The Trinity, Work and Family

In our last post, we met Albert Hall. Albert is good at his job, but also working incredibly long hours.  How does what he believes affect how he lives? Our aim here is not to go through every aspect of the pastoral situation.  We may well come back and do that later in order to join up all the dots, but here we’re specifically looking at how the Doctrine of the Trinity might have an impact on a life situation. Of course there are going to be questions you will want to ask and think through before you seek to counsel and advise him.  There will be things that you would observe if you knew the person and other things that you might draw out from them in conversation.  Here, we’re going back to some of the things we learnt in our first series of articles, “How do you know?” You may remember from them that a person’s beliefs, feelings, behaviours and health are all interrelated and affected by the environment around them. This means that, in Albert’s case, we will want to talk about how his health is being affected by his work and the impact it has on relationships and emotions.  We will also be aware of environmental pressures such as the economic climate, peer pressure, company culture etc. We’ve also seen that in terms of what we believe, we are influenced by what we hear from others and whether or not we choose to listen to God’s revelation or give priority to what others tell us.  So from that perspective, I’m curious about what Albert has seen and heard from others: what models of work and family life has he been given by his own parents and by other Christians in the past?  What does he hear from the media and from literature?  For example, in Albert’s case as a manager, does he read books, attend conferences or visit websites promoting particular approaches to management success?  Do those messages conflict with Scripture? Our aim here is not to psychoanalyse or to offer some form of self-help programme.  There are, of course, lots of practical resources that he can access both from secular and Christian authors. Instead, our aim is to help him to hear what God’s Word says. This will leads to life transformation as the truth of God’s Word counters the lies or false beliefs that lead to wrong habits and choices.

The Trinity and the positives of work

Now it may surprise you, but I’m not necessarily going start by either criticising or feeling sorry for Albert because his work involves long hours. I’m not going to just label him as a workaholic and tell him to work fewer hours and spend more time with his family. We will want to talk more about our view of work and rest – this will come later when we look at the lies we believe about Creation and New Creation. But our Doctrine of the Trinity has some important things to say about work and family life and one of the things it says is that work matters. When Jesus wanted to teach about his relationship to the Father, he talked about their work (John 5:19-23 & John 10:36-37) I wonder whether sometimes we are so concerned to say that our identity is in Christ and not in work, sex, hobbies etc. – that in seeking to stop people from overplaying these as idols that we underestimate them.  Whilst none of these things are the sum total of our identity and whilst we should not idolise them, actually each of them does play a part in shaping who we are. For the Father and the Son, a key aspect to their relationship is that they share in the same work. Together, they are in the business of raising the dead and giving life. This is what we have referred to as “inseparable operation” before. Furthermore, it is exactly because the Father loves the Son that he allows Him to share in his work. So let’s now apply that to Albert.  Because of what John tells us about the Father-Son relationship,  I don’t think that simply stepping in and assuming that someone is working “too much” is automatically right (though of course there are a few clues that in our specific scenario that this may be so). We also need to bear in mind that our concept of “too much work” is relative.  People in other cultures and historical contexts will have worked longer hours and some jobs necessitate long periods of time away from home. Therefore the answer is not necessarily “work shorter hours” to spend more time with the family.  What about fathers seeking to involve their children in what they are doing? Contemporary culture creates distance between work and family but traditionally there was less of a separation between family life and working life.  For example, in the past, this might have meant that the son was the apprentice in the family business. In a slightly more contemporary, context, for me it meant that my dad used to talk to me about what he did.  He also arranged for us to come and visit him at his workplace.  He shared his pride, his joy in his work, with us. Dad was a confectioner and as it happens I didn’t follow him in his line of work, but he has passed something on to me: a deep love for the particular product!

The negative side of work

In our scenario, though, there is clearly a problem. This is seen in the exhaustion that Albert experiences and also in some of his attitudes.  Now, sometimes people seem to have little choice about the hours they work. The pressure people are put under can feel at times like a form of forced labour or slavery. The Bible does have things to say about working for harsh masters and I believe there are Trinitarian foundations for living in these circumstances as well.  The foundations are simple, because we know God through Jesus the Son, we can know God as Father because we are adopted into the family as Jesus’s brothers (Hebrews 2:10-11). This means that when Paul tells us to work as though we are working for God even when our human bosses fail to treat us justly, then it is not simply that we are serving God as our higher employer; rather, like Jesus, we are working in the family business. When Peter wants to show us how to live a good life even when treated harshly by cruel masters, he turns to the example of Jesus’ willing sacrifice on our behalf.  The context of that sacrifice was Jesus’ submission to His Father’s will.  We can face all circumstances including tyrannical bosses when we submit ourselves into the safe hands of the Father. However, whilst sometimes that submission is right, it may not always be necessary. The context of 1 Peter was that the believers were living under Roman rule where slavery was legal.  Those slaves had few rights and no recourse to a justice system to protect them.  However, where rights existed such as those afforded to Roman citizens for a fair trial, Paul took time to remind the authorities that those rights existed and that they had breached them.  We do have legal rights (I’m writing specifically about the UK labour market) there are minimum wage and maximum working hour arrangements, legally guaranteed holidays, entitlement to notice, redundancy payments, consultation and due process etc.  Where coercion and manipulation exist, then it isn’t a legal phenomenon, but may well be a cultural one. Given that this is so, then what if Albert was to insist on working his contractual hours and going home when he had completed them?  I’m not suggesting that he is awkward or inflexible about this.  A good employer-employee relationship and a concern for others means that he may well need to go over and beyond what he is contractually required to do.  However, what if he worked as though that were the exception rather than the norm?  He would continue to be diligent, to do his best to maintain his reputation both for hard work and concern for others.  There should be no suggestion that he is difficult or lazy. Why might he not feel able to do this?  One answer is fear.  There are probably three specific things that he fears

  1. I will lose pay
  2. I might be overlooked for promotion
  3. It may put me at risk when redundancy comes

Here’s the problem. He is starting to believe lies about God because he is saying that these things are to be feared and John when he tells us that God is love tells us that perfect love casts out fear.  The danger for Albert and for us is that we seek proof of God’s love in our circumstances now rather than in the objective truth of the Trinitarian God who is love and the Father who sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for us. Let’s take this a stage further.  Suppose that you bump into one of Albert’s team one day.  He recognises you: “Don’t you go to the same church as Albert? I remember chatting with you over mince pies and coffee after the Carol Service he invited me to two years ago.”  You reply that in fact you do go to the same church.  “He’s a top bloke,” says his colleague. “Yes, he’s a good friend,” you reply.  Then the colleague frowns a little.  “But there’s one thing some of us are a little worried about.  He’s very driven at work.  You couldn’t encourage him to relax a little could you?  He doesn’t seem to be able to let go of control or delegate to us.  He really cares but we’re afraid he’s heading for some kind of breakdown if he doesn’t watch out.” Notice here a General Revelation observation.  Driven, hard-working people tend to pick up more work.  It can be a vicious cycle.  Others let them get on with it.  Sometimes that’s because they take advantage, sometimes it’s because they never get a look in because they’re not trusted.  Sometimes it’s because they don’t think they can meet the other person’s high standards. The other thing to say is this.  It may not just be a case of Albert being afraid of the consequences of not slowing down that drives him on.  Sometimes it is because he is looking for praise, recognition, a sense of being in control from his work.  One of the things we’ve said about God as Trinity is that the oneness of God means that God can tolerate no rivals.  Idols are things that we fear and idols are things, people and priorities that rival God, that take our attention away from him (in part or in whole).  So one of the things I might want to talk to Albert about is the danger of his work becoming a rival to God. Now this isn’t the full picture.  If we were talking pastorally with Albert, then there’s still more to find out about him and a lot more to say about what we believe about God practically affects his circumstances. For example, we might want to consider the temptation to keep tight control to believe that only we can do things, to need to be needed and to depend on praise.  These are things that we will no doubt want to follow up on as well. However, looking at a few things about the Trinity already starts to provide direct and practical application to Albert’s situation.