I may be able to see work as discipline - to get there, to do my best, to grow my skills - but is it a spiritual discipline? Does it cause me to move towards God or cause me to become more like God? As a point of confession, the stress of work can cause the opposite in me. Too much stress, too many demands, not using my best strengths can do me in. So, I have to ask myself if I can see work as a spiritual discipline, under duress or not?
Proverbs 12:14 says, "..the fruit of a man's hand will come back to him." Some versions say, "A man's work will be rewarded," but a closer look at the original language really helps to see that the intention is not "reward" as I might have thought. It really means that productivity begets productivity; integrity begets integrity; use of skills births new skills. This is not "reward" as in monetary gain or advancement, but in character gain.
When work is developed that way, then it would be a spiritual discipline. Maybe I need my view of work to be adjusted so I can look at the spiritual discipline of work not just in crisis, but in the development of my soul.
It seems best to start with God, who worked. He worked in the creation story (Genesis 1) and he thought so much of work that He gave Adam some work to do. In a sinless environment, work was a benefit and it did not become "toil" until after the Fall. (Genesis 3). And God continued to give work to people even after the Fall. He gave skills (Ex 36), success at work (Gen 39), and controlled promotion at work (Ps 75). So, work must contain great spirit-possibilities since God is so committed to it.
Remarkably, He is still working today. These are some of the most hope-filled verses to me about His work:
"For God is working in you...." (Phil 2:13)
"He (God) will complete the work began in you..." (Phil 1:6)
"We are co-workers with God..." (1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1)
That is so comforting to hear! Suddenly, I realize I am not doing this alone. It's a blessing to know that the attention, activity and power of God are at work in my life, even at work. No matter what effort I am making at work, God has another agenda to let me join in the process of making me into Jesus' likeness.
Another part of the spiritual discipline of work is in my effort to join in with God. No matter what I thought the objective was at work, it quickly becomes clear that my goals at work are more than the mere tasks and objectives set by the job. Colossians 3:23-24 provides an alternative view of work. We are to "...work hard and cheerfully...as unto the Lord...?" The critical word here is "unto." It is a word that can mean for, unto, towards or forward. Working "for" the Lord. Okay. But I think using the word "towards" or "forward" might better portray the nature of the spiritual discipline of work. I am to work in such a way that I move toward God - that I grow spiritually toward Him.
Now I can think of aspects of my job differently. My performance is undertaken so that it moves me closer to Him. My relationships at work, especially the relationship with my boss, is to facilitate me looking more like God with each interaction. The quality of my work is to move me into greater relationship with Him. That throws a monkey wrench into my views about performance, relationships, and quality. I know how to pursue performance so that it drives me in the opposite direction from God. I have had difficult relationships at work in which my solutioning didn't look anything like God.
Pause. Suddenly, I can see that work is totally a spiritual discipline. A job is not merely a task designed to make money. It is intended to produce godly character and display ultimate truths about God and it even develops my relationship with God. I never expected that the entire work experience would be a spiritual discipline!
How do I get intentional about work's spiritual aspect then? I can invite Jesus into the tasks of my job; I can partner with him in activities. I can use my breaks to refocus my heart towards God throughout the day. Work definitely can be a place to develop and demonstrate my integrity before the Lord. I can see my performance as a place for the display of the gifts God has given, whether as abilities, spiritual gifts or the gift of the sanctification process. I can listen and look for God's truths in all work activities.
One more area where work is a discipline is that it gives a place for Sabbath. It frames Sabbath, giving it place and purpose. When people are without a job, the full effect of rest completely evades them. This is why retirement is not a topic in the Bible. Rest is only needed or significant in light of work. The spiritual discipline of working hard grows our desire and need for the full force of Sabbath.