By Roydon Frost.
Recently our brothers and sisters from a church in New York held a “faith and work” event for us here in Midrand. It was packed out, and by all accounts a very fruitful time. However, the question that kept knawing at me as I listened to our friends share their wisdom; the question I should have asked the panel but didn’t, was “what about faith and no work?” For many South African Christians who would pack out an even bigger venue, a “faith and work” event – in fact the whole “faith and work” question – is a luxury.
For so many of our people, the question is not “how can I fulfil God’s calling in my work?”; but “how can I find work?” full stop. The question is not “how can I integrate faith and work?”; the question is “how can I live out my faith with integrity when there is no work?” Our American family can answer so many questions for us, but perhaps this is one we need to answer for ourselves. They graciously lead us in so many areas, but perhaps this is an area where we are uniquely placed and urgently challenged to take the lead ourselves. What follows is a plea for us to start taking steps in that direction.
No work is not normal, but that’s normal
I am part of a men’s group that meets weekly. Just under half the men in that group are unemployed. It’s a small picture of the bigger South African story. As a group we have been walking a road with these men, some of whom have been unemployed for more than a year now. Recently, one of them raised a protest that came from a place of deep exasperation: “But God made us to work!”
Of course, he’s right. That’s why unemployment mixes into such a bitter cocktail of impotence, frustration and outrage. It’s crippling. It’s debilitating. It’s not as things should be. And yet it is as they are. Unemployment is one brush stroke in dark pattern. Children should not go hungry. Husbands should not beat their wives. Cancer wards should not be full. Reminding ourselves of this wider canvas can be a source of hope: the strange hope of solidarity in suffering. The strange hope of knowing I haven’t been singled out for special maltreatment. The strange hope of knowing that I do not suffer alone. Empathy can lift me out of the darkness of isolated pain. And this strange hope has its greatest fulfillment when we remember the God who has suffered with us, and for us.
If what I have just said is true, we cannot allow our unemployed brothers and sisters to walk this road alone. We must not allow them to wade into the tide of hopelessness that is unemployment without an anchor. We are that anchor – we who are on the shore. We the rest of the Redeemed Family. We who perhaps do not understand unemployment, but do understand suffering. We are in a position to help: we are not ourselves paralysed and blinded by the immediacy of the pain; but we are also not so far removed as to be no help at all. We can offer the solidarity of financial, emotional and spiritual support. We can offer the gospel that not even this can separate you from the love of God in Christ – the good news that your suffering is not in vain.
Redeeming the time, redeeming the pain
Our God is the Great Redeemer. He turns a crown of thorns into the crown of glory. He turns the cross of humiliation into the instrument of exaltation. Through death he brings life. He can even take the barren wilderness of unemployment and work it into the fertile soil of Christian growth. After many months of anguish and toil, one of the men in our group got a job. We rejoiced. But even our celebrations of the gift of work were surpassed by our rejoicing over the more precious, longer-lasting gifts that God has given. Our friend shared that through this awful experience God has given him the gift of contentment without money, trust no matter how bad the circumstances, and the altogether surprising gift a stronger marriage. His testimony is just one more reminder that our God will never leave us nor forsake us and that our suffering is never in vain. It is also just one more reminder that we as South African Christians are perhaps best placed to speak into the topic of faith and no work. We need to start having those conversations.