Life is full of unsexy tasks. For example, unclogging toilets, roofing, spreadsheets, thank you letters, file sorting, quality control, set striking… the list goes on. I’ve done all of those things listed above and then some, and most of them more than once. It’s not that we do those types of work because we particularly enjoy them. Most of us would rather be the person handing out the orders than the one wielding the broom and bucket; or at the least deciding to pick up the broom for ourselves.
We do them because we understand that at some level they are critical to the overall success of what we are trying to accomplish. We also do them because we are told to and, for whatever reason, we all find ourselves in positions of subordination. Everyone of us has a superior.
Doing things because we are supposed to is less than fulfilling. In my case, most of the time I am just trying to do thing them as quickly and adequately as possible, so I can get on to what I really enjoy. The seemingly menial work in front of me is simply a means to my own end. Sometimes that’s because I don’t like the work, other times it’s because I don’t like the people telling me to do the work, and still other times it is just because I frankly don’t think it’s worth my time. In other words, I’ve got better things to do than be a personal servant.
That’s exactly what servants are supposed to do, though. Paul lays this out more clearly when speaking to real slaves in Ephesus who were part of the early church congregations there. He identifies a few specific points for those who feel that they are suffering undue abuse and embarrassment in their work (which is our work, too).
Paul’s first order to the slaves is to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). Often I have tried to empathize with how a slave might react to hearing this; yet, I find this exercise difficult. I just can’t put myself fully in the mind of someone who is completely un-free. Paul tells them (and us) to, first and foremost, obey. But that’s not all! We must do it with “fear and trembling.” We are to do it respectfully and without hesitation. In fact, we are supposed to do it with the same respect and sincerity as if we were doing it for Jesus himself. We are to treat the work given to us us by masters as if it comes from the Master.
Next, Paul says that servants are to obey humbly and without deceit. He doesn’t tell the slaves “obey and lay low for a little while, make your masters think they you are theirs and then revolt and free yourselves!” No, he tells them to remain in their captivity, “doing the good will of God from the heart, rendering service with good will as to the Lord” (Eph 5:6-7). We are therefore commanded to be humble and joyful in our work regardless of circumstances, because all work is God’s work; even the work of a slave under a master. I hardly ever do this. I almost always do the work, but it’s rare that I do it without grumbling.
Finally, Paul reminds his audience that we are not invisible and our faith does not go unrewarded. He writes, “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or free” (Eph 5:8). Paul does not leave the masters out of this conversation, either; telling them that they are to “do the same,” remembering that God is master over all and “holds no partiality” (Eph 5:9). Often (and I have to assume this was no different nineteen centuries ago), doing the types of work I listed earlier are made difficult by the fact that I know no one will see them. We all want recognition regardless of the type or quality of work. Worse than negative recognition is no recognition at all.
Paul’s letter reminds us that we are not meant to, nor need to be recognized by Man. God looks and judges good work not only by its quality, but also by the heart with which it was done. We as free men and women, not slaves, in a literal sense, still remain enslaved in some way to our work: whether it be our jobs, what we do to volunteer, or even in caring for our own families. They are necessary, not just for our flourishing, but for our survival.
We willingly yoke ourselves to these things because, despite their imperfection, we might achieve something greater. However, our earthly masters can never trump our heavenly master, just as our suffering in servitude can never compare with the ultimate suffering servant in Christ. By yoking ourselves to Christ, we gain the undeserved righteousness and recognition from God as sons and daughters and are free to be free in our work.
Stanton Coman works in the not-for-profit sector and is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program in McLean, VA