Shadow work. That is the term used for things like: pumping our own gas, assembling our own furniture, booking our own travel. In years past, other people used to do this work for us—for a fee of course. But now we do it ourselves, for free. Clearly, these efforts take time, lots of time, and Craig Lambert has written a fascinating book called Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day that chronicles such.
Shadow work includes new duties at our offices, which are constantly being downsized. At home, we go to the Internet for guidance on our medical problems, and we spend countless hours coordinating our kids’ extracurricular activities. Over the past two decades, as technology has taken off, new tasks have been crammed into our already full to-do lists.
Sure, some might say that this DIY approach is empowering, but Lambert’s book forces us to look at the consequences of all this “shadow work.” He writes, “Shadow work makes us not just busier, but exhausted and isolated. We are interacting more with our screens than with other humans, and we are doing it at unreasonable hours.”
We don’t have to share Lambert’s alarm, or his nostalgia for gas-pump jockeys, to avail ourselves of his useful lens. But before we can hope to rebalance our time, we had better first understand how we actually spend are time.
Which brings us to the question we must all ask ourselves: How are we actually spending our time? If you are like me, then you might just realize that you devoted a lot of time to shadow work.
In an article featured in the Harvard Business Review entitle: “Are you proud of how you’re spending your time?” Elizabeth Grace Saunders urges us to stop doing what seems to be most urgent, and “start intentionally investing in what’s most important.”
She writes “There’s a difference between what is most urgent and what is most important. Answering that email, for example, is really not as important as attending your child’s soccer game.” Saunders goes on and encourages us to prioritize family and friends, take vacations, stay healthy and finally know ourselves.
She continues, saying, “In my experience it’s so easy to lose track of who you are, what you enjoy, where you are in life and where you’re going, unless you purposely and intentionally take time to reflect.”
The apostle Paul has the very same concern, which is why he writes the Christians in Corinth about the gifts of the Spirit. Paul wants them to be proud of how they are spending their time, and to make sure that they’re focusing on the “Spirit work” that they can accomplish as members of the body of Christ.
One of the dangers of shadow work is that it distracts us from Spirit work. Paul writes, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.”
Amazing, isn’t it, how the truths of the Bible can leap the centuries and speak to us exactly where we are? We are still “enticed and led astray”—maybe not by Greco-Roman idols, but by emails, text messages, phone apps, and social media Like the Christians of Corinth, we focus more on what is urgent and easily accessible than on what is important.
Paul continues, saying, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Notice that Paul is not saying that Spirit work is limited to a single gift, service or activity. Rather, there are varieties of gifts, services and activities. What unites this distinctive kind of work is that it all comes to us from the same divine source.
And what source is that? To each of us “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Spirit work comes from God— Creator, Son and Holy Spirit. And it serves the common good— the common good for our families, church, stranger, and even self. When we grasp this, then we begin to move from shadow to Spirit.
So what does this work look like? Paul says that “to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit.”
New Testament scholar C.K. Barrett suggests that the “the utterance of wisdom” has to do with ethical matters while “the utterance of knowledge” includes theological matters. Ethics talks about what we should do, while theology talks about what we should believe— both doing and believing are important work, and both serve the common good.
Johnny Cash picked up on this important balance when he warned people not to be “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.”
Ethical actions need to support our theological beliefs— otherwise; people will rightly accuse us of being hypocrites. We cannot just say we love our neighbors; we must actually perform acts of love. We cannot simply believe in forgiveness; we must forgive those who hurt us. We cannot only talk about justice; we have to do justice.
And it’s because of theological beliefs not being backed by ethical actions that the church is in the tough spot its in.
Thom Schultz, the founder of Group Publishing, has been wondering why people don’t want to go to church anymore. So instead of just reading about the topic, he staked out a spot in a city park, and began asking people why they weren’t in church.
One of the top responses he got was, “Church people are a bunch of hypocrites.” And certainly, no one wants to go to a church where people say one thing and then do another. But Schultz dug deeper and discovered there was more to this response. He says, “What bothers non-church goers is the sense that church people act like they have all the answers, that they’ve arrived, that they’re only interested in telling others what to do.”
Schultz’s insights show that people are not impressed by “the utterance of knowledge”—theological insights that support Christian faith. In fact, people are turned off by church leaders who act like they have all the answers, and try to tell others what to do.
Schultz says further, “Most people don’t experience God at church. They’re not looking for the ‘deep’ theological trivia that seems to interest some preachers. They crave something very simple. They’re dying to be reassured that God is real, that God is more than a historical figure, that God is present today and that God is active in the lives of people around them.” Put into that perspective, Spirit work doesn’t seem all that hard.
If we are going to attract people to church, we need to stop the shadow work, we need to forget the urgent and discern the important, we need to act in ethical ways and support what the apostle Paul calls “the utterance of wisdom” which is the living out of grounded, concrete actions that give people the opportunity to experience of the love of God.
Spirit work assures people that God is real. Through simple actions, it shows people that God is present in the lives of members of the Christian community.
So how might we do this? Within the church, some are given “gifts of healing by the one Spirit,” says Paul, “to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”
This list describes a variety of skill sets, or gifts, that are in the believer’s toolbox. The skills range from healing to the interpretation of spiritual languages. The point is not that any one of these gifts is superior to the others, but that “all these are activated by one and the same Spirit,” says Paul, “who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”
So what might this actually look like—how might such gifts actually manifest themselves? New York Times columnist David Brooks recently asked his readers to describe their purpose in life and how they found it. One reader, Kim Spencer, wrote, “My purpose is simply to be the person … who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis … I can listen to you complain about your co-worker … I can look you in the eye and give you a few dollars in the parking lot … I can help keep you afloat with a little boost.”
That is Spirit work—that what would fit under Paul’s categories of healing, discernment of spirits, maybe even the working of miracles. It serves the common good, and builds up the Christian community.
So what thing can you do that can serve the common good?
Our challenge is to clear away our Shadow work so that the gifts of the Spirit can be put to use.
We can begin by turning off our screens for a while and turning toward each other, for it’s only when we look each other in the eye and engage in real conversation that we can show each other the love of God. This might not seem to be the most urgent of work, but it is usually the most important.
The good news about Spirit work is that it energizes us and connects us to one another. Instead of feeling exhaustion and isolation, we begin to experience inspiration, community and unity. We discover the truth of what Paul says to the Corinthians, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
Energy. Connection. Inspiration. Community. Unity. These are the benefits of replacing shadow work with Spirit work.
So let’s continue to move from shadow to Spirit; replacing the urgent with the important. For when we do, we will find ourselves closer to God… closer to Jesus… closer to each other and better able to serve the common good. And that is time well spent. Amen.