They call it a “livelihood” or “making a living” for a reason. Mostly because of the money we earn, but also because of the energies we expend, the sacrifices we make, and the lessons we learn, we depend upon on our work for life. We also resent it sometimes, maybe a lot. (Just typing those words brings to mind the lyrics of David Allan Coe’s most popular song.)
Resenting our work is the result of our forgetfulness, according to the Serbian priest and monk Thaddeus of Vitovnica. While speaking about morning prayer and the need to keep God in mind throughout the day, Thaddeus said,
We forget that He is everywhere and that any job we do and any task we perform is His. We think that the job we are doing is for someone else and we often perform our tasks unwillingly. When we perform a task unwillingly, soon resistance and a feeling of disgust are born in us, and then our life becomes filled with resistance and disgust for everything, and we grow old in this manner.
Before his death in 2002 (he was born in 1914), Thaddeus was a cherished spiritual father, counselor, and advisor. Over and again he reminded people who asked that all of our work, any kind of work, is God’s work, a perspective that comes from Paul’s admonition in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
We do a poor job and hate doing it, said the monk, because we forget our real master and serve the wrong boss. “We always work with reservation, without sincerity…. We should not think too much about who our superiors are, or who our employer is. What we should bear in mind is that every type of work on earth and in all the universe is God’s work, and as such it should be performed from the heart, without reservation.” The moment resentfulness rears its head that is a sign that we have forgotten who our real boss is and are no longer working “from the heart.”
What if a particular job or position is intolerable? It seems like a common enough problem for all of us at some point or another. One woman came to Thaddeus and told him that her job was “beyond anyone’s endurance.”
“Of course it is,” he answered, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need’s God’s help.”
All work is God’s work. It’s his gift to us for our sanctification. When tasks are impossible, we lean on him. Unendurable situations teach us to lay our concerns and troubles on God rather than relying upon our own strength, which is guaranteed to falter and disappoint. When he focused on his troubles and those of his brothers, Thaddeus confessed that “Even the easiest job is carried out with great difficulty.” But when he surrendered his cares to God, “even the hardest of jobs gets done with ease. There is no pressure, and peace reigns among the brethren.”
In this sense our work is sacramental. We are given work by God in love and mercy. We give it back to him in thanks and praise. And in the process we are conformed ever-more into the image of Christ. That’s the ultimate purpose and challenge of our vocation.