While heading out of state for a family vacation in July, I was reading the first chapter of one of the latest additions to my library, Work in the Spirit, by Miroslav Volf. I was struck by some new ideas about how sin affects work. It opened up the aperture far wider than it had been.
Last September, I shared how the sin of Adam impacts work in my first post on the theology of work (see https://regehrlein.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/thorns-and-thistles/). I felt I had done an adequate job explaining how Adam’s sin (and our own) makes work much harder than it needs to be. Now, I think I was merely scratching the surface.
Volf entitled this chapter “The Problem of Work”. He takes a hard look at “the present reality of human work” (p. 25) by briefly highlighting how work has transformed over the centuries and around the world. He describes the conditions workers find themselves, which he calls a “crisis of work” (p. 35). He brought to light things I had not thought about nearly enough considering the dire situations countless workers face daily. It was not difficult to understand how vastly different the Third World worker’s experiences are from those of us who happen to live in more economically developed nations. These negative aspects of work are far more painful than mere thorns and thistles. As I reflected on each of them, it became “a blinding flash of the obvious” that they were all systemically rooted in sin.
Although it has probably been decades since we routinely saw thousands of children working in factories in America like we did during the Industrial Revolution, in much of the world today children work in absolutely horrible conditions. Volf estimated that up to 200 million children were in the work force (p. 36). This happens for a variety of reasons that are common in poverty-stricken areas: homes where mothers care for younger children and fathers are unemployed, plus the fact that to an employer children can be almost as productive as adults but at a much lower cost. My heart broke when I read, “They are among the most exploited and physically and psychologically abused workers in the world’s work force. The majority of working children are ‘condemned to a cruel present and to a bleak future'” (p. 37). This condition is clearly linked to root causes of the sins of selfishness, greed, lies, laziness, corruption, a lack of compassion and integrity, etc.
Volf listed other aspects of the current crisis of work, including unemployment, discrimination, dehumanization, exploitation, as well as the detrimental ecological impacts to our natural resources. He does not mention human trafficking when discussing the topic of exploitation, but unfortunately we are all too familiar with this hellish situation. He indicates that there are multiple causes to these conditions, falling not so neatly into personal and structural categories.
On a related note, just this morning I saw a meme, lamenting the latest version of a well-known brand of cell phone that was made using minerals for the microchips mined by child slaves, assembled by Chinese workers who often commit suicide due to job stress, and sold by retail workers in the US who make a less than living wage. These are very real concerns, even if the political statement may have been posted by someone using that very same cell phone.
I am burdened by all of these depressing observations. Other than a very brief season of unemployment over three decades ago, I honestly do not see any of these atrocities on daily basis where I live. But I know that God does, and that it has to break His heart.
Let’s get back to our own situation at work. No matter what we do or where we do it, without a doubt, our employer is a sinner, our employees are sinners, as are our co-workers, not to mention our customers. And, of course, we also sin. Even if we work alone, we will still face sin in the workplace. How do we handle all this sin around us?
Quite simply, when we find ourselves in sin, we will just need to confess it and forsake it. When others around us sin, we will have to forgive them. This may or may not require us to confront them, depending on a number of factors. I also believe we need to adjust our expectations a bit. Sinners will sin; it’s what they do. We can’t fix everything that is wrong with everyone. If they are believers, we can take a different approach than if they are not.
With respect to the systemic sins in the world of work, I think we need to realize that much of the injustices we see will be with us until Christ returns. However, rather than throwing up our hands in numb despair, as Randy Stonehill sings in his song “Save the Children”, it is entirely possible that we were placed by God “for such a time as this”. (Esther 4:14). We can easily shop differently without too much trouble. For example, we can buy “fair trade” coffee to discourage those coffee-bean plantations that use child labor. We can also address unfair labor practices or discrimination of all kinds with our employers or through unions. Or, perhaps God may want to use us to bring renewal, hope, restoration, reformation, healing, and redemption to our workplaces. (I addressed this briefly in a previous blog three months ago on reforming the workplace: https://regehrlein.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/reforming-the-workplace/.)
In closing, I have to end on a high note. There will come a day, and it may be soon, when all of this nonsense brought on by sin will be a thing of the past. Forever. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!