One of the tasks of Christian discipleship is to relearn “the works you did at first” (Rev 2:5 RSV) and absolutely refuse to “work like the devil.” Work is a major component in most lives. It is unavoidable. It can be either good or bad, an area where our sin is magnified or where our faith matures. For it is the nature of sin to take good things and twist them, ever so slightly, so that they miss the target to which they were aimed, the target of God. One requirement of discipleship is to learn the ways sin skews our nature and submit what we learn to the continuing will of God, so that we are reshaped through the days of our obedience.

Psalm 127 shows both the right way and the wrong way to work. It posts a warning and provides an example to guide Christians in work that is done to the glory of God.

Babel or Buddhist

Psalm 127 first posts a warning about work: “If God doesn’t build the house, the builders only build shacks. If God doesn’t guard the city, the night watchman might as well nap. It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late, and work your tired fingers to the bone. Don’t you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves?”

Some people have read these verses and paraphrased them to read like this: “You don’t have to work hard to be a Christian. You don’t have to put yourself out at all. Go to sleep. God is doing everything that needs to be done.” St. Paul had to deal with some of these people in the church at Thessalonica. They were saying that since God had done everything in Christ there was nothing more for them to do. If all effort ends up in godless confusion (as it did with the people at Babel) or in hypocritical self-righteousness (as had happened among the Pharisees), the obvious Christian solution is to quit work and wait for the Lord to come. With a magnificent redeemer like our Lord Jesus Christ and a majestic God like our Father in heaven, what is there left to do? And so they sat around, doing nothing. Meanwhile they lived “by faith” off their less spiritual friends. Unfriendly critics might have called them freeloaders. Paul became angry and told them to get to work: “We’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep. Friends, don’t slack off in doing your duty” (2 Thess 3:11-13). How did they dare to reinterpret the gospel into a rationalization for sloth when he, Paul, from whom they had learned the gospel, worked his fingers “to the bone, up half the night, moonlighting so you wouldn’t have the burden of supporting us while we proclaimed God’s Message” (1 Thess 2:9).

The Christian has to find a better way to avoid the sin of Babel than by imitating the lilies of the field, which “neither toil nor spin.” The pretentious work which became Babel and its pious opposite which developed at Thessalonica are displayed today on the broad canvases of Western and Eastern cultures, respectively.

Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2012).

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