After enduring a typical hour-long commute to get to my office on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., I had to laugh out loud reading James Bruce’s Wall Street Journal article, “Those Who Commute Deserve a Salute”:
Cramped almost to the point of suffocation, surrounded by hard plastic and metal, you glide through the darkness, wondering whether you will survive. You’re not piloting a submarine or a spacecraft headed toward Mars. You’re just a New York commuter trying to get home, as the “Summer of Hell” for public transit nears its end. Or perhaps you’re leaving Los Angeles on Tuesday to beat the Friday traffic.
Many of us can relate. More than a third of American workers travel over 30 minutes to work. Interestingly, Bruce points out that despite the time spent commuting, American workers in big cities are incredibly productive. He writes:
…in terms of economic output, New York state rivals South Korea, but with 17 million fewer workers. California beats France, but with six million fewer workers…Your disagreeable journey helps support the productivity that delivers prosperity to the country, indeed the world.
Work After the Fall
No matter how productive, time in the car often means less time spent with family and other important callings. Some people search for ways to redeem the time in the car, and that’s helpful. The truth is, as workers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we should be prepared for hardship related to our work—including long commutes for some of us.
Work in the Garden of Eden was easy, full of joy, and incredibly fulfilling. Unfortunately, it did not stay that way. The rebellion of our first parents, Adam and Eve, had a disastrous impact on all of creation.
While God designed work as a good thing, sin corrupted it, ensuring that humans toil and sweat in their labor (Gen. 3:19). We work in a broken world under the curse of sin and that is why we will continue to struggle with difficulties in our work in this world.
But take heart, there is good news for those of us whose lives have been redeemed through the work of Christ on our behalf: our work has also been redeemed. The work we do, paid and unpaid, in our jobs, in our homes, in our churches, and in our communities, can make a difference.
And while our work serves as a great witness, it also has intrinsic value.
N.T. Wright points to this idea in his book Surprised by Hope:
The point of Christianity is not…to go to heaven when you die. [Rather, it is] putting the whole creation to rights…You are not roiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire…Everything you do in the present, in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, everything that flows out of love and hope and grace and goodness somehow will be part of God’s eventual Kingdom.
We can now see our work from a different perspective. Like millions of Christians throughout history, we go to work to contribute to what God wants done in his world.
This includes even the most mundane things you do today because we are called to do everything to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
But when your commute is grueling, you need a lot of encouragement. Here are the top three reasons (inspired by Bruce’s list) I think believers can look forward to work:
1. Our work is in our own best self-interest.
Biblical self-interest is not the same thing as greed. In Mark 8:35-36, Jesus appeals to self-interest as a motive for self-denial, saying,
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
We are being encouraged to truly “save” our lives and not “lose” our lives or “forfeit” our soul. The appeal is to our own self-interest.
The Apostle Paul makes clear the legitimacy of biblical self-interest when he writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
We were made to work. We read in the second chapter of Genesis, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). Work was designed to give us purpose, significance, and fulfillment. Work is in our own best self-interest.
2. Our work serves the common good of our neighbor.
Adam Smith adds to Paul’s admonition to the Philippians in his 1776 book Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
In other words, operating out of our self-interest actually serves the common good. This is not by accident nor some well-thought-out design of man; it is the way God made us. To serve our own self-interest, we must work for the peace and prosperity of our communities (Jer. 29:7). This was part of God’s design from the beginning.
Paul is saying that when correctly motivated (not by greed), serving the common good and serving our own self-interest are not mutually exclusive. When you do one, you automatically do the other.
We serve the common good not only out of self-interest but also out of obedience to God. To paraphrase Martin Luther, “the number one way we love our neighbor is to do our jobs well.”
3. Our work is the primary way we glorify God.
Whether our work is motivated by self-interest or love of our neighbor, it is the means God uses to bring flourishing to his creation.
It is clear from the scriptures that the purpose of creation is to glorify God. This is and always has been its purpose. And God is most glorified when his creation works as he designed it to work; this is the “very good” of creation and a picture of flourishing or shalom.
Through our work we have the opportunity to bring flourishing/shalom to the communities we serve, advancing God’s kingdom and helping creation get a little closer to the way things were supposed to be. This, in turn, brings more glory to God.
A Right Perspective on Work
Work is necessary for a meaningful life, but we must not make our work the meaning for our existence. As Christians, we must find our identity in Christ, not in our work. Yet, work is the major way we respond to God’s call on our lives.
So, no matter the length of your commute, be encouraged that what you do today at work matters!