape, losing 30 pounds between my sophomore and junior years, in order to make the Varsity squad. I studied in school and worked hard for my father’s business every summer.

But I couldn’t find purpose in the menial tasks the owner made me do, tasks I thought were well below my skill level, such as stacking and restacking pallets of fertilizer. Why, I wondered, was he so particular about how those stacks looked? Did it matter if they leaned a bit to one side? Was it necessary that each bag faced up with the labels facing out?

Value in the little things

In my little, selfish world, I only saw this job as a way to earn a paycheck. Stacking shelves, sweeping floors, cutting chain and rope — I used it as a means to an end. It wasn’t until maybe 20 years later, as someone who frequents hardware stores, do I understand the value of an organized, helpful retail operation. It matters that things are bright, clean, and orderly. It matters that the employees are helpful and courteous. It matters to me that I can find what I need. Not simply so the store can earn money from satisfied customers, but because our community in suburban Nashville needs a store like this so we can live flourishing lives in the homes God has called us to steward.

A retail employee at a hardware store seems like a forgettable enough career. But we know when we are in these kinds of establishments and there is no adequate help and the products we need are disorganized, it makes our lives harder.

For the life of others

This is but a small example of a larger reality about the nature of work. We often see our labors in individualistic ways. We work to make money to provide for our families. We work so we can give back to kingdom purposes. We work because we glorify God with what our hands create.

But we miss that our work also serves our neighbor. In a flourishing society, everyone’s gifts and talents are leveraged not only for economic output but for the benefit of others. I can drive to my office or church because talented civil engineers designed transportation systems and because faithful construction workers laid gravel and pavement according to rigid specifications. I can purchase shoes because there is a whole supply line of workers who designed and built shoes so my feet can be stylish and comfortable. I can eat a meal with my family because someone raised chickens, grew broccoli, and because engineers and plumbers created systems that get clean water to my house.

These are just three examples of everyday habits in which I am served by the work of others, many of whom I’ll likely never meet. Work can seem incredibly individualistic, especially work that doesn’t seem to require much engagement with others. I’m writing this article by myself in my office with the door closed. Some spend days on the road making sales calls. Others use their hands to craft or build without much human interaction.

And yet the impact of our work is not felt in isolation, but across the human family.

The ripple effects of our work

This is why work is an essential part of the command Jesus gives us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Good work matters because the end result matters to our neighbors. If you’ve suffered because of a shabby repair or a shoddy product, it’s because someone on the other end didn’t love their fellow human being enough to work with excellence.

Paul reminds us in Colossians that Christians should be known for excellence, urging readers to create and craft and build “with all of their hearts.” We should put everything into what we do because God is watching and it affects the flourishing of our neighbors.

In a world where we are encouraged to cut corners or where there is pressure to maximize profits at the expense of quality, we should always insist on a job well done. Not only so we can earn a paycheck, but so the person who benefits from our labor truly benefits.

Understanding the connection between our work and love of neighbor also breathes new life into our Monday routines, especially on those days when it seems your work is unappreciated by your superiors or when the marketplace isn’t rewarding your rigor with a bump in salary.

We should care about our work because our work is a gift to those around us.

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