Establish the Work of Our Hands

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The following is the commencement address I was privileged to deliver at Trinitas Christian School on June 7, 2007. I praise the Lord for the fine work that goes on through this institution and also for the families who recognize the high calling of a Christ-centered education. — DB

Board of Governors, Mr. Trotter, faculty, parents, school family, and Trinitas Christian School class of 2007: I greet you. I am deeply honored to address you on this momentous occasion. It is an honor that has special significance for me. I have been with these three graduates for 7 of their 8 years at Trinitas, and 6 of those in the classroom day in and day out. So for better or for worse, Katie, Kaleb and Rob have had me as their teacher for half of their school years. (Parents, please feel free to send me your children’s psychologist bills!). It sounds trite, but it’s true, graduates: you mean more to me than you could ever know.

You are a thinking audience attending the graduation ceremony for an institution that is serious about education, and you three graduates are thinking Christians committed to intellectual integrity. So you deserve respect, and I intend to give it to you tonight.

One of the great failings of education in our day is that it has devolved into mere job training – preparation to enter the work force and make money. We even have the phenomenon here in Florida of high school students being required to declare a major. Trinitas was founded, however, precisely because education, if it is true education, which means it is truly Christian education, must be for the glory of God and with Christ and His Word at the center. We realize that education, then, is really training to be a certain kind of person, a person for whom the glory of God is all in all, and who has the tools of learning, the spiritual frame, and the intellectual equipment to glorify God in any realm of life or endeavor.

And so, graduates, you have been told that the purpose of your years pursuing a classical and Christ-centered education, and your hard work studying grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and cultivating a Christian worldview, and learning to love truth, beauty, and goodness is exactly not so that you can go out and get a job and make a lot of money. But I have to confess to you that we’ve not been entirely honest with you. It’s not that you’ve been lied to, but we don’t always give the whole picture.

All three of our graduates are leaving Trinitas Christian School to enter college. If, after completing 4 years of undergraduate study they then pursue graduate study (and all three certainly should do at least that, if not more), then they will begin their career probably at around age 25. If they work, say, 40 years until the age of 65, an average of 50 hours per week, with 2 weeks off per year for vacation, then they will have worked 100,000 hours in their career, not to mention all the time they will have spent going to and from work and thinking about work all the time they’re not on the job. Put end-to-end, 100,000 hours is 4,166 days, or about 11½ years altogether. That’s more than 28% of their post-college, pre-retirement life spent on the job, a block of time probably equaled only by the time they will have spent sleeping. Well, obviously your education has something to do with that integral 11½-year-block of time that is so formative and so central to your life. But what?

I want to suggest tonight that the purpose of a classical Christian education is so that you can go out and get a job, not to make a lot of money, but indeed to work, to work to the glory of God, by fulfilling your divine calling and thus transforming the culture toward the greatest end that can be worked toward: the coming of the kingdom of God in the world for the glory of God.

In Psalm 90:17 we hear these words close out the psalm:
“And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands.”

My hope is that you will say to the Lord, as you leave Trinitas tonight, with words that are full of meaning to you, “Establish the work of our hands for us; Yes, establish the work of our hands.”

Work. The world is a bustling place, full of activity and industry. What will be your place in it? Does God have a purpose for work? Does God have a purpose for your work? Will your 100,000 hours spent in your career be fruitful toward the eventual end for which the world was made and is being transformed?

Let me briefly lay down four foundation stones so that I can then build on them the structure of an exhortation to you.

First, God is both three and one, and it is this Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that structures reality. Because the God-who-is is Triune, man also is both singular and plural, both an individual and a society. Therefore, the history of redemption is not just about the salvation of individuals but also about the salvation of nations or societies.

God the Father has given His Son Jesus Christ all power and authority, and the Son has commanded His people to disciple all nations, promising to be with them and strengthen them by His Spirit until this task has been accomplished. There can be no question that Jesus, the Sovereign Savior, will indeed successfully accomplish this program, and at the end deliver all things to the Father. Therefore, the work that you do must be seen as something greater than merely you and yours. You must work not just to benefit yourself individually and gratify your ego and grab as much money and stuff as you can get, but instead, in service to the Great Commission, seek to benefit the society in your home (your family) and indeed all of humanity.

Second, we must recognize the essential goodness of work. Before the fall in the Garden, God gave work for His image bearers Adam and Eve to do. They did the work God gave them joyfully and unhindered by sin. God’s creation was pronounced very good, and the work that the first couple did in that world was good as well.

After the fall, the creation, including the world, is still good, only it’s marred and corrupted by sin. God loves the world, and in His great grace He delights in the work that His called-out children do in obedience to Him. Because God loves the world, we should love the world also, being willing to work to fulfill our calling to transform the world from a barren, thorn-infested wilderness into a beautiful garden-city that glorifies God.

The Protestant Reformation utterly demolished the late Medieval separation between the sacred and the secular. No longer was the work of the priest and monk holy while the work of the plowman common. The Reformers understood that all the saints of God have a divine calling to work before the Lord. “It looks like a small thing,” said Martin Luther, “when a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework. But because God’s command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service of God far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns.”

Abraham was a rancher. Job was a businessman. Peter was a commercial fisherman. Paul manufactured tents. Our Lord Jesus was a carpenter. This was holy work. The sacred and secular are united in the work of God’s saints in fulfillment of their calling. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:28, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.”

John Murray wrote that “The ploughing of the wicked is sin, but it is more sinful for the wicked not to plough.”

Third, we need to be wise and understand how work has come to be viewed in our postmodern world, and we need to confront it with a Christian worldview. Our graduates have learned that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries signaled a shift in Western thinking of seismic proportions. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin in his book Foolishness to the Greeks describes the fundamental shift that took place in the Enlightenment as a movement away from thinking in terms of purpose toward thinking in terms of cause and effect. So no longer did scientists ponder the divine purpose behind the movement of the celestial bodies. In the brave new world of the Enlightenment it made no sense to ask how the rotation of the planets manifested the perfection of the divine will. Now scientists looked through telescopes and observed the movement of the stars and described their motions as effects brought about by previous causes, using terms like momentum and gravitation. Isaac Newton introduced ironclad scientific laws that dictated change and movement. Man, heady with this epistemological autonomy, had mastered the universe with his all-powerful reason. Purpose – especially divine purpose – was officially banished from the universe of meaning.

What effect did this have on the way man viewed his work?

Newbigin wrote that “The medieval Christian, taught by the Bible, saw as the end to which history moves, the second coming of Christ, the judgment of living and dead, and the holy city in which all that is pure and true in the public and private life of the nations is gathered up in eternal perfection.” The Enlightenment no longer saw any sense in talking about a world to come, only this world that you could observe with your senses, and so the Enlightenment secularist transferred Christianity’s holy city from the world to come to this world, where man lives. Therefore, human work is simply assimilated into the Newtonian mechanism of the universe. Work becomes the repetitive action of a cog in a machine for the making of money to live life, an unending cycle of production for the sake of consumption.

In the old world a craftsman took raw materials and, with a vision before him of a final creation, crafted them into a finished product. In the modern, industrialized world the worker makes one small part over and over, not knowing if that part goes in an automobile or a bomb. In the modern world work is just energy expended toward an unknown, fleeting this-worldly series of cause and effect processes.

But the Christian worldview must address and chasten and correct this distortion of work. We need someone to come from outside the system to enter into it and tell us why our work matters. That someone is God Himself. For a Christian, work must have a distinctively God-centered meaning to it that has been infused with purpose by the God who has revealed Himself through the Lord Jesus Christ. Work must fulfill a divine calling.

This leads to my fourth and last foundation stone: the question, What is happiness? This is certainly a happy day, so it’s an appropriate question. I dare say that at graduations all around our country various speakers will ruminate on the meaning of happiness.

We are accustomed to using the language of rights. The Declaration of Independence lists among our inalienable rights “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The founders no doubt originally intended this phrase “pursuit of happiness” to refer to the satisfaction and benefit that comes from determining one’s own political destiny through participating in free civic institutions. But this phrase “the pursuit of happiness” has become an all-embracing description of the American dream, a wax nose that can be shaped into whatever suits your fancy. In the Medieval world the basic category for understanding one’s place in the world was not rights (in fact, Medievals would have had no understanding of the phrase “inalienable rights”), but instead they thought in terms of duties, duties performed in the web of reciprocal relationships that formed their lives. But in our day rights rule, and happiness is every person’s inalienable right. But what is this happiness? Where is this happiness to be found? Can it be found within the bounds of this blue marble we call earth?

As I said a moment ago, the Enlightenment project of the 17th and 18th centuries that so controls thought in our day transferred the holy city, for which man had been working, from the world to come to this world. No longer could man be like Abraham, whom the Scripture tells us “waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” No longer could happiness be found in that heavenly city, which one envisioned as the ultimate goal and for which one worked. Now happiness could only be found here and now and in the stuff this life has to offer. After all, this is all there is.

Yet it was C.S. Lewis who said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” This means that our happiness must be bound up with the purpose of God. All our work, indeed all our lives, must aim at God’s great, sovereign purpose of transforming this sin-cursed world into a lovely new heaven and earth where righteousness dwells.

So how shall we view our work?

First, our work must be more than a merely private affair that fulfills my dreams or makes me money. In a Trinitarian universe all our work must have both an individual and a corporate awareness. We must work coram deo, in the presence of God, in love both to Him and to others, in rhythm with God’s will and commands.

Our work must be seen as something that is essentially good in a good world that God made and loves. I am not saying that our work is pleasing to God in the sense of earning salvation. But it is to say that work is that for which God saves us. In Ephesians 2:10, Paul writes, after saying that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Those good works aren’t merely works of mercy and sharing the gospel, though they are that, but they are also the work we do in obedience to God in our career. That, too, is His workmanship. It is holy. All that we do in obedience to God, in fulfillment of His will, is His workmanship in Christ.

Our work must be more than mere brute labor in a cause and effect Newtonian machine, operating according to fixed laws, without any purpose. Rather, our work is the fulfillment of our vocation. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word voco, which means “I call.” God calls, and we answer. His purpose is supreme. Our work fulfills our calling from the Sovereign God. Every man and woman must see that his or her work is worth more than its monetary value in the marketplace. There is a divine purpose for our work, a holy calling, a vocation that God has for us. Like otherwise discordant notes that fill a symphony with beauty and movement, each of us works, fulfilling our vocation and giving beauty and movement to the flow of history as it advances toward its culmination in the discipling of all nations, all men, all cultures, when the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven through Christ and His gospel.

So whether you are an engineer or a nurse or a philosopher – or whatever your vocation – the work of a Christian is suffused with purpose. A Christian’s work fulfills God’s purpose of glorifying Himself. It spreads abroad the excellency and magnificence of Christ. It furthers the Great Commission and fulfills the great commandment God gave us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Over seven hundred years ago, Bernard of Clairvaux taught that love is the greatest motivation for education. “There are many,” he writes, “who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.” Your education at Trinitas has prepared you to go and fulfill your vocation. Your high calling in that vocation, just as it has been in your education, is love. And love – both to God and to man – is the true fount of happiness. Wealth and possessions and promotion vainly promise happiness, but the love of God and man offers true happiness. Happiness is found in service to others.

Your education, graduates, has been many years of hard work. Your further education will be more years of hard work. The 100,000 hours of your career will be filled with hard work. Yet it is for the glory of God. This is its great purpose. It is for the great end of bringing the kingdom of God in the world that Christ has purposed and won on the cross and now causes to come through the gospel preached and lived out and incarnated through a myriad of vocations fulfilled throughout the world in a myriad of ways.

“And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands.”

Graduates, I speak for your parents and the faculty when I say that you are the work of our hands, and I pray, “Lord, establish this work of our hands for us.” I pray that our great God will indeed establish the work of your hands in your vocation, as you fulfill your divine calling for His glory.

May God bless you on this very special day of your graduation from high school. Amen.

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