Spirituality of Work Conference III: Christian Images of Work


Let’s look more deeply into the Christian images of work. How does work fit into our Christian faith? Does our faith have anything meaningful to say about work?

John Paul II in his 1981 Encyclical Letter On Human Labor used images from our Sacred Scriptures to help flesh out our Christian understanding of work. Let’s take a look at some of these images. Workers share in the creative activity of God. In the first two chapters of Genesis, the first book of the bible, we see God the creator at work. God lovingly and joyfully creates the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the dry land, and all living creatures.

Then God creates Adam and Eve. God gives God’s wonderful creation to them and their descendants to be its stewards. They are to continue the work of creation. Through their physical and mental energies and exertions they continue to create, cultivate, and fashion the world.

All of us descendants of Adam and Eve through our labors are co-creators with God. John Paul also describes the worker as following in the footsteps of Jesus the worker, the carpenter. Jesus certainly knew what it is to toil, to sweat at work, to be tired. But the main work of Jesus was his redemptive ministry, and especially his suffering and death, which brought about our healing and salvation.

Pope John Paul views both manual and intellectual work as participating in the very redemptive work of Jesus’ sufferings. Human toil continues the redemptive activity of Jesus. Just think of the toil and sufferings of workers in the healthcare field, or social services, or education. These are but three examples where we can see the redemptive work of Jesus continuing today, where we can see workers’ efforts and energies, toils and sufferings, which bring healing and flourishing to people’s lives – continuing the very ministry of Jesus.

In these images of John Paul II’s Encyclical we can see how our work and our spiritual lives intersect. Our spiritual lives are not our private side, totally unrelated to our work world. Our work world and our spiritual lives go hand in hand. Our work is more than making a buck to support our family. In our work we are co-creators with God and co-redeemers with Jesus.

This is part of our discipleship, our vocation to use our talents and energies to accomplish God’s loving plan of creation and redemption.

Vignette (Man)

I work in health care. I’m an EMS person. My job pays ok and helps pay the bills for my family. But I like it for more reasons than that. I like the people I work with. For the most part they are concerned with doing a good job and helping people. I like helping the people we encounter. Many times they are in difficult situations… automobile accidents, heart attacks, work accidents. Many of the people I help are old and sickly. I try to bring some comfort and compassion to the situation. Many times at the end of a shift I feel like I have accomplished something and made the world a little better place and eased some suffering. That’s what makes my job worthwhile.

We Catholics would view this as being part of Christ’s redemptive mission in our world. At this point let me add another biblical image, which many Protestant Christians adopt from Genesis and from the Gospels, when teaching about work… the image of “stewardship”. God gifts us with our world. It belongs to God who created it. God asks that we be good stewards of our world. All of us are to use our energies and talents, along with the raw materials and resources of our world, as we mold and fashion our environment to make it productive and livable.

As good and wise stewards we need to be concerned with the welfare of our co-workers, along with our customers, our suppliers, and our society as a whole. Good and wise stewards also recognize a certain responsibility for the health of earth’s ecological systems. Good stewards are neither destructive, nor greedy, and are sensitive to concerns outside of their own self-interest and bottom line profit. Our American bishops in their 1986 Pastoral Letter entitled Economic Justice for All develop this concept of good stewardship and work. They quote an address, which John Paul II gave to businessmen and women:

The degree of well-being which society today enjoys would be unthinkable without the dynamic figure of the business person, whose function consists of organizing human labor and the means of production so as to give us the goods and services necessary for prosperity and progress of the community. (#108) The Bishops continue……The freedom of entrepreneurship, business and finance should be protected, but the accountability of this freedom to the common good and the norms of justice must be assured. (#109) Persons in management face many hard choices each day, choices on which the well-being of many others depends. Commitment to the public good and not simply to the private good of the firms is at the heart of what it means to call their work a vocation, and not simply a career or a job. (#110) Business and finance have the duty to be faithful trustees of the resources at their disposal. (#110)

This vision of stewardship helps Christian business people and all Christian workers to appreciate the meaning and importance of his or her work. The vision challenges people to work responsibly and prudently, and ethically.

Work is not just wage earning. A final image of John Paul’s teaching developed in a number of his encyclicals is his view of “solidarity.” People are not isolated islands of self-interest and consumption. The meaning of our life is more than being an entertained consumer. Our care and concern needs to spread beyond our loved ones and ourselves.

As Catholics we believe that each individual is part of a social matrix made up of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, urban or rural area, state, nation, and indeed the world. The current phenomenon on globalization certainly brings this point home. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2005, makes this same point regarding the social nature of people countless times.

For example, see # 61, and 149-150, 192. From now on I will refer to this simply as the Compendium. Listen to just one description of “solidarity” the Compendium gives:

… Solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights, and the common path of individuals and peoples towards and ever more committed unity. Never before has there been such a widespread awareness of the bond of interdependence between individuals and peoples. (#192)

For Christians one image we use is the Family of God. In this family we bear some responsibility for others beyond ourselves. We might not be able to solve the world’s hunger problems, or the AIDS pandemic. But those who suffer from these are part of God’s family. We cannot totally disregard them. Let’s apply this teaching on “solidarity” to our work. The American Bishops in their 1986 Pastoral Letter on the Economy say this about “solidarity” and the work world:

… In the absence of a vital sense of citizenship among the businesses, corporations, labor unions and other groups that shape economic life, society as a whole is endangered. “Solidarity” is another name for this social friendship and civic commitment that make human moral and economic life possible. (#66)

See also the Compendium, #192-196.

Let me try to apply this teaching on “solidarity” to your everyday workplace experiences. How do you view your fellow employees?

  • Cogs in a mindless bureaucracy

  • Fellow paper shufflers

  • Necessary or needless functionaries

  • Useful or useless co-workers who get paid to work and otherwise keep their mouths shut?

Does the cartoon Dilbert describe how you view your co-workers? How do you view your customers or suppliers? Our Catholic teaching on “solidarity” helps us to view our follow workers, our customers, our suppliers, and others who are part of our work scene as co- members in God’s family… as our brothers and sisters.

Is someone “difficult”? Do you ever pray for that person? At the very least you can treat others with civility and fairness. You can view difficult people as your sick brothers or sisters. You don’t need to gossip about them, assassinate their character behind their back, or treat them meanly or ruthlessly.

“Solidarity” reminds us that we are all members of God’s family.

Nicolette Meade