Sunday, August 28, 2011

The American Work Ethic--Why it Isn't Working

Down at my in-law's house, the talk is serious against a background of giggling children, heaping plates of made-from-scratch chicken pot pie, and a classic episode of Winnie the Pooh.

I sit on the brick ledge by the fireplace, listening as my father in law talks farm news hot off the wire--of hay prices, fertilizer, and the widespread effect on the larger economy, of livestock auctions taking only so many head of cattle before shutting their gates. It's the continuing drought in the Texas/Missouri/Louisiana area along with the drawn-out recession that make him lean back a bit deeper into the recliner.

Arms crossed, he speaks of one farmer who brought his prize horse to auction, "one of those good breeds," and didn't even get a bid while another brought his mare home because the bids barely got off the ground. With one round bale of hay going for $100+ versus the usual $35, people aren't able to afford to keep their livestock.

"This rate, there won't be a market," he says, looking far past me to the potential long-term effects on this hay farm. Already this past winter, he opted to skip fertilizing the field behind the house, prices too steep for the rate of return.

Even this green farmer's wife readily shakes her head in agreement, thinking back to the weekly supermarket run. It's the whole concept of inflation--getting less for your money. Reuters even recently reported that "36 percent of workers don’t use all of their allotted vacation days." Without vacation days, we're working even more for less.In a recession, the American work ethic of toiling away incessantly for the sake of progress just doesn't seem to be getting much traction. Imagine my surprise when I opened the Word of God this week and saw the same exact problem!

The year was around 520 B.C., the time of the prophets Ezra and Haggai, sixteen years after King Cyrus had allowed the captive Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

Fourteen years later, work on the temple was at a standstill until God sent Haggai to the people, saying, "Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?'" (Hag. 1:4).

The people of Israel had been toiling hard, trying to build their lives back. It's understandable. They lost 70 years in captivity only to return home to ruins and a land reclaimed by the wilderness and foreigners. Yet, the reference here to "paneled houses" implies that many of the people had not only rebuilt their houses by this time, but that some were wealthy enough to have walls and ceilings overlaid with cedar panels as was done in King Solomon's sumptuous palace (1 Kin. 7:3-7).

Rebuilding a home, a life wasn't why God was critiquing them. Getting so caught up in their labors that they forgot about God was the real issue. God says, "'You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes" (Hag. 1:6).

Sound familiar? Never having enough to be satisfied? Always needing more no matter how much we earn? This concept is familiar, may even stick in our throat a bit. But it's not what God meant.

He continues: "You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?' declares the LORD of hosts, 'Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands'” (v. 9-11).

It's not that the people were harvesting more yet still wanting more. No, it's that they harvested less as they toiled more, harder, longer, a result of God bringing drought on the land to intentionally thwart their labors, and all because their spiritual priorities needed reordering!

This was not merely a simple drought of the land, though. God explains, "when one came to a grain heap of twenty measures, there would be only ten; and when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there would be only twenty. 'I smote you and every work of your hands with blasting wind, mildew and hail; yet you did not come back to Me,' declares the Lord" (Hag. 2:16-17).

With all creation at His disposal, God was using lack of "dew," hurricane force winds, mildew, hail to call the Israelites back to Him. The result was that 50-60% of the expected harvest was lost*. Work more, earn less.

While I'm not about to claim that the South's current drought or America's present economic situation is completely caused by a people's need to reorder its spiritual priorities, the similarities between post-exile Israel and modern-day America are too striking to ignore.

For the Israelites, coming back to God started with rebuilding the temple of God. While there is no one temple of stone today, there are many temples of flesh. Paul says, "Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16).

The old American work ethic is not what is needed for our country to prosper and be blessed. Instead, a reordering of spiritual priorities must occur...and this reordering must begin with the temple of God--both within the hearts of individuals and within the heart of the church.

*The MacArthur Commentary.

Image 1: U.S. Department of Agriculture (
Image 2: from the web magazine Good. A new infographic on “The Overworked American” based on Department of Labor statistics.

1 comment:

  1. Amen to that. Johnathan and I are studying Joshua and had a lesson on idols this morning. We see the idol of prosperity, hard work "ethic" (really - crazy, misguided committment to job success before God and family) and busyness here in Washington worse than ever.