I recently had the privilege of attending a “faith and work” event in Midrand, Johannesburg. It was packed out, and by all accounts a very fruitful time. However, the question that kept gnawing at me as I listened, the question that I should have asked the panel but didn’t, was “what about faith and no work?” For many African Christians who would pack out an even bigger venue, a “faith and work” event is a luxury. In fact, the whole “faith and work” question is a luxury.

For Many African Christians the whole ‘faith and work’ question is a luxury.

What About When There’s No Work?

For so many of us, the question is not: “How can I fulfil God’s calling in my work?” Rather, it is: “Where 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 Christian brothers and sisters from the First (or Developed) World can answer 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. What follows is a plea for us to start taking steps in that direction.

No Work Isn’t 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 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.

God made us to work!

Recently, one of them raised an objection that came from a place of deep exasperation: “But God made us to work!” Of course, he’s right (Genesis 2:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:11). 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 (Matthew 26:11).

Strange Hope In Shared Suffering

Unemployment is one brush stroke in a 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, paradoxically, 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.

Empathy can lift me out of the darkness of isolated pain. And this strange hope has its greatest fulfilment when we remember the God who has suffered with us, and for us (Hebrews 2:9).

What Can We Do?

If what I have just said is true, we cannot allow our unemployed brothers and sisters to walk this road alone (Galatians 6:2, 10). We must not allow them to wade into the tide of hopelessness that is no work 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 can offer the solidarity of financial, emotional and spiritual support.

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. Above all else (and undergirding all else), we can offer the gospel comfort that not even this can separate you from the love of God in Christ – the good news that in Jesus Christ 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.

Through this awful experience God had given him the gifts of contentment, trust and a stronger marriage.

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 despite the circumstances, and the altogether surprising gift of 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 (Romans 8:28). It is also just one more reminder that we as African Christians are perhaps best placed to speak into the topic of faith and no work. We need to start having those conversations.

Practical Ways To Cope With No Work

Those conversations need to be more than talk. They need to explore practical ways in which the unemployed Christian can redeem the time. Here are a few suggestions:

6 Helpful Resolutions

  1. Resolve to observe a regular daily rhythm. Get up and go to bed at the same time you would if you were working. Have your meals at more or less the same time. Pray and read your Bible at the same time. Rhythm gives the security of order and helps to break an otherwise endless tedium into more manageable parts.
  2. Resolve to exercise every day.
  3. Resolve to give or show at least one act of deliberate kindness or service every day.
  4. Resolve to volunteer at church a few days a week. You could join in pastoral visitations of the elderly or the sick. You could help with administration. There is great dignity in doing these seemingly small tasks “unto the Lord”.
  5. Resolve to improve or repair something around the house, or in your relationships, every day.
  6. Resolve to say the “sorrys” and the “thank yous” – all the things you’ve been meaning to say, but just haven’t had the time.

Every day lived in Christ is a precious gift from God, regardless of your work status.

Acting on these resolutions and others like them will not solve the problem of unemployment or end its pain. But they will go some way to reminding you that every day lived in Christ is a precious gift from God, regardless of your work status.