Mark DeVine, associate professor of divinity, Beeson Divinity School
I found it hard to complain much about the dirty, exhausting, and dangerous work in the cotton mills of upstate South Carolina. I relished what seemed a sort of primal enjoyment the physical exertion itself afforded. Pride in the finished product—high-quality, heavy-duty, cotton work gloves—also seemed to compete with and limit my occasional groaning over sore muscles and deep exhaustion.
But the chief chastiser and squelcher of potential complaint emerged from neither the work product, nor the work itself, but from a little thing called money. What sustained my “work ethic” and bolstered my weary spirits on the long slog from 4 a.m.-12 p.m., Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week, every week is no mystery; it was the once-per-fortnight delivery of filthy lucre into my eager 16-year-old hands. It came in the form of a crisp check cut (in those days the checks were literally cut) by the business manager of Arkwright Mills. I earned three whole dollars above the minimum wage at the mill and, in time, would earn six dollars above the minimum. We know from the inspired word of God that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and so it proved to be in my case.
The exhilaration I felt at receiving those checks sprang from the promise they boasted. And the promise of those bright, pristine, official-looking, fancy-signature-embossed documents did not dissipate in a flash, or even in a few hours. The promises the money made proliferated in my mind, laid hold of my heart, and acquainted me intimately – both at once and over time – with a whole plethora of truths and lies about money and wealth. That little story Jesus told about the rich fool with the barns makes perfect sense to me (Luke 12: 13-21).
Most immediately, there was just the pure pleasure of the power to purchase and consume. And purchase and consume I did: cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and the spectacular newcomer to the culinary scene—PIZZA! But then there were the more “relational” purchases that promised much more than immediate pleasure; Clearasil and Vitalis to combat pimples, shine hair, and provide backbone support to ask Sharon Green with those green eyes to take my hand, and skate the roller rink under dimmed lights, a glittering disco ball, and the illuminated neon “Couples Only” sign. Oh, what tantalizing possibilities a few dollars dangle before us!
And then there were the creature comfort purchases to excite the mind, soothe the soul, and provide periodic, temporary escape from having to think about my parents’ divorce, my mother’s suicide attempts, and her schizophrenia. Here too, money made a path forward through the procuring of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, alcohol, marijuana, hashish, LSD, and cocaine. There would have been no need for 18 candles on a cake had crack and meth been available to me in 1976.
But let’s not go totally dark just yet. The purchase list goes on to big ticket items my railroad-working father could not provide—motorcycles, automobiles, and trips to Myrtle Beach, where I encountered exotic female creatures from square-ish northern states, who’d never heard of grits and who spoke with wild accents, saying things like, “we’re from O-Highey-O.”
Money began to dangle the big prize, the one that tells the big lie about wealth. Money promises independence and power over the future. Money lures us into conversations with ourselves that run something like this, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19).
Independence is not only wrong, it is a lie—it is not achievable. The reach for it in the Garden proved abortive. Our utter dependence upon God and mutual interdependence upon each other belong to a permanent, structural, irreversible, and excellent divine design. The fall has not ‒ and cannot ‒ undo this. Sanctification leads us out of, not into, the shiny, but sinister mirage of independence and the lies it tells.
But let us be careful here. The same God who remembers—and prompts us to remember—that we “are dust,” and warns the one who “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God,” also insists upon work that earns money. We must earn enough money to take care of ourselves, and provide for legitimate dependents and others in need (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 5:8).
By itself, the idleness of the idlers in Thessalonica cannot account for either the character or the intensity of Paul’s rebuke to both the idlers themselves and their enablers. It was the joining of the idleness with the eating of others’ food that proved combustible for Paul. The combination is what ticked him off.
Paul might have waxed profound and poetic about the service his tentmaking provided to the ubiquitous, first-century tent buyers, but he did not. Likewise, if Paul had wanted to take this opportunity for a quick lesson in the imago Dei implications of the tentmaking itself, sufficient biblical warrant was available. You know, having dominion and keeping the Garden and all.
No time or need for that though. Because what Paul demanded to see first and foremost was not personally meaningful or satisfying labor, but simply legitimate work that paid. Paul’s concern here was not for work’s inherent value, but for its instrumental purpose; its power as a means to unburden others and so serve the community.
My teenaged love of money exhibited not only a certain exhilarating, innocent coming-of-age, but also hallmarks of the fall of mankind and original sin. That the love of money is a fruit of all kinds of evil finds adequate confirmation in my own experience. Many pernicious elements permeated my pursuits in those days.
But the desire and expectation of remuneration for labor was not one of the pernicious elements. Expectation of fruit from ones’ labor, like everything else, lies under the shadow and curse of original sin. But the promise to prosper the work of our hands was, and is, God’s idea. It remains a vital dimension of divine activity where healthy communities serve one another by providing for themselves, caring for dependents, and serving those in need.
This article has been adapted with permission from the blog The Other Six Days.