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And the Lord said, "What is that in thine hand?"
Good Works and the Goodness of Work
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. ~William Blake
But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more; And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing. (1 Thess. 4:9-12)
In this passage the Apostle links "working with the hands" with a number of interesting things. He was urging the Thessalonians to even greater heights in their love for one another, wanting them to increase in it more and more. But the exhortation that immediately follows this is perhaps surprising to the American mind—we being so accustomed to mistaking gossip for gospel. Loving one another is closely associated in our minds with bustling around in the affairs of others, trying to help fix their multitudinous faults. As a result, we organize committees to do the important business of setting up fund-raising phone calls for the SCASBS (Suburban Coalition Against Second-hand Barbecue Smoke). We rarely note how truly odd our concept of good works has become. Paul has something else in mind here besides meddling.
Loving one another aright often means leaving one another alone. Notice that he exhorts the Thessalonians to learn to be quiet. Mind your own business. Work with your own hands. Keep your head down. When you do this you can be honest with outsiders because you are earning your own way, and you will not come up short in anything. This is love. This is loving one another more and more.
Working with the hands is a preventative measure as well. Paul uses it as an answer to those who would revile his motives for being in ministry. "And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it" (1 Cor. 4:12). In the tradition of the rabbis, Paul had a vocation (he was a tentmaker), and he worked faithfully at it when providence required (Acts 18:3). This was because the Jews required their seminary grads to be good at something besides reading big fat books. I have often lamented the fact that cabinet-making was not a part of ministerial curriculum. Since my days in the halls of academia I have learned the hard way that there is a considerable difference between turning pages and turning a profit.
Working with the hands is also a protection against the sins of covetousness and stealing. "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth" (Eph. 4:28). The point of a former thief getting this kind of an honest job is twofold. The first is obvious—to pay his own way, without forcing others to do so by means of theft. The second thing is that honest work with the hands produces a surplus, and the former thief is called to give to the needy. This, presumably, will help those others avoid the temptations to steal.
All this is groundwork. Working with the hands is part of what it means to love one another more and more. Working with the hands is an answer to slander. Working with the hands is the alternative to theft.
Now, look at those hands. What are they? To begin the discussion, they are an enormously complicated bit of engineering. Moreover, they are warm—alive. They do things that are beyond all mortal calculation. If you accidentally cut the surface of the skin, these hands have some sort of internal repair shop that sends out a team of repairmen who restore the surface within a week or so. If you play the guitar, these hands usefully grow calluses on the tips of your fingers. God helpfully gave us thumbs so that the hammer wouldn't keep falling out. Each finger segment has the same mathematical relationship to the next as it does to the one beyond, making the hands architecturally elegant. The fingernails on the ends of the fingers are a real marvel; what are they doing? What are they for? And though I frankly don't think science has advanced this far, I have no doubt that the answer will come out sometime—maybe after the resurrection—and we will all learn that fingernails were for picking up dimes and pulling apart Legos. Glory be to God for dappled things.
Now our hands are a marvel because it was God's declared intent that these hands of ours should do marvels. "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship" (Ex. 31:1-5).
All manner of workmanship. To devise cunning works. All craftsmanship, diligence, and hard-working hands are from the Lord. The work might be close and tight, like cunning embroidery, or it might take place on a large and grand scale, like designing and building a suspension bridge. Sometimes the great and small works are combined. We all know someone that we think could probably repair sewing machines with a backhoe.
Hands on the keyboard writing a poem or a novel. Hands chopping and splitting wood. Hands framing a house. Hands on a drafting table, designing the next generation of space shuttles. Hands under the hood of a car. Hands creating a glorious watercolor. Hands ministering to the sick. Hands straightening up the living room. Hands holding a scalpel and removing a tumor. Hands skillfully typesetting a book. Hands pushing a lawn mower. Hands buttoning up a small child's coat. Hands cutting hair. Hands cradling a hunting rifle. Hands arranging a table setting and bringing a platter of hot food. Hands positioned perfectly on a basketball while playing "horse" in the driveway. Hands laying brick. Hands holding a cold one after a day of honest labor.
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). We are to give ourselves to handiwork because we are His handiwork. The word for workmanship here is poiema, which could even be rendered as artwork. We are made by God, fashioned by Him, and we are called to imitate Him as dearly loved children. This means working with the hands. Further, it means that we are called to get really good at what we do. We bear God's image, because He made us as His workmanship. We were created unto good works, and we are therefore called to fulfill this particular design feature. We are a good work, our hands are a good work. It follows necessarily that those hands are called to reproduce themselves, accomplishing many good works of their own. This is why we are expected to do things well.
Because God has given this ability to us, and because we have fallen into sin as a race, it is possible for us to use our hands for purposes of evil. But the evil is in the intent, and never in the technology. Evil resides in the hearts of men, and never in the material stuff. This is where Tolkien's great vision of Middle-Earth failed him. Because he hated the kind of Mordorian modernity that smoked, clanked, and fouled the water, he was quick to dismiss cunning work (that was not evil in itself). When he was shown the first tape recorder he ever encountered, he would not use it until he recited the Lord's Prayer into it (in Old English) in order to rid it of the devil that was sure to be in there—was it not a machine? Was it not therefore possessed?
But technology is wealth, and wealth is from God. From the beginning of the world wealth has come to us from the use of our hands. The scriptural admonition is that we are never to worship the work of our hands—a sin to which we are ever prone. An idol is an object of worship made with hands. But though it is a real temptation, it is one that is frankly as old as dirt, and has nothing whatever to do with modernity—manufacturing of personal computers, the invention of the Internet, the automobile, the cell phone, or anything else. We are supposed to build things, and those who want it all to stop want mankind to deny the image of God in themselves. But those who want our works to ascend up into the heavens, so that we might be as God, are guilty of the same folly—the folly of thinking we are wiser than He is. God has told us what to do. Work with your hands, and get good at it, so that you might glorify the One who made you.
As we undertake the lessons that will come to us through our hands, we need to remember that these hands receive as well as give. Further, they receive as they give. Every job with the hands done well places something in the hands afterwards. Sometimes it is as obvious as a paycheck. Other times it is as subtle as a sense of self-respect.
This leads necessarily to one final consideration, which is the teaching of our children. If we are called to work with our hands, this means that we are also called to teach our children to work with their hands. This means chores, lessons, picking up, yard work together, and all the rest of it. Chores should never be seen as a way of taking from children—free slave labor—but rather as a way of giving to them. Parents are giving a work ethic, not taking something for themselves. Parents who see chores as "taking" often react in opposite ways—some of them taking full advantage, and with others refusing to do so. The latter are also robbing their children but the problem is more subtle. They are robbing them because they refused to give something to them which they could have given.
This kind of gift is not possible unless the grace of God is resting upon us. "Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it" (Ps. 90:16-17).
The glory of God resting upon our children is connected to the beauty of the Lord resting upon us, and with God establishing the work of our hands. Unless the Lord builds the house, the one who labors at it labors in vain. But the flip side of this is not often noted. If the Lord does build the house, He does it through glory, beauty, and callouses on the hands.
You may have noticed that production has slowed down over here at ye olde substack. This is somewhat by design. I have begun working on a few projects that have actual deadlines. For those who may not have heard the news, I am excited to announce that I was honored with an invitation to write a volume on the doctrine of Holy Scripture for an upcoming “Introduction to Systematic Theology” series for the fine folks over at Canon Press. I am also chipping away at a primer on Postmillennialism that should be available in the Spring. In addition, I am writing articles and essays to try to keep a little food on the table.
Howsomever, even as I work on manuscripts, this bloggy thing continues to whisper evil thoughts in my ear. It isn't a distraction, it's a temptation. I have two or three good things that I want to say in my forthcoming books and I am constantly tempted to trot over here and steal my own thunder. Fulfilling as that might be, it tends to reflect poorly in the royalties.
This is why I have chosen to post sparingly until my manuscript is safely at the printer. I don't want the pinhole in my books to expand so as to leak the good wordstuff all over the interwebz. So I have decided to plug the metaphorical hole with a fat wad of nothing. Forgetting the metaphysical difficulties involved with such a notion for a moment, this seems like pretty sage counsel. If I say little here that ensures that I will not say a lot that I intend to say elsewhere. Brilliant, I know. And you didn't even have to pay for that nugget!
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