The End of Work
Labor Day has never made much sense to me. After all, it was a day off work that somehow was supposed to recognize… work. Add to that the fact that most people have no pointed celebration to the day’s stated purpose. The grand finale of summer holidays — with Memorial Day marking summer’s beginning and Independence Day the midpoint — has never seemed to have a purpose.
Born out of the labor movement of the late 19th century, Labor Day as we know it began on June 28, 1894, when President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making it a federal holiday. Originally highlighting the plight of the overworked American worker, the meaning of Labor Day seems to have been usurped in favor of appliance and furniture sales. Very few labor-specific rituals remain other than not laboring.
Work, it would seem, is something that we can only celebrate by removing ourselves from it. Everybody’s working for the weekend, and a celebration of our labor can only be found in its absence.
Work has been with us from the beginning. Scripture tells us that after having created the heavens and earth and everything in it, God rested on the seventh day from all his work. Created in his image, mankind was then given work to do in subduing the earth and exercising dominion over its creatures. In the beginning work was good, both God’s work and ours. But with man’s sin and the resulting curse, what was once the joyful service of the creator became toil and burden:
“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
(Genesis 3:19, ESV)
East of Eden, work is the constant grind of the never-ending Monday in search of the ever-elusive Friday. Work always fails because it doesn’t last. You must do it over day after day. The perpetuity of our work, even when our work is good, makes us long for rest from it.
Occasionally we’ll get glimpses of deliverance as we stand back and survey a freshly mowed lawn or hit send on a finally completed project. But the satisfaction doesn’t last long because the fruits of our labor, reflecting the rottenness of its laborers, soon spoils. The prophet Isaiah summed it up like this:
“We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV)
The apostle Paul seems very focused on our works, mentioning the word well over 60 times in his epistles. And Paul, like Isaiah before him, is well aware of the deficiency in our work. He says things like:
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10, ESV).
“The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12, ESV).
And yet amid all the decay, our creator still calls us toward good work. But how do we do good work — how do we labor productively — if our work is corrupted from the beginning?
Ironically, it’s to distance ourselves from our works. Paul wrote this to Titus:
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:4-8, ESV).
The kindness of God appeared, not because of our works, but because of the work done by Jesus Christ in bringing us the fruits of his labor. Only then does our work begin to amount to anything. A work that is transformed by God’s grace is a work that doesn’t gain us anything from God — rather it is a work built from the gains God grants us.
A work for which we do not labor is a work in which we can truly celebrate — a work in which we can finally find rest. Christ’s work was done once for all — no repetition needed.
After Labor Day, if you have a job in this economy, you’ll most likely be back to work the next day, and all thoughts of celebration will be gone. The party may be over, but the truth is that the best work has ended, and it’s only through that good work that our work is made good.
Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.