Udo Middelman


“Only in creative activity do we externalize the identity we have as men made in the image of God. This then is the true basis for work.”

In the streets of Europe are thousands and thousands of young Europeans and Americans who spend all year doing nothing but hitchhiking from the colder places in the summer to the warmer places in the winter, living out of each other’s bags and offering you the shirts off their backs (often they turn out to be your own shirt). They move around in search of an identity, in search of something they can link with their own subjective experience which in itself is not big enough to give them meaning. Often the only identity they find is a series of unrelated experiences, and having these unrelated experiences becomes their absolute, their universal. For them reality has slipped away; man has become the roving creature.

The movie The Graduate focuses on Benjamin, a recent college graduate who still does not know who he is. His father asks him repeatedly, “What are you going to do?” Benjamin’s concern about this self-identity is pushed aside as his father encourages him to choose an occupation: “What have you graduated for? Why don’t you work?” The very real question of Benjamin’s identity is done away with, clouded over by the concept of the occupational machine his parents’ generation has set forth.

The individuality that Benjamin feels and his need to find a basis for that individuality are replaced by society and its romantically humming, running wheels. We work, we live, we have a swimming pool and four cars, we have enough wives to take turns. Aren’t all things going well? Benjamin’s “Who am I? What is my purpose?” is replaced by a pattern of society.

Yet some people see the inhumanity of this situation and in brutal honesty move out of it, realizing that the answer to the question of individual identity is not to be found in working five days a week from nine to five. Many have come to L’Abri out of such a background and such a search. And often after they have found their individual identity, what they look for then is a way to express their identity. As Christians, we should understand that their search is right. Any generation has the right to uncover the hypocrisy of a society which pushes only for an occupational choice, a society which would put people into an occupational mold. For oftentimes the occupational choice is set up in order to cloud over the question, “Who am I?”

The fact is that if there is no individual identity, then any job is totally unimportant. Any job becomes a threat to me if it stifles all search and swallows up my individuality, making me indistinguishable from any other cog in society’s machine. In such a situation, the job refashions the man, and all that is left for him is never to act but only to react. What is the proper response? Maybe the young people who are roving the streets of Europe have the right answer: Let’s run.

Christianity, however, supplies another answer to Benjamin’s “Who am I?” — an answer that does not leave Benjamin simply with the establishment of his individual identity. It goes further and points out that occupational choice is a matter of a person’s own moral character. In short, we must deal with two questions: (1) Who is man and what is his identity? and (2) How does man, having an identity, relate to work?

Who Is Man?

Man is a curious phenomenon. Man is the only being that is unable not to question his identity, the only being who cannot take his identity for granted.

There are two possible ways to answer the question of identity. Let me put it personally. On the one hand, I can seek my identity in the order of things in the cosmos around me. Here I am only one thing among others. I see only a mass of particulars from which I am unable to distinguish myself. I am faced with sheer quantity, and the mass of particulars becomes a threat.

On the other hand, I can deny that a separate identity is relevant or desirable and seek solace in a unity with all things. But if I do this, I become a zero. For example, if I align myself with a mass political movement, I disappear into the crowd. If I align myself with the things of the universe (as in pantheistic mysticism), I lose all possibility of individuality. If I look for my identity in a pantheistic framework, I find my essential character as a distinguishable individual denied. Looking for my identity in the sum total of all other individual things, identifying myself with everything else, I become, not equal in the sense of parallel, but unified with everything else and no longer “there” as an individual. The result is that in both Hinduism and much of our own culture I soon become replaceable. That is not a satisfactory answer to the question of my identity.

What I need is a response to my own individuality that comes from beyond the particular, beyond the material, beyond the immediate situation. Any definition of the peculiar individuality of man must come from outside the present external order. It must have some degree of objective verifiability which is also open to subjective verification. In other words, it must explain all men and all men’s behavior, not in the abstract but in an intimate, subjective form.

For one thing, man finds himself different from the animal. Animals only react to their environment. They do not store information that has no relationship to the present or the possibility of immediate reaction. An animal filters mental impressions that correspond to its organs and reacts to them. Furthermore, an animal has no creativity in the sense of fantasy or imagination. Man, however, is, as we say in German, weltoffen, open to creative restructuring of his present environment. He seeks his identity from beyond the immediate. Man acts rather than reacts, and he can be creative and act beyond the immediate reality.

Is this feeling of transcendence an illusion? Is it sheer hypocrisy? Is man attributing something greater to himself than what corresponds to objective reality?

The Bible, it seems to me, gives an answer that corresponds to what man feels and affirms. First, it traces his identity to an origin beyond the present order of existence. It claims that God — a God who is not confined by immediate existence, who is not a part of what is materially there — has made man in his own image (Gen. 1:26). It claims, therefore, that the primary relationship of man is beyond the immediate physical existence of particulars. His primary relationship is to God.

Second, the Bible says that man was placed on earth as God’s vice-regent, the one who is to take responsibility over the rest of creation by virtue of the fact that he is made in the image of God.

So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. (Gen. 2:19-20)

What we have here is God creating and bringing his creation to man so that man can categorize the environment in which he lives. In Genesis 2:19-20 we have a frame-work within which the particulars of creation are placed in the proper relationship to man. Man is the one who groups his environment into classes rather than being grouped by his environment into a class — man.

Now how does he perform this classification? It is intriguing that when you look at these two short verses you find that Adam categorized his environment by means of language, of imagination. In a sense, Adam was a scientist. In Hebrew, the name of a person or thing in some way relates to who the person is or what the thing is. Thus the names which Adam gave to the animals indicated what the animals were. Adam dominated, ordered, categorized, shaped the environment in which he lived, gave form to the rest of God’s creation. In doing so, he found no one like himself. And God then gave him Eve.

Adam was the vice-regent of God, being primarily related to God because he was made in God’s image. Being the vice-regent of God, he classified the plants and gave them particular names, making the objects his own by labeling them. This is not something animals can do.

Imagination is another aspect of man which is his alone. By imagination I mean the formation of mental images of objects that are not present to the senses, especially those that were never perceived in their entirety. In other words, imagination is a mental synthesis of new ideas from elements experienced separately. This is a mark of creativity. It is the human capability to go from our own situation into other situations. It is also the basis for fantasy.

Oftentimes people argue that because we can detect repetitive sounds in monkeys and in porpoises (and especially because porpoises have a brain structure similar to the human brain), man is nothing more than a complicated monkey or porpoise. Some research has revealed that porpoises have sounds for food, for danger and for greeting. And in fact, one can train a porpoise to react to the sounds of human language, to English sounds or French sounds and so forth. Wouldn’t it be eventually possible, then, for us to discuss abstract matter, say Hegel’s philosophy, with porpoises?

I doubt it. Being able to train a porpoise to respond to a fourth, fifth, sixth, even a thousandth sound, does not prove that you can speak with a porpoise or that the porpoise is an inventor of language, a creator of linguistic data. It only proves that you can train a porpoise to react within a larger environment, filtering more impressions in relationship to the organs that he has. But the fact that he can be trained to make one sound or a thousand sounds does not mean that the porpoise is creative. He is not learning a language the way a child learns a language.

One way a child learns language is by putting things in its mouth — because that is very sensitive — and then attaching gurgles and sounds to the objects. The first two stages go smoothly, but in the third stage comes a clash. His parents insist on one sound and the child insists on another. Of course, in the end the parents win, but the child is being creative in the sounds that he makes. By contrast, porpoises throughout the world have a universal sound pattern. An individual porpoise apparently cannot be creative in the sound that it makes.

What distinguishes man from the animal, then, is the possibility of being creative beyond the immediate environment. Man can enlarge his environment, the porpoise cannot.

And man can enlarge his own environment not only in the things perceived but also in the establishment of relationships between the things perceived and those things which have no objective existence. Fairy tales and fantasies mark man’s creativity. They show that man does not just react to his environment but rather acts beyond it, creating things which did not exist before him.

So, when the Bible says that God placed man in the garden and brought all the animals to him and he named them, we have a statement of man’s peculiar identity. He is related first of all to God because he is made in the Image of God, and that makes him different from all other creation. And next he is the vice-regent of God and able to be creative.

In my daily existence, therefore, the present situation does not need to subject me and stifle me. For the world around me is not the final point of relationship. Life and creativity extend beyond the mere now. It is grounded in that which is beyond even the Greek cosmos (a set situation regulated by a static, platonic heaven which holds in balance all finite particulars of the ordinary world). For even here, there is no possibility for significant change, for going beyond the immediate situation to a future moment or a moment in fantasy, because everything is predetermined and set.

In Christianity, however, and in our own experience, we realize that life is not only in the mere now: Both past and future are real before God. Thus a Christian can have a dynamic view of history, because the future is different from the present and because the future can to some extent be shaped by my creative activity as a significant man. Being a man in part implies the ability to change the future. Man is not subject to his environment, nor does it define him.

Of course there are limits. A man has to eat, he has to walk rather than fly, he has to be at this moment of history rather than that, but he has the creative ability to go beyond his immediate situation.

Take the case of the artist. Michelangelo was limited by the block of marble that he saw in Carrara, but the figure that he sculpted was not what he saw in the quarry. He carved it originally from something in his mind.

The same is true in science. The scientist looks at data, forms a theory, tests it, and, if it fits the situation, goes on to apply it or to see how it relates to something else. He is not just reacting to a present situation. He is able to fashion hypotheses that are not only verifiable but once having been fashioned can then themselves be a part of the reason that the future is different from the past.

Furthermore, from creativity have come what we might call the good elements of the industrial revolution. All our scientific and technological advances, both in what we Germans so nicely call the inexact sciences of sociology and anthropology and the exact sciences of physics and chemistry, proceed on the basis of man’s imaginative and creative ability.

Moreover, only on the basis of this creativity is there a foundation for personal relationships and for enjoying each other. As men we can create rather than react, and this makes possible humanness and community that go beyond mere chemical compatibility.

The Bible rejects any identity that derives from nature or from the immediate environment. The world is not the final integration point, and if we look for it there, we shall only find finite gods and idolatry, as the Greeks did, or dehumanizing jobs and hypocrisy as Benjamin did in The Graduate.

What Is the Place of Work?

Nonetheless, when the Bible gives me a place and says who I am and affirms my identity not from the immediate surroundings but rather from God himself, then I come to what is so intimately linked with my identity — the need to be creative over God’s universe. And this is work. Just as God expressed himself and his character in his creation and in his revelation to man, so the image of God in man must be expressed, must be externalized. It is not a threat to me if I work, if my identity is no longer tied to the job that I do, the part in society that I play or the body in nature that I am. In fact, all of a sudden, work and creativity, so intimately linked together, become a challenge.

Many Christians feel that work is a result of the Fall. They remember that when Adam was punished, he had to gain his livelihood by the sweat of his brow, he had to till the ground, do difficult and dangerous work.

For example, Jacques Ellul in “Work and Calling” gives an excellent description of how Christians through Western history have viewed the notion of work. His own view is that “work is of the order of necessity. It is given to man by God as a means of survival, but it is also posed as a condition for survival. . . . It is not, therefore, a part of the order of grace, of gratuity, of love, of freedom. . . . Like violence, like political power, work also is part of the order of necessity. One cannot escape it: it is the human condition resulting from the rupture with God.”1 Work is not freedom and it has “no ultimate value, no transcendent meaning.”2 As he says, “Work is thus limited in everyday life, and even limited to the banal, to the ‘hopeless.’ It is neither value nor creation.”3

To the extent that Ellul rejects the medieval notion that “work is purely and simply a curse, a sign of the condemnation of Adam” he is, I believe, to be commended.4 But he also rejects the solution posed by Luther. Work, Luther thought, is equally valid before and after the Fall, because “it is a part of the order he [God] established for man.”5 Luther argues that “in making shoes, the cobbler serves God, obeys his calling from God, quite as much as the preacher of the Word.”6

By making a distinction between calling and work, Ellul, however, drives a wedge between the infinite and the finite, between God and man, between the activity that matters to God and the activity that matters to human history. He sees work as “the most completely relative type of situation”7 and only relevant because it prolongs human history. This view resembles rather remarkably the neo-orthodox division between the absolute and relative, infinite and finite, eternal and temporal, Geschichte and Historie, applied to calling and work. In any case, Ellul rejects the notion that work can have ultimate significance, that all of reality — sacred and secular — stands in relationship to the infinite-personal God. Ellul asks the question whether his solution is “not in reality a solution of despair” and answers, “To be sure, it contradicts the idea of the Christian life as the unified life, integrating the totality of our action and feelings.”8

The Bible, it seems to me, is on the side of Luther. In Genesis 2:15 before the Fall we find this statement: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” That was creative work. It was not merely a matter of man’s survival. It was a part of man’s original purpose. It tied in with his being creative and imaginative, with his being God’s vice-regent. So it isn’t that man did not work before the Fall but that his work had a different character. Before the Fall, work was easy and joyful; afterwards it was toil. But in both cases work is intimately linked with the question of who God is and who man is.

Indeed, we make a mistake if we wander the streets of Europe, fleeing from any kind of work and creativity. We are wrong to seek an answer only to the question of who I am and not to the question of what I shall do.

But if I see work in relationship to creativity, then I no longer work just because everybody else does it or because it is expected of me as a necessity. I do not have to look at it as a burden contrary to myself, nor see myself caught in the utilitarianism and machine likeness of our own age. Rather, I can see work as an extension of my own essential being.

The Bible frequently speaks of outward manifestations of inward reality. If my inward reality is indeed to be a child of God made in the image of God, then I should project who I am out into the external world. I cannot continue in idleness once I have perceived who I am. This point is made repeatedly in the Bible.

        Go to the ant, O sluggard;
          consider her ways, and be wise.
        Without having any chief,
          officer or ruler,
        she prepares her food in summer.
          and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
        How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
          When will you arise from your sleep?
        A little sleep, a little slumber,
          a little folding of the hands to rest,
        and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond,
          and want like an armed man. (Prov. 6:6-11)

If you are a man, work. It is a necessary part of the expression of who you are. It has nothing to do with the Fall or the present society.

Proverbs has much to say about this: “The soul of the sluggard craves, and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Prov. 13:4). Or: “He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits has no sense” (Prov. 12:11; cf. 28:19). “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish, and will not even bring it back to his mouth” (Prov. 19:24). What a picture of a man who refuses to express who he is!

        Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
          There is more hope for a fool than for him.
        There is a lion in the streets!”
          As a door turns on its hinges,
        so does a sluggard on his bed.
          The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
        it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
          The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
        than seven men who can answer discreetly. (Prov. 26:12-16)

The sluggard makes a lot of commotion, but he doesn’t get anywhere. He is like a door that moves but doesn’t move because it’s caught on its hinges. The writer of Ecclesiastes expressed it well: “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks” (Eccles. 10:18). Nothing happens, nothing gets done, but there are definite results if you do not accept who you are as a man and if you do not work.

The New Testament also speaks about sloth. The parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30) is a strong indictment of the “slothful servant” (v. 26). Romans 12:11 reads, “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.” But it was apparently in Thessalonica where the problem was most prevalent, for we find in both of Paul’s letters a charge to work. In 1 Thessalonians we read, “But we exhort you, brethren, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody” (1 Thess. 4:10-12). In his second letter, Paul expands on this:

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labour we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busy-bodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. (2 Thess. 3:6-12)

And just to show that this isn’t a harsh statement and must never be taken as harshness, to show that we must allow the individuality of the situation, Paul adds, “Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing” (v. 13). The balance is there, but the principle is clear. If any man will not work, neither let him eat.

We are called on as Christians to be men before God, to have character, to fulfill the purpose of our creation which is to glorify God by being the ones he has made us to be. All of this is linked with expressing into the external world by the creative activity of work something of our identity as men. Work is linked with man’s superior status. He is different from everything else that is there.

Shaping Our Environment

In fact, since we are superior, we are admonished to control our environment lest it control us, as it surely controls the parent generation in The Graduate. Of course, controlling, forming and shaping the environment does not mean spoiling it. There must be balance.

Consider, for example, the whole question of ecology. Before we conclude as some have that man ought to keep his hands off the environment because what he has done with it has been destructive, we should look at the actual situations we face. What should I do with the rats that come into my house? If I choose to let the rats live, they will gnaw my baby. The rats will not choose to let my baby sleep. If I choose not to control my environment, my environment will control me. The question with my own chalet in Switzerland is what to do with the wasps that dig a hole right next to it and fly around in our living room. If I do not control my environment creatively, I will be in trouble. It doesn’t mean, however, that I have to kill the wasps and rats that are miles from the nearest habitation. Control means establishing a balance.

The same thing, it seems to me, is true in the area of jobs. Unless you shape your work, your work will shape you. I remember a man who came to us some time ago. His wife had accused him of having the engineer’s syndrome; all he did was think engineering and play with figures. She wanted to divorce him. And we can feel for her. For the engineer had not managed to control his environment, and his environment had shaped him.

But how can a man shape his environment? What can he do? It seems to me that the first thing one can do — and this is beautiful to watch in children — is to control the environment by language. By means of language man sets up the defining limit and thereby removes the fear of the unknown. This, I think, is one of the reasons why a child attaches particular sounds to particular objects, for suddenly the object becomes known, classified. The child has made the object subject to himself and dependent on himself. He has defined it.

Therefore, what is needed is an understanding of our identity in relationship to God. This kind of identity is big enough to keep us from being caught up in our environment; it allows us to express ourselves in the work that we do and it keeps the work from crushing us. If my identity is gone and God is unknown, I no longer know who I am except as a series of subjective experiences. And this is modern man’s dilemma, being caught up in the fear of being alone and insignificant in history. The fear of being alone and insignificant is often what prevents creativity in the people around us.

Moreover, modern man easily becomes subject to technology and mass impersonalization. Rather than being free and creative and able to take advantage of a higher technology, man becomes less than a zero. And yet at the price of being more primitive, he can be more man. So what shall we choose?

We live in a crazy age. The principle of success has become so important that anything that leads to it seems morally right. But this twists man and denies his essential humanity. If I try for success at the cost of being man, what have I gained? Benjamin indeed is right to refuse to work when his father cannot give him the answer to his identity. When the job is more important than the humanity of the worker, our society is sick.

In the last few years in a few factories throughout the world, I am thinking specifically of a Swedish automobile factory, there has been a reorganization of the way in which the cars are made. They used to be made on an assembly line, each man doing one task over and over again and never seeing the results of his labor. Now the factory is organized into groups of ten men who make a portion of a car from beginning to end and then start all over again and make another one. This is a more humane way of working. It gives a sense of creativity because the thing created is immediately seen as it takes shape under the hands of the worker.

It is ironic that the notion of incentive, which seems to be a rather American, even capitalist, notion, is on a very personal level more wisely applied in the backyards in Russia than in the United States. Many Russians are able to keep a pig or to grow a few vegetables. These then are their own and can be bought and sold. In America, and in much of Europe, incentive is linked only to an increase of money.

Creativity and Craftsmanship

What we as Christians should really be interested in is the idea of craftsmanship. We should surround ourselves with things that have been made by men so that we see the link between the creativity of man and the thing that he produces. We should emphasize the products that come from the hands of men. There is surely no craftsmanship in a man’s doing nothing but tightening bolts on a wheel.

I recently came across a record of folk music that was made in Villars, an alpine village in Switzerland. The album pictures five men, a medical doctor, a mailman, a farmer and two railroad employees. These five men had formed a musical group. They were craftsmen — amateur craftsmen — whose product was the result of genuine creativity. In wide areas of Europe we still have the concept that man counts more than the work that he does or the education that he has, that man himself is of greater importance. His craftsmanship and his creativity express his worth.

A friend of mine who is an American engineer and builds bridges lost his job in his father’s company because of the way he tried to solve a personnel problem. What he found was that the workers would come, dig ditches for bridges for a month and then get so bored that they would leave. There was a tremendous turnover. So, my friend thought that as a Christian he ought to do something about it. He hatched an idea. He decided to travel across Europe and photograph Roman bridges that had been built 2,000 years ago and that still stand. He took the pictures back to the ditchdiggers and said, “Look, here’s what you’re building, a bridge. And how long it will stand depends on the way you dig the ditch. Your craftsmanship is involved.”

But his father said that that was no job for a vice-president, and he fired him. It’s inefficient. Flying to Europe to take pictures of bridges! Use the men to dig the ditches instead of showing them how to be human and how to be creative. Nevertheless, as a result of these pictures, the ditchdiggers began to say to themselves, “We’re building bridges. And if we build them well, they’ll stand for 2,000 years.” And they began to work better, and after a couple of months some of them moved up to the next higher level and then to the next higher level, and the turnover was much, much less. For here was a humane situation in which the individual was encouraged to be creative.

Very often when people come to L’Abri and are really hung up about what they should do, when they feel the total sociological pressure that after graduation from high school they must go to college, we often encourage them to become craftsmen. We suggest they become, say, sandal-makers in Greenwich Village or candle-makers or carpenters. We encourage them to work with their hands so that their craftsmanship can be felt and so that their work will not just be a contribution to a big object, where the identity of the individual is destroyed because there is no relationship between the creative process in the mind and what is expressed through the hands. Sometimes taking a little job can help a person feel his own importance, his own individuality, his own character. For if the relationship between our creativity in our mind and that which we create with our hands is gone, then we become discouraged from being creative.

Do you have trouble in the area of work and identity? Then begin with little things, little things you can manage, little things you can see. Become a worker in the Street department and prune bushes along the street as one student did who came to live near us. In the evening, he came back and said, “Without my creativity in clipping bushes, that street would still have bushes hanging over the edge.” You might say that that’s not very beautiful and not very stimulating, but to the person who has a profound question about whether he has any importance at all in modern society, it matters. One doesn’t have to clip bushes all the rest of his life, but he begins with little things.

Another thing we do as people come to live with us is not really done deliberately, for it is part of the normal running of a home. Everyone who comes as a student is asked to help clean the lavatories. And it doesn’t matter who comes. It is interesting to watch the reactions of various people. Those who really know who they are hardly mind at all, for they realize that cleaning the lavatory doesn’t identify them. But a lot of people feel that they are identified by the work they do, so they resent the task, and that has sad results.

It is of primary importance to get your identity straightened out. But at the same time, we can say that having an identity begins with expressing it in little ways, doing insignificant things but things you can see, things that show you have done something that has really changed what was there. Identity is truly tied up with creativity, and creativity with expression, and expression with work.

Second, I encourage those who are concerned about their identity to work with their hands and to get the feel of dominion over the stuff that surrounds them. Learn from the hippie: He walks barefoot over the ground and the mud comes up between his toes. He is much closer to what is there than we are. If he has a Hindu mentality, then he is identifying with the mud, and that is not what I am talking about. But if he has something of the external world in his hands and if he shapes it and has control over it, then he is truly expressing his dominion as man made in the image of God. There is something beautiful about feeling the things you work with, something beautiful about being a carpenter and feeling the grain of the wood and being sensitive to the kind of wood you have and the kind of knife you can use on it.

In a discussion group we were once talking about the need to express Christianity into the external world. We noted that being spiritual is not just speaking about Christ but also being the people we are supposed to be in relationship to God and to the total reality of our bodies and minds. One of the Christians objected to this. And a non-Christian said, “Why, Paul took time to make tents.” And then he added, “If anyone ever found a piece of one of Paul’s tents, it had better be beautifully made.” And he’s right. Work with your hands and do things well.

Third, I would encourage all of us to work with the things that reflect human creativity directly so that if possible we do not find ourselves in a job that requires us to do nothing but, say, fabricate cement blocks, the identity of which we do not recognize in the houses that are constructed, where there is no continuity between our creative expression and the result. It won’t go. It will give us a feeling of insignificance.

Of course, there are jobs that are so routine and so mechanical that they tend to reduce the worker to a machine and to eliminate any possibility for creativity. Some of these are necessary in any society. But if a man is to live in the full circumference of life, he can deliberately search for situations beyond the immediate task for the expression of his creativity. For example, if one has a job on an assembly line and he can’t get the foreman to allow creativity on the job, he cannot only use the coffee breaks but also the after-work hours to express himself and to be human by choice. Creativity starts not in getting coffee from the automat but in talking to the people with you in the queue. It extends to friendship and to the relationship to your family and possibly any number of avocations. In a fallen world, not everything we do can be creative, but much can, and we should make every effort to find those situations.

Money, Time and Leisure

I would mention a fourth area which might seem strange at first. We live in an age of checks and credit cards and very little cash. What does this do to us? It removes us from the immediacy of the value of money, and that removes us in a real sense from the reality of work and the value of creative action. When you never see what you make and you only have a figure on a piece of paper, you may well feel that you have not been paid. It is not that you can’t pay your bills, because there is something in your bank account. But you don’t get the feeling that the money is yours.

My wife Debby had this sensation when she worked. Seventeen percent or so went to tax, and she never saw it. The only way she overcame the discouragement was to regard the tax as a part of what she didn’t earn and thus to keep from thinking this seventeen percent was a part of her salary. During this time our car broke down and we had to have it repaired on credit. Debby went through the strange emotion that the payments on a car were something she never possessed. It wasn’t real.

Some of you may not feel this way, but this reaction is not farfetched. There are many in our culture who buy everything on the installment plan and who get so much in debt that they owe more in monthly payments than they earn in a month. So they take a second routine job and the possibility for creativity is even less.

Fifth, as Christians we must understand that work and creativity do not necessarily imply an immediate result. In the larger Christian framework, who man is guarantees that his actions will be significant to the extent that sometime in the future there will be a real change. But we do not always see that immediately. Our age makes history a zero. Men live only for the day. That stifles creativity because so often results are not immediate. In the Christian framework we live not only in the present but also in the continuity of time, because God is there and knows the end from the beginning. Creativity is even there when the result takes twenty years in coming. But man’s identity comes from outside the mere present. So, as a person gets a firmer and firmer grasp on who he is, he can see his own creativity in a larger framework and can work even when he does not see the results.

A sixth area with which we should be concerned is leisure. We must also “work” in our time off; recreation implies activity and not entertainment only. We have found a rear change in the people who have come to L’Abri over the years. Eleven years or so ago, rarely did anyone on his day off go down to the pub and watch television. Rarely did people go to Lausanne to be entertained and have a meal and come back. Rather, we took walks along the Panex Road, the only flat road near us in the mountains. We went on hikes after our discussions and chatted and enjoyed ourselves. There was a greater sense of creativity then, for now more and more people are looking for entertainment instead of creating entertainment for themselves. We should seek refreshment through playing, imagining, telling stories, digging in the garden, even cleaning lavatories.

Often when people come to L’Abri and listen to the lectures, participate in the discussions and conversations, it becomes an entertainment, something that is carried into them from the outside. They write it down and go home with three pounds of notes and think they have the world’s answers in their pocket. Then all of a sudden comes the collapse.

If you have never learned to creatively understand by establishing new relationships among the data that you hear (and hopefully check), you can fall flat on your face. We must express who we are and the reality of who God is in all of the things that we do and think about.

Wind-up Men

We can see the need for creativity in yet another area. It seems to me that fifteen years ago, say, children were raised in such a fashion as to foster initiative and imagination. Debby and I and our children have talked about this recently, and we wonder whether children today are allowed to develop imagination and create situations by themselves. With talking dolls and wind-up cars and television, children no longer need to create; everything is supplied. And where everything is supplied, imagination and creativity die.

A little girl who plays with her dolls that don’t talk has a wide variety of imaginative situations, but get her a wind-up doll that has four sentences and her imagination starts only when the doll breaks down. I think one of the worst things you can do is to give a child a wind-up, talking doll.

God does not treat us that way. He does not put us in a box, but into an environment over which we can be creative. He doesn’t put us in a spiritual box either. He wants us to develop character and holiness by choice and creativity in relationship to who God is. Our first products may not be very good. They may even be ugly. But we have to start where we are.

I remember a young man who was schizophrenic. He would carry on conversations with himself. “Bill,” part of him would say, “They’re going. to get you, they’re going to get you.” And the other Bill would say, “I’m going to resist, I’m going to resist, I’m going to resist.” From a background where his father worked and his work was his identity, Bill was going to resist a nine-to-five job. He was not going to work because that was not a sufficient identity. He said, “I’m not going to work. I’m going to write poetry.”

His father kept writing to us, saying, “When is he coming back to finish college? What’s wrong with the boy? Do you think he’ll ever fit into society?” And Bill would say, “They’re going to get you. But I’m not going to be gotten.” This was very real to him.

He was at L’Abri for three months, became a Christian, went to England, worked with schizophrenics with R. D. Laing, came back to L’Abri and then went home to America.

He lived with his parents, saw his father still doing his nine-to-five work, and Bill said, “They’re not going to get me.” And he sat home for a month. Slowly — he didn’t follow his father, not in that kind of identity — he took a job from 6:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. Then he found that he could have lunch with his wife and they could have a half hour to enjoy each other. Then he would go back to work, do an hour’s overtime, go home, have a two-hour nap and read. In fact, he read for three or four hours every day.

You know what his job was? His job was to sort out and polish brass bathroom fixtures. For any thinking person, that seems awful. But not for Bill, not once he had really become a Christian and had seen that there was no need to be shaped by his job. In the middle of his work and the rest of the day, he could be creative. He wrote us a letter, saying that it was such a good feeling to be working and to be expressing himself as a person.

You don’t have to work for society or fit into a mold, but you must work for yourself in order to be real, in order to be a man whom God has made in his own image, in order to live in the reality which exists. Only then can you be where Bill was at that point — free to be a man made in the image of God.

From the spiritual point of view, work is a matter of being, of character, of what makes man man. It is not a matter of what society demands. Your identity, unless you work, is merely a theoretical identity, for you must manifest it, you must externalize it, lest the theory just collapse and you become a zero. If the theoretical is not verifiable in the external world and the work you do as a creative being, your identity will lose its reality. To be a vice-regent of God over God’s creation means to work creatively and to enjoy it.

An essay in Time magazine asks, “Is the work ethic going out of style?”9 Four challenges to the work ethic (the notion that work is valuable in itself) are listed: early retirement, absenteeism, refusing overtime work and refusing to hold menial jobs. These challenges are explained by increasing affluence, the new rise in hedonism and anti-materialist notions of the counter culture. Whether or not these challenges mean that America has lost the work ethic is then answered by statistics that show that ninety percent of the male work force is actually working, the same percentage as twenty-five years ago. But the question of man’s relationship to his work and the worker’s satisfaction in creativity is not even asked.

A Christian understands that only in creative activity do we externalize the identity we have as men made in the image of God. This, then, is the true basis for work.


  1. Jacques Ellul, “Work and Calling,” Katallagete (Fall-Winter 1972), p. 13.
  2. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
  3. Ibid., p. 14.
  4. Ibid., p.9.
  5. Ibid., p. 10.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p. 14.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Is the Work Ethic Going Out of Style?” Time magazine (October 30, 1972), pp. 96-97.


 Udo Middelmann was born in Germany and educated in Germany, the United States and Switzerland. He holds a degree in law from Freiburg University and a B.D. and M.A. from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. He once worked as an associate of Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer at L'Abri Fellowship.

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