When I was a young Christian, I sometimes wondered about how I might have responded if I, like the Christians of the first few centuries, was asked to renounce my faith or become a martyr by having my body thrown into the arena to be eaten by lions. We often think of dying for the faith as a one-time act, perhaps the heroic act of a martyr who gives their life rather than denying Christ. But there is more than one way to die for your faith. As I reflected on Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:31—“I die every day”—I began to appreciate another aspect of “dying” for our faith.4 For many of us, our “death” comes in embracing the menial, practical arenas of life each and every day. Daily we are asked to deny ourselves and take up our cross in service to others, becoming martyrs over and over again for the cause of Christ and our love for the world who hates us.
Tish Warren, in Liturgy of the Ordinary, aptly observes that God the Father publicly affirmed Jesus as his Son, in whom he was “well pleased,” before Jesus actually did any of the redemptive acts that we celebrate as God’s salvific gift of Christ to the world. Indeed, his very presence in the world, filled with thirty years of mostly mundane tasks, was pleasing in God’s sight every bit as much as the full expression of Christ’s life and death in the grand redemptive work to which he was called. The practice of infant baptism in some Christian traditions is meant to acknowledge God’s love for us and his redemptive purposes in our lives long before we can “do” anything to serve the church or Christ to “earn” his love or approval.
The mystery of how God meets us in the ordinary tasks of life is not simply a matter of doing menial tasks; it must be experienced in the rhythms of life. Every occupation has tasks and activities that are repetitive and seemingly tedious. As a seminary president, my job involves overseeing annual budgets, fall enrollment numbers, daily chapels, cabinet meetings, and seemingly endless trips around the country asking friends of the seminary for financial support. The pressures can be unrelenting, with various deadlines always looming, and endless challenges that call for my attention. There is constant pressure to find money, find students, find resolution to issues, find capable professors, and board yet another plane. All of this can feel relentless and far from life-giving. This is true of many jobs.
Almost any job, when viewed from the inside, can seem like the work of Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was doomed to roll the same rock up the same hill for eternity. This is why it is truly a “mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation.” (Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries [New York: Paulist, 1998], 10) We wrongly embrace the assumption that “spiritual” things are what really matter when we fail to recognize that our daily work is mysteriously connected to deeply spiritual truths.
Many of us have unconsciously accepted the idea that we meet God in a daily “quiet time,” a specific set of activities where we encounter God. Then we leave his presence to go into the secular world where God is largely absent. This common approach to life creates a divide between “spiritual work” and “secular work” in which we tend to limit “spiritual work” to certain professions like pastors and missionaries. Yet the men and women who faithfully keep financial records, who vacuum the floors, and who remove the snow from the parking lots before we arrive “to work” are daily serving God in these tasks. All work is sacred when it is seen through our status as image bearers in the world.
There is a story of a man who came upon three men with picks working in a rock quarry. The man called down and asked the men what they were doing. One man said, “Can’t you see, I’m hewing stone.” The second man said, “I am earning ten dollars an hour.” The third man said, “I’m building a cathedral.” The first man couldn’t see past his pick. The second man couldn’t see past his paycheck. Only the third man understood the larger narrative of which he was a joyful participant. The point of the story is that we serve God in whatever work we engage in, even in the most mundane tasks. Whatever work we are involved in, if it is done as an act of self-giving, it has the capacity to reflect the beauty of the Eucharistic words, “This is my body, given for you.” The person who does the laundry “makes dirty things clean,” every bit as much as the person wearing robes who declares our forgiveness and absolution in receiving the Eucharist. The world is not divided, as we often think, between those who “have time” (and can, therefore, do these daily tasks) and those who “do not have time” (and, therefore, cannot be bothered to engage in these tasks). Each of us is given twenty-four hours every day, and every person, in their own way, has the choice to give of themselves sacrificially in whatever tasks they are given to do on a given day.
The fall introduced brokenness into all of life, including our work (Gen. 3:16–19). But that work is redeemed, not annihilated, in the new creation. We should not confuse the “pain” (Gen. 3:16) and “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18) of the fall with the original call and our God-given purpose to engage in work. Indeed, the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the New Jerusalem, not shut out (Rev. 21:26). We will beat our “swords into plowshares” and our “spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:3). When Isaiah predicts that we will “build houses and dwell in them” and “plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21), it may not reflect the literal details of our work in the new creation, but it empowers and recalls the original sacred purpose of work in God’s plan.
There is a deep dysfunction in contemporary society when daily tasks are despised and demeaned. And this plays itself out in the culture of retirement. Through the lens of retirement, the entirety of “work” life is seen as never-ending drudgery, the period when we “put our time in,” perhaps thirty or forty years on a job or a succession of jobs. All of this is done so one can enter a time of enjoyment and contentment, the paradise of “retirement.” And so we race to get our pensions fully funded, missing the significance of the journey to the promised land. For many today, the dream of “retirement” masquerades as their future hope, replacing the promise of the age to come. The dream of retirement renders the whole of one’s working life meaningless compared to the glory of that final period of life. A proper theology of the body transforms this vision, embracing the sacredness and sanctity of all our embodied existence and seeing the eternal significance in each day.
This is an excerpt from Timothy Tennent’s new book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (Seedbed, Zondervan). Through these pages, you will:
- Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues
- Discover a positive vision for human sexuality
- Be equipped to engage culture from a positive posture
The human body is an amazing gift, yet today, many people downplay its importance and fail to understand what Christianity teaches about our bodies and their God-given purposes. We misunderstand how the body was designed, its role in relating to others, and lack awareness of the dangers of objectifying the body, divorcing it from its intended purpose.
Also available are the Video Companion and Video Study Guide for participants. In these eight (30 minute) sessions, Timothy Tennent presents the core teachings of the larger book. The Video Study Guide includes condensed narrative from the video presentations, outlines of the videos, discussion questions, and recommended reading. Together, these resources will help groups engage with the material at a deeper level and challenge us to consider the implications of the Bible’s teaching on the human body for discipleship.