Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown, and tomorrow is a Monday morning.
– C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
It’s hard to imagine what life as a student in England during World War II might have been like. How could you possibly learn anything, let alone believe your schoolwork was important, while your friends and family were fighting and dying for your freedom?
I recently read “Learning in Wartime,” a sermon that C.S. Lewis gave in 1939 to a group of students at Oxford. His message to the students was that they needed to take their learning and studying in school seriously, even in such an uncertain time.
While most of us don’t know what it feels like to cram for an exam while bombs are exploding in the distance, we can all relate to the feeling that our work isn’t very important from time to time. Although Lewis was addressing university students, his comments can be helpful in relation to our work. He discusses three major enemies at work that we are especially vulnerable to when we feel like our work is less than significant, as well as how to address these challenges as Christians.
The first enemy is excitement, excitement in other life events that distract us from our work.
Lewis says distractions will persist for the rest of our lives, so we should not wait for these distractions to end before we get serious about our work:
There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions may never come.
If we are waiting for more favorable conditions to present themselves before we put our all into our job, Lewis says we will never get any real work done. Rather, we must persevere in our work even when conditions are unfavorable.
The second enemy is frustration, frustration that we will not have enough time to finish our work.
Lewis says this is a natural feeling for everyone to have about a job or career, but Christians should have a different attitude:
You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether, of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say ‘“No time for that,” “Too late now,” and “Not for me”… A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue of your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.
To “live in the moment” might not be the advice we expect to hear from Lewis, but he makes the point that over-emphasizing long-term goals can be dangerous. If we let the future overwhelm us and distract us from our work today, we will never reach our full potential. Rather, we must leave the future in God’s hands and concentrate on what we can accomplish day by day.
The third enemy is fear, fear that we will fail to change the world.
Lewis says if the goal of our work is to create some sort of utopia on Earth, our dreams have been shattered and our fear of failure is justified. But that’s not what we are called to do as Christians, so we should not be afraid of failing to change the world through our work:
If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a black of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty to which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.
Whether we are called to work as an investment banker on Wall Street or a housemaid, we should not be afraid to do what we can in our work, knowing we are all appointed to work for the kingdom of God. In understanding these three enemies of work and fighting against them in the way that Lewis recommends, we will find greater significance and fulfillment in our daily work.
Editor’s note: On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Jul. 31, 2013.
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