In 2019, Derek Thompson suggested in the Atlantic that work for college-educated Americans had become workism, “the most potent of new religions competing for congregants.” He noted, “No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. And the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. Between 1950 and 2012, annual hours worked per employee fell by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States.”  Nor did the now-defunct Great Resignation change things. Not only was it predominantly in fields such as hospitality, but the work simply moved around, as the Great Resignation was really the Great Change Jobs.

Further, Thompson noted, “The shift defies economic logic—and economic history.” At the time, he suggested several causes for the development and spread of workism, including student debt, social media, the shift from jobs to callings. All valid. But if the diagnosis of the causes of workism is incomplete, the medicine will be as well. So, may I also suggest two more: fear and greed.

Why has work has become a functional religion for at least one class of people in America? Because our god is the thing we think will ultimately take care of us. And, because we think our work will ultimately take care of us, we make it our functional god. Or, if we step back just one more step, we think we are the one who will ultimately take care of ourselves, so we make ourselves our own functional gods. And self-worship leads to so much of our societal and moral mess today, because we are unwilling to let anyone else have authority over us, meaning we refuse to accept a God who tells us that some of our impulses and desires are wrong. Workism may be making work our god, but it even more may be us making ourselves our gods.

What is the antidote? Thompson suggests that we remember the purpose of work is to buy free time. Maybe, but readers of TWI will know our deep commitment to the idea that calling is a good thing, that work ought to be more than just a means to buy other things that we really desire. One of our very purposes is to pursue Dorothy Sayers’ challenge: “Christians must revive a centuries-old view of humankind as made in the image of God, the eternal Craftsman, and of work as a source of fulfillment and blessing.”

How might we avoid workism while also preserving an understanding of work as something more than a means to buy leisure? We might ask, with Thompson, how work has become workism, what drives the shift from work as a good gift of God to work as an idolatrous other religion. And the answer to both the fear and greed of workism is found in the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer, “Give us today our daily bread.”

If we believed our daily bread would be given, we would rest.

As politics has shown, fear is a powerful motivator, sadly far more powerful than ethics for many, even most humans. Personally, Matthew 6 may contain the most difficult passage in the entire Bible for me to believe, at least if one wishes to measure belief by behavior. Jesus raises the question of trust, the question of belief in a good God who will provide abundantly for us. He teaches:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:25–34, ESV)

You see, I come from a long line of worriers. And that’s not to blame things on my upbringing. If one will permit the aside—students and young adults, yes, your parents messed you up. And you will probably mess your kids up just as badly, probably just in different ways, so let us all have some grace for our parents. But in my case, coming from at least a generation further back than my parents, at least one side of my family knows how to worry. It is one of our core competencies.

Another name for worry is fear. And here is what that fear does to me. It means I never quite stop working. And even when I technically stop working, my mind cannot fully stop. And it means I have real trouble saying no to an opportunity. And I try still to be a good father and husband while I do it, so I can end up grinding myself to a pulp. I end up in workism.

Because I have read all the same articles you have about how much money it takes to retire comfortably, and about how life expectancy is going up, and about how the long tail of life is getting more and more expensive. And I know college is coming for the kids, and how uncertain investments or jobs can be. And, so, I feel this deep drive—which is more a fear than anything—that I have to keep striving, keep driving forward. In case. In case.

And the root of that worry is this: at some fundamental, instinctual level, I am convinced that I provide my daily bread, that I’ve got to do it on my own, that I’m the provider. And yet, Jesus teaches us something quite different: that God is the provider and that he’s good: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

So, the way to get what we need day-by-day is, at the end of it all, to ask. To ask, not to earn.

Any promised gift immediately raises the question of the reliability of the giver. Promised gifts from Nigerian princes via email, for instance, prove rather unreliable. When Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father,” he uses a term of both deep respect and deep endearment, a term of trust and affection and love, of deep familiarity but also deep respect.

Can I trust God for my daily bread? Well, that depends. Is he trustworthy? Here the two presentations of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible are helpful. Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, shortly before the passage quoted above. But the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11, also records it. There are small differences between the presentations, differences related to what Matthew and Luke are respectively emphasizing as Gospel writers and also to the fact that Jesus, over a three-year public ministry, probably taught people to pray multiple times. Like any good teacher, he could well have phrased all these same petitions slightly differently himself as he taught different groups of people in their own situations.

Luke follows the Lord’s Prayer immediately with a somewhat curious sounding parable:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:5–13, ESV)

What is Jesus saying here?  And why does Luke order it to follow the Lord’s Prayer? Because Jesus is reminding us of who God the Father is, that when we pray to him, he is so much more than a grumpy old man who does not really like us, but eventually gives in so we will stop bothering him. Instead, Jesus says, God is a deeply loving Father, one who loves to give us what we need.

Some—and I am certainly blessed to be one—have wonderful fathers, and this image makes inherent sense, because it matches the human father we have. But this image of God as father can be so very tough for others, because we had or have a human father who was something very different, one who hurt or harmed us or ignored us. And one can quickly then—because God is termed our Father—map all the problems of a bad human father onto God, to envision him as a begrudging benefactor who does not have time for us at best, abusive at worst, or just a really angry old man.

When the Bible talks about God our Father, it means God being everything a human father should be, not what we often are. God as “our Father,” is what even the best human father ultimately points to. And God looks at us wanting to give us good. John 3:16 does not say, “God the Father really hates you and wants to smite you, but Jesus got in the way and took the bullet.” No, John 3:16 says “God [meaning God the Father] so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”

This raises a curious question. Why ask? If God knows everything, he already knows what we need. In fact, in that passage from later in Matthew 6, Jesus said exactly that. To quote it again, he said, “and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” He knows what we need before we ask, and yet he tells us to pray and ask. God wants to hear it. Why?

Well, not because we pray and God suddenly says, “Oh, man. I was distracted. Glad you brought that to my attention. I had missed your email.” No, he knows—better than we do—exactly what we need. God does not tell us to pray for our daily bread for the sake of him learning something. He tells us to pray for our daily bread for the sake of us learning something.

God tells us to pray this to remind us that we are actually in humble dependence upon him. This petition implies our essential neediness, our own inadequacy. We are actually people who need to be given even our very basic needs. This petition exposes and debunks our own myth of self-reliance. We are not providers, but instead we are little children who need to be given even our most very basic needs.

In other words, we must realize that Bart Simpson’s blessing was funny, but terribly wrong. Way back in Season 2, when asked to pray for the food, Bart prays, “Dear God, we pay for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Instead, this petition reminds us that such self-reliance is—even if terribly funny as a quip—actually a myth. We are people who need things. So, why does God tell us to pray for them? Because we need to know from where they really come.

And here we get to the question of functional belief versus orthodox belief. If you are a follower of Jesus already, you hopefully know that it is just fine to laugh at Bart’s blessing, but we do not actually believe it. Yes, we do pay for the food, but we realize that the money we used to pay for the food was God’s gift to us, even when that money is the salary or wages from working really, really hard. We understand that human effort and God’s goodness are not two antithetical things, but they are actually two sides of the same coin, that even our ability to work and earn a living is God’s gift, not our own ability.

We know we should believe that God is a good God and that only he provides what we need. We know all that. In our brains. But if we look not at what we profess, but at how we live—not at our intellects but at our behaviors and our emotions—do we actually really know that? Knowing is more than just intellectual assent. I can read a book about riding a bike, but that does not mean I know how to ride a bike. I can learn a lot about praying, but that does not yet mean I know how to pray. We know, intellectually, that God gives us our daily bread, and that he is good, that it is not our own doing. But if we look at what wakes us up in the middle of the night, what we fear, how we struggle and worry, then suddenly we realize we might have good intellectual theology, but poor functional theology.

Do we profess Christianity but live as functional atheists? Do we live as Bart Simpson? Even if we say we believe in God as a good father who gives our daily bread, do we live in a way that bears out that belief? Or do we actually say we think of God the giver, but live as if we are convinced we are our own giver, our own security. We pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” to remind us who we are—needy children who follow God, a good, good Father.

What does it mean to pray for daily bread? At the surface level, of course, the answer is very simple: bread. Here many westerners—but not all—have a vast cultural distance between us and the people who listening to Jesus as he taught them to pray. Bread was a staple, the staple in their diet. It was the source of most of their calories. In the ancient world, still by the time of the Roman Empire, famine was ever-present as a danger. Even a city as rich as Rome always faced the threat of no rain, leading to no grain, leading to famine and hunger.

To go further, most people hearing Jesus teach this sermon—possibly at least 70% according to Clifton Black[1] – lived on 1 denarius a day, which they earned and spent on that same day. In other words, they lived at bare subsistence, hungry tomorrow if they did not get what they needed today. Instead of sitting on substantial stored food from season to season, they lived not just season to season but day to day. Lack of bread would very quickly mean lack of life.

How do we understand this petition when we can go to the grocery store and see lines and lines of food just waiting for us? In fact, many of us are trying not to gain weight, whereas Jesus’ original hearers were trying not to starve to death.

First, we should recognize that “bread” in this prayer is both literal and metaphorical. Jesus was talking to people who were literally to pray for God to give them the bread that was enough calories for them to not starve. And so should we. And, at the same time, in both biblical language and modern language, bread is also what we call a synecdoche, a type of metaphor standing for everything we really need. Even today we might talk about a modern family and say, “Who is the breadwinner?” What do we mean? The breadwinner is not simply the source of bread, but we mean the income necessary for the family to have everything it needs.

Similarly, “bread” in both the Old and New Testaments can stand for everything we need to live. Therefore, Martin Luther would remind us that “daily bread” is what we need to survive—food, yes, but also clothing, shelter, faithful and just rulers, friendships, and more. So, first, even if we have the food you need, we pray in “our daily bread,” for all the things we need—physical, emotional, spiritual, and everywhere in between.

Second, though, note the possessive pronoun Jesus uses. It is actually striking, and I have for years prayed this prayer without fully appreciating this nuance. Have you ever noticed how quickly and even unconsciously we personalize this prayer into the first person, “God, this is what I need today. Give me my daily bread.”? I am almost ashamed to say how many times I have prayed this prayer without fully realizing the import of the pronoun.

Because Jesus does not say we should pray, “give me this day my daily bread.” Not that such would be a bad prayer. But Jesus doesn’t say that! This is a community prayer. He says, “Give us our daily bread.” And here we learn that even if we are not struggling with the basics, if we have what we need for today, even maybe what we need for many, many todays, we are not done praying this prayer. Because this prayer is corporate, and if we have enough, we are not done praying it. Then we must pray it for our neighbors.

And, we should remember, many today are struggling with the same challenge as the original biblical audience—not weight gain, but failure to get enough calories to survive. Many people experience hunger, across the globe but also in prosperous communities. Hunger goes unseen in wealthy areas, but it can strike quickly, sometimes especially in high cost of living areas. And hunger is obvious, but devilishly hard to combat, in many international situations, especially because warring groups often use food as a weapon.

Further, note the adjective: daily. Not yearly, monthly, even weekly. “Give us today our daily bread.” In this, Jesus is almost certainly hearkening back to not just the living situation of his audience, but to Israel’s experience in the wilderness when God led them out of Egypt, the Exodus. As they lived in the dry and desiccate wilderness for 40 years, there was no way the land could sustain them. They would not have what they needed. They would starve in the desert. Therefore Exodus 16 recounts that God gave them daily bread, manna in the wilderness. Each day, God would give a white seedy substance, what they called manna, bread from heaven. It would arrive with the dew, and each family was to pick up what they needed. They could grind it up and use it to make bread, and God would give them what they needed to eat each day.

But it was a daily bread. And they learned this—what would you do in that situation? Well, I would go out and pick up enough for today and also tomorrow, because who knows if it would be there again? After all, I say I trust God, but I really prefer to trust myself. I really prefer the visible thing I can hold and touch to God’s promise of reliable care. And many Israelites did the very same thing you and I would have—they picked up enough for several days. But when they awoke the next morning, it was useless, rotting and full of worms. Each day, God would give them what they needed for that very day.

And this was a teaching tool—the Apostle Paul specifically talks about it this way in 1 Corinthians 10—a way to help Israel see and feel what was both a physical and spiritual truth—that their dependence on God was daily. We live with a God whose mercies are new every morning, who might even realize it’s not good for us to get it all at once.

And this means we have to realize that we are incessantly needy, that we will have to do it all again tomorrow. As C.S. Lewis once said, “relying on God has to begin again every day.”

So, how do we think about it when someone has been praying this prayer and yet still been going to bed hungry, when it seems God hasn’t been answering the cry for help? And what do we do when someone has been praying the metaphorical version—in the midst of deep daily suffering from cancer or mental health or other deep suffering? In Matthew 6, just before teaching us to pray, Matthew has Jesus talking about almsgiving, which was giving to the poor. In Matthew 6:2, he says, “When you give to the poor.” Not if, we should notice, but when.

If God has given us our daily bread, we must remember those who are struggling to pray this prayer and believe it. This is why we must support ministries to feed the poor. And this is also why we must support those who are struggling with health, with age, with cancer, with mental illness. Because when God has given us our daily bread in those things, we are not done with “my” daily bread—that I am healthy. We are praying for “our” daily bread. We may have never realized it, but when we pray this petition, we are praying for God to make each of us fundamentally and even radically generous—with our time, our talent, and our treasure.

The petition here is to ask for my daily bread—what I really need to sustain me today. But here is the thing—that’s rarely what I ask for—I ask for riches and wealth and ease and success and many other things—the things of ease, not of daily bread.

In greed, we don’t want just what we need. We want more. And that leads us into a sense that it’s never enough. Because if I am thinking that I have to store up enough for myself, well, how do I know I have? So, I insist on a little bit more, and a little more after that, and more after that. I can never just rest in trust and satisfaction.

So, here’s the question: what do we actually pray for? Do we ask for enough, or way too much? Is our application of this petition, as we actually pray, is it for need or greed? So, Thomas Aquinas gives a list of five vices: five mistakes we make that cause us to not pray this petition the way Jesus meant. Here are a couple:

The first vice to which we are tempted is that inordinate desire whereby we seek for things…[The Lord] did not teach us to ask for ourselves delicacies, nor for many kinds of things, nor for what is overrefined, but for bread that is common to all….the fourth vice is immoderate voraciousness…[to]devour in one day what should be sufficient for several….

We should ask—am I praying for my daily bread, or if I really look at it, for something far different?

Biblical scholars will note one more challenge in this passage. The challenge is that the Greek of the Lord’s Prayer does not use the usual word for “daily” in the Greek language, the language in which the Gospels were written. “Daily” has been the standard English translation since the time of the King James Bible, but standard Greek has a perfectly good word for “daily,” and this is not it. In fact, this word only occurs in the New Testament in the Lord’s Prayer. And because it is a unique word, interpreters struggle to say what it means. It could mean “today’s bread,” or “the bread we need for tomorrow,” or “the necessary bread.”

Nor is that a new struggle. The church father Origen, one of the most learned, if occasionally very adventurous, scholars of the early church, reported that he could not find the word in any Greek literature known to him. Nor can we. Modern scholars, with vast resources for the study of ancient Greek, really know little more. This may even have been an invented word for this occasion. But, following Jesus, who presumably taught the crowds in Aramaic, the Gospel writers pretty clearly chose it, not the usual Greek word for “daily,” which was easily available to them.

The word is epi-ousios, which in woodenly in Greek would mean, “the super essential bread.” For that reason, Christians are tempted to immediately connect this word to the “bread of life” in John 8:35, where Jesus says he is the bread of life. Yes and no.

Given what follows in Matthew 6, we cannot simply spiritualize this prayer away and say God cares only about eternity. He cares about the here and now, including that we need food. But he also does not merely care about the here and now. He knows what we need, and what we need is more than a healthy, well-fed body that will still eventually break down and die.

You see, God knows we really do need all these things like food and water, shelter and work, companionship and love. He knows we need all these and even still other things. And yet, those alone aren’t enough. We do need food day by day. And yet, someday the day will come when our body quits eating, when we are past the golden years into the time when our body no longer works, when food will no longer be enough to sustain us, when we have to face mortality.

What will we need then? We will need to be right with God. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy when tempted by Satan, reminding us “Man does not live by bread alone.” And in this, Jesus reminds us that bread can become idolatry.

And here we remember that the Bible’s best way to envision the kingdom of God to a people who were often hungry was as a great, eternal banquet. Eternity, the world made right, a life with God forever, was celebrated as the image of an unending feast. The prophet Isaiah had declared:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6–8, ESV)

And Jesus in Luke 13:29 says that he is the way to that eternal feast. So, praying for the bread we need is also praying for God’s kingdom to come, not in place of daily bread, but as an extension of it.

When we eat what we really need to survive today, we’re reminded that God’s giving it to us is a foretaste of something so much more, a world as it is supposed to be. In other words, the richest meal we will ever eat here on earth is only the appetizer. Because in the end, we need to be made right with God, to have an eternal life with him. This is why the prayer moves next week to “forgive us our sins.” This is how much God is a loving, good father: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”

We cannot be our own provider in this. We need to receive the gift of what we require. We cannot earn favor with God, because we are sinners. Salvation cannot come because we merit it, because we have stored up enough good deeds for tomorrow. It cannot be demanded, earned, or merited. It is given to us, when we come as needy children, and simply ask for forgiveness of our sins in Jesus. There is no other way. And if he would do that for us, then we can trust that he knows what’s good for us, maybe even when we’re feeling a daily bread need that he doesn’t seem to answer. Maybe, just maybe, he sees the wider picture, what we really need, even when what we’re convinced we need is what he isn’t giving us.

If God would do the cross, well what kind of Father would do that for us and then let us go hungry?  Because he’s usually sustaining us, even when we do not know it

A friend of mine wrote me this in an email some number of years ago.  He wrote:

Two Fridays ago, I was playing ultimate Frisbee, and elected to block the throw of a guy much larger than I with my face. This apparently generated a cut all the way through my cheek, over 1inch long starting from the right corner of my mouth and headed northeast. It didn’t hurt too bad or bleed that much, but fortunately the people with me had the sense to realize that I should be taken to the urgent care center and sewn up. The doctor ended up causing more pain in administering Novocain and stitches, and then this past Thursday removing them. Of course I’m smart enough to understand that this was for my good, but what if I were a small child—would I not consider the doctor inhumane in adding to my suffering? And what if I were simply unable to understand what was happening? I think that must be what goes on in the problem of evil—we’re just incapable of understanding how this much pain really contributes to the greater good.

In quoting this, I in no way mean to make at all light of how hard it is to trust God, especially when everything is going wrong, or even when facing death, itself—but I do mean to remind us that God is a good God, one who answers our prayers just the way we would pray them if we knew what he knows—because knows what we really need even better than we do.

So, to come back to the impact of all of this—if we really realized we are children resting in our father’s arms, we could do what a child does—rest. Just go to sleep and know he is holding us. RC Sproul wrote this in a devotional about this petition of the Lord’s Prayer:

After the Korean War ended, South Korea was left with a large number of children who had been orphaned by the war. We’ve seen the same thing in the Vietnam conflict, in Bosnia, and in other places. In the case of Korea, relief agencies came in to deal with all the problems that arose in connection with having so many orphan children. One of the people involved in this relief effort told me about a problem they encountered with the children who were in the orphanages. Even though the children had three meals a day provided for them, they were restless and anxious at night and had difficulty sleeping. As they talked to the children, they soon discovered that the children had great anxiety about whether they would have food the next day. To help resolve this problem, the relief workers in one particular orphanage decided that each night when the children were put to bed, the nurses there would place a single piece of bread in each child’s hand. The bread wasn’t intended to be eaten; it was simply intended to be held by the children as they went to sleep. It was a “security blanket” for them, reminding them that there would be provision for their daily needs. Sure enough, the bread calmed the children’s anxieties and helped them sleep.

Likewise, we take comfort in knowing that our physical needs are met, that we have food, or “bread,” for our needs. And each time we are able to go to sleep with a piece of bread—maybe not in our hand, but in the kitchen—it reminds us that we can rest—both now and for eternity. Workism might recede.

Remember, we do need bread. And each day when we are given it, it is just the appetizer for the kingdom of God.

[1] Clifton Black, The Lord’s Prayer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 146

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

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