Labor Day and an Adventist Work Ethic

In the US, we celebrate work by taking a day off. (Except of course if you work the holiday shift like my wife does).

We call it Labor Day. It is the first Monday of September but stretches out the whole weekend.

For millions of children it is a memorable weekend as it is usually the last part of summer vacation before school starts.

I love this weekend. Thanks federal government. Or should I say, thank you labor unions.

According to the U.S. government  and wiki  the labor unions spearheaded the creation of this day based on celebrations in Canada held in honor of union workers and their picketing. In the US, it became a way to celebrate the hard work of carpenters, machinists, and laborers that built America by the sweat of their brow. As a day tied to the labor movement we can also thank them for child-labor reforms, and creating an eight-hour work day, “which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest” and for higher minimum wages. See wiki.

While I don’t mean to rile up those who don’t like labor unions, I would suggest that they may have got onto the need for balance and celebration at a key time in the West’s development. Labor Unions are right to celebrate work.

I think they capture an essential ingredient to an effective Christian work ethic—celebration.

Adventists do well to share the tempo of such celebration. In fact, we have even more of a reason to be celebratory about work. We believe God made work for our enjoyment and for building in responsibility in a responsible way, within our work. Celebration actually can be built into the process of work as a check point against excess.

The reason I believe Adventist get this, is that we make a big deal about the Sabbath (and we should!). Celebration and community were structured into the Sabbath and creates a great caccoon for a thriving work ethic for Labor Day. Think about it: the Feds give you one day a year to celebrate work. God gives 52 days off to celebrate work. That is my kind of work ethic.

“Six days you work. The Seventh-day you rest.” Exodus 20 commandment level authority. Or as A. J. Jacobs, the atheist and secular editor from Esquire found in trying to live biblically for a year, “there has to be something cool about a God who forces you to take a day off each week.” Even that secular author got the celebration essential.

Let me explain!!!

If you map out the Adventist view of the first two Sabbaths humans ever experienced, there is a pattern that creates a viable work ethic.

First week: God has a busy week of creating the world: light, water, plants, creatures. His last creation was human(s) and then within hours, all of them celebrated the first Sabbath. (I will let more qualified theologians figure out when Eve may have showed up)

So the experience of the first Sabbath is a celebration of God’s work. Human work should start there, but not end there.

Humans just showed up in time for the first Sabbath celebration, minutes or hours before a whole day of full day. See Genesis 1 and 2.

But the story keeps going. During the next week, Adam was assigned work in naming animals and doing other odd jobs for God around the garden. Then the second Sabbath rolled around.

And what a great time they must have had.  Now Adam had lots of stuff to talk to God about.

What a marvelous plan for a work ethic. Let God do most of the work. You join in what He puts on your heart to do. Then you take a whole day off to reflect and celebrate what you both did.

That is the fullness of celebration and community around work the Sabbath was designed to safe guard. Every week, a celebration of work accomplishments…first Gods, and then humans.

(those who want to pin legalism on Sabbath should look elsewhere….like to Cain’s attitude about working real hard ALL week to try to garden oneself back into relationship with God. The only way back in relationship is to do like Abel, and accept that the sacrifice and God’s work alone will do, and that yes, we have a part, but it is within that grace)

Hence, my observation Sabbath is like a Labor Day, just a lot more often AND a lot more protective of human existence.

Yes protective? It reminds us that our labor grows out of God’s work for us. We are not alone, striving for our own mere survival. God has worked hard to make a great place. He is now working for us. And…mystery of humanity…He wants to work in me this week to create.

This is crucial: for our work, and for our spiritual psyche.

Without a full rest IN GOD, work becomes, especially for religious people, an abusive placating of God, a way to win God’s favor, when in reality He has already given it. It is a way to get back your goods. It is a wicked abuse on the human psyche.  AND FOR NON-RELIGIOUS PEOPLE, it is even worst. It is the call for the Survival of the fittest. Like Babel, they are driven to work hard because the capricious universe is likely to deluge them again (See Genesis11).

My point. Human work must start with celebration and continually include celebration but a celebration focused first on God’s work for US but should include our work WITH HIM.

Sabbath weaves together both. It gives us a sweet taste of work and rest, labor and spirituality. It keeps us from working our way to heaven and keeps us from working the evolutionary dead-end of survival of the fittest and the need to horde ourselves a tower of babel.

Celebration and community show up in the Sabbath and are two anchors of a great Adventist work ethic.

But we need a few good ingredients to make this recipe work. Daniel Pink’s ideas in Drive add three more components. He argues that the modern worker needs more than money and prestige to keep him going. They need:

  1. Purposeful or meaningful work (significance factor)
  2. Autonomy—ability to make choices about their work, some ontrol over direction.
  3. Mastery—a potential for moving toward high level of accomplishment. Craftsmenship.

That is a great list to create a fuller work ethic.

So, my ethic for labor would be five fold:

  1. Celebration. Beginning with it and Ending with it and often in that Spirit.
  2. Community. We were wired to work in community. First, with God, and then with each other. We shouldn’t work alone. OSHA doesn’t recommend that and neither did God (Eccl 4—two are better than one). It also breeds healthing accountability when you know you have to come through for others.
  3. Choice—we have a lot of ways to work, and a lot of gifts and strengths we can work from. Find your happy place of work. This is Pink’s autonomy.
  4. Character—the ultimate test of good work is that it is helping your master not just a skill, not just becoming an expert at something, but character formation. You are becoming better. This corresponds with Pink’s mastery, but includes a more long-term vision of human development tied to the Christian belief in the hereafter.
  5. Calling—work is meaningful when it is the work we are uniquely equipped to do and the world is in desperate need of it being done. I equate this with Pink’s meaningful purposeful aspect of drive. But it is inclusive of so much more.

So there it is. A Labor ethic for Labor day. And I can argue with the best ethicist that an Adventist ethic that uses the Sabbath to get at the heart of working with God may be one of the most viable ways to approach ethics in this modern world.

(In keeping with the counsel to keep my blogs to about 1000 words. You can stop reading here.)

For those who can handle a couple hundred more words….

My upcoming book The Good Tree: Adventist Ethics, Morality, and Lifestyle will detail more of the five points of an Adventist work ethic and then take up some thorny issues related to work (like minimum wage, worker rights to health care, etc…)

Some general points:

  1. The two extremes of modern work culture: workaholism and licentiousness, are clearly evident in the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Both son, for a time, lose sight of the  bigger picture: We work WITH the Father and WITH EACH other, and only then are we the happiest. One group at work or in abstentia always gets tempted to leave work. They feel it is too oppressive. They misunderstand the Father’s will for work. The other group stays but is constantly tempted to leave others, especially God, out of their clawing route to financial independence. They keep working. (see how the elder brother comes home late at night oblivious to the fact the rest of the work force got off earlier and had already started partying). Celebration and community are central to keeping us balanced.
  2. The rich develop nasty attitudes to the poor and the poor get nasty attitudes to the rich precisely because they don’t follow His pattern of work. They misunderstand that ALL have a work and the purpose of work: to do amazing things, to serve others and the planet and in the process develop character (including stick-to-it-ness as well as  generosity).
  3. The political extremes in the U.S., where liberals are fighting conservatives over work entitlements and accountability won’t get far in their projects without embracing some secular aspect of these FIVE C’s of a work ethic.
  4. Calling is crucial in the ultimate experience of work. I have much more written about that. However, without calling, we lose heart if our salary or wages are too small, or we get jaded if we make a lot.
  5. Adventist health care runs a huge risk that it will lose sight of the role of calling in its own corporate work ethic. Partnering with God in a crucial work of delivering health care will always lead us to success. We have to put money as secondary to mission because mission always puts us near God’s resources. Can we keep this driving ethic close to our medical ministry work.  Human’s have a role—not only in their own health needs, but also in helping others—but God is the ultimate merciful judge and as we labor IN HIS SPIRIT that alone sustains us from becoming greedy or sullen or angry Elder Brothers. This gift of health work is becoming a weight of idolatry. I see it crumbling many of my friends in the vortex of the “deceitfulness of riches.”


Prayer:  God. How was your work week? You saw mine. Sorry. I was like an elder brother on Friday with a nasty attitude when I felt I was working like a legalistic and pushing on others a nasty attitude.  Thanks for changing my mind.  And on Wednesday, I was like a prodigal son, wandering from the work you gave me, because I was too lazy. Forgive me for that and thanks for the kick in the pants. Thanks for using the Sabbath to recalibrate me and send me off again into another work week. Let’s work together more this time around. Thanks for the Joy of labor.

For follow up, read the Bible verses about work:


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