"He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need." (Ephesians 4:28)

Perhaps one of the benefits of times during which we experience economic stress is that it forces us to consider the value of a thing. Since we have less money to throw away on trinkets, or as C. S. Lewis put it, "silly luxuries", then we tend to be more careful in the selective manner in which we make use of our limited funds. When times are tough, it becomes rather commonplace to ask oneself, before a purchase, 'Do I really need this item?', 'Do I really need it now?', and 'Is this item truly worth this expenditure?' All this is to say that perhaps you and I ought, at all times, to give more careful thought to the intrinsic value of products, especially the work of our own hands.

Not only is the Apostle Paul exhorting us unto labor in this passage, but to labor that is GOOD - labor that produces a good product that will be of value to ourselves and to others. That we are called unto work is clearly taught us throughout the Scriptures. In First Thessalonians God tells us "to lead a quiet life, attending your own business, working with your hands". (4:11) In the second letter, believers are exhorted to follow Paul's example in that he worked night and day, and we are told, "if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either."(3:10) In God's economy, work was never to be perceived as a bad thing, but a blessing. Even following man's fall into sin, his work was to be looked upon as a good thing even while beset by difficulties. Lewis picks up on this to express his opinion that there is, therefore, no place for "passengers or parasites" in a Christian society. In other words, all are to be working, all making an effort, all rendering labor so as to make a contribution to the whole. Of course, the intended purpose behind these exhortations is only achieved when the work that is rendered is done so as to produce something of quality, something that is good.

An artist, then, is to labor in the production of things of beauty, paintings or works of sculpture or even the design of buildings that bring out the very best in us and inspire the same in others. Then I find it difficult to imagine how works of art such as that by Chris Ofili of the Holy Virgin Mary painted in elephant dung can in any way pass anyone's test for quality or goodness.

If the test of our labor, at all times, is to be whether or not it honors and brings glory to God, then we will be guided by principles that surpass a mere desire to make a quick buck. A musician, then, would labor not only to produce something that might sell easily among the superficial pop culture of his peers, but rather give his talents to the composition of songs or a score of music that will touch the hearts of individuals across the span of years, possessing an intrinsic value to be discovered and appreciated by generations. Such devotion to goodness and to intrinsic quality is the difference, I feel, between the works of Handel or Bach and that modern day (and often degrading) noise known as Rap. It is the difference between the lasting beauty of Michelangelo's Pieta and H. A. Schult's construction of colossal figures of men made entirely out of everyday household garbage and trash. Francis Schaeffer once warned about a sinful tendency toward the "zeroing of man" - making man into an object devoid of value. This would seem to be Mr. Schult's intent and not a fitting statement to make regarding that aspect of God's creation made in His own image.

And notice that we work not for self. Rather, we work for God and for the sake of others. By our labor we honor God and position ourselves so as to be a benefit to all mankind and especially the needy among us. Lesslie Newbigin reminded us that "True goodness forgets itself and goes out to do the right thing for no other reason than that it is right." Therefore, we devote ourselves to others, seeking to produce fruit from our labor that will bring joy, lift up and edify, encourage and cheer, enhance and strengthen the lives of our fellow believers and citizens. If Michelangelo was correct in saying that "the true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection", then we will be guided by that perfection in all that we do and in all that we seek to produce. Political leaders will seek to enact laws and regulations based upon a true assessment of the needs of their citizens and a proper understanding of the role of government. Teachers actually will give themselves to the work of true education and will teach truth rather than lending themselves to the pushing of a social agenda. An employee will give an honest day's effort for an honest day's wages. A passing motorist will restrain himself from tossing garbage out along the roadway, not out of fear of legal prosecution, but guided by a desire to beautify and not 'uglify' (my word) the world we share.

What is there in your hands? What work, what contribution are you making? What lasting piece of beauty will you leave behind? What small sphere will you draw a circle around today and say, 'Here, I will attempt to make a difference for the sake of Christ Jesus, my Lord'? Emerson spoke of beauty as "wayside sacraments" - God's way of laboring to fill our lives with joy. Let us seek to do the same!

The Rev. Donald Caviness is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, MS.