Antonio is a man in his 50s who works on a fruit and vegetable farm in Dutchess County, New York. From sunup to sundown six days a week, he spends every hour picking peas or apples, depending on the time of year. For the grueling work, he is paid $8 an hour with no overtime pay. “I’m tired,” he told The New York Times last summer. “Right now my knees hurt a lot because all day I work bending over or down on my knees.” Like the millions of other US workers who harvest much of the food we eat, Antonio’s days are monotonous, long, and seemingly devoid of spiritual meaning.
Stephanie is a young mother with four children. Her typical day includes waking up at dawn, diapering and feeding one child while clothing another, preparing lunches for the rest, doing a couple loads of laundry, cooking dinner, and putting the kids to bed—all before falling into bed herself, exhausted. The exhaustion runs deep. Aren’t there more important things I should be doing? she asks, lamenting that she doesn’t have the energy for prayer and study. Many days, she suffers quietly and alone.
For all of us who struggle to find spiritual meaning in our daily work, Antonio and Stephanie’s stories resonate. And the longer we stay rutted in our routines, the more pressing our questions become: How is this work shaping my heart and mind? Is it strengthening my relationship with God and others? Does it even matter in the world?
To answer these questions, many contemporary church leaders and writers describe the ways that work, paid and nonpaid, can shape our communities and bless our neighbors. And that’s true. But we also find rich answers among men and women of the fourth and fifth centuries, who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Out there in the desert, the most menial tasks take on the most sizeable significance for the soul.
For the great desert fathers and mothers, manual work was soul work. It carried eternal significance in part because Jesus honored it in his incarnate life, laboring as a carpenter. Manual work also anticipated the Second Coming, in which the new creation is the crowning goal of all God’s purposes (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1–4). The earliest monks believed daily chores could transfigure the old creation of fallen people into the new creation of Christ’s deified humanity.
Mundane duties were like God’s heavenly sandpaper. They could mold character, cleanse away impurity, and transfigure a person to reflect the beauty of Christ. For the monks, the “workplace” was a spiritual garden. They viewed work as being not only about us tilling the soil, but also about how the soil tills us.
Many of us assume that godliness is cultivated primarily by escaping daily drudgery, such as during retreats away from “normal” life. If only we could pray in stillness, then we could experience God’s holiness and become more like him. Some of the desert dwellers assumed the same—but later repented.
Take John the Dwarf (339–409). In a story taken from his earliest days in the desert, he said to his elder brother, “I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work but ceaselessly offer worship to God.” He took off his cloak and went into the desert.
John returned a week later. When he knocked on the door, his brother asked, “Who are you?”
“I am John, your brother,” he said.
His brother said, “John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.” John begged him, saying, “It is I.” But his brother did not let him in, leaving him outside in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said, “You are a man, and you must once again work in order to eat.” John lay prostrate before him, saying, “Forgive me.”
It took John a week of failure and a cold night’s meditation to learn that, no matter how hard he tried to escape his mortality with all its ordinary labor, he was still a human who needed to earn his bread.
The Goal of Work, the Goal of Life
The word itself seldom appears in the literature of the desert fathers, but theosis—meaning Godlikeness or deification—lies at the heart of the desert fathers and mothers’ theology of work. They believed that our highest vocation is not the kind of work we do, but the kind of people we become doing it.
Theosis is mostly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, but it also resonates with Catholics and Protestants of various stripes. It means God created humans so they could grow ever more like their Creator. But after Adam and Eve fell off this path, God became human and did for us what we could not do for ourselves: In Christ, he restored our lost union with himself. We now can participate in the life of God through communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit.
This transforming union occurs through worship, prayer, submission, and loving actions. By grace, we become “divine”—but not in the sense that one becomes a fourth member of the Trinity or acquires divine powers. Rather, because God became human in Jesus Christ, we can be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Theosis is a lifelong process by which we take on the likeness of Christ as we advance “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18, NASB).
Theosis offers an ancient and powerful way to find the purpose of God in our daily work. Our workplace is not only a means of livelihood, but can become a place of redemption. It’s not that work redeems us through the deeds themselves, as if we could somehow earn our salvation just by being nice or honest in our dealings. Rather, each person’s work is a sacred task given to them by Providence in order to achieve Christlikeness. Our daily tasks and personal relationships become the hands of God to shape and fashion us into the image of his beloved Son. Theosis is the goal of work, just as it is the goal of life.
Deathly Desert and Daily Chores
By definition, the desert is a place of death. Life is scarce, water is limited.
The desert was a place where God’s people repented and their sins were atoned for. In the Old Testament, the desert tested the heart and trained it for obedience (Deut. 8:2). On the Day of Atonement, the high priest placed his hands on the head of a goat and sent it far into the desert, never to return. In the New Testament, the desert is a place of spiritual warfare: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for 40 days he was tempted by the Devil” (Luke 4:1–2).
The desert fathers and mothers understood these biblical images. That is why the desert and its bleak landscapes provided the outer environment for fostering the inner work of holiness. Their workplace environment beckoned them to die to self. It was a place where God worked in them as much as he worked through them. Through warfare of the heart, the passions were conquered and the fruit of the Spirit was grown. Planting vegetables or weaving mats was not just a livelihood; it was a way of integrating soul-work with daily chores.
The desert and our own places of work are more alike than we might realize. Where we labor is where our character is formed and we are made Christlike. Much of our work, especially the more menial tasks, teaches us to repent and die daily to our sins.
Washing dishes, cleaning house, and making meals are the hands of God that fashion a bouquet of godly virtues in the heart of a homemaker. Theosis develops when dealing with a rude customer teaches a store clerk the spiritual grace of patience. A Christlike nature silently appears in the soul of a doctor who sacrifices sleep in order to take a 2 A.M. emergency call from one of his patients. A factory worker gradually becomes living prayer as she integrates the monotony of the assembly line with Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, NASB). Our workplace is an arena where we train to transform our daily chores into spiritual causes. It will often make us great saints or great sinners.
When I was a car salesman, these truths became so real to me that I found myself leaving home with these parting words to my wife: “Barb, it’s time for me to go to my monastery. God is waiting there in order to work on my heart and make me like his Son.”
Our daily life is nothing less than a sacred journey into the being of God. Our most important spiritual work, then, is located wherever we find ourselves. That is the place where we till the soil of our jobs, and where the soil of our jobs tills us. It’s where God meets us, transfigures us, and leads us from glory to glory. Our workplace is our monastery.
Bradley Nassif is professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago, and author of Bringing Jesus to the Desert (Zondervan).
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