In the United States, an aspect of our civic religion, the sort of piety that people pay attention to in our political speech, is the frequent invocation to the virtue of hard work. At times this devotion to hard work and its values can lead to the sort of mindset that salvation is through works instead of through grace, not necessarily salvation in the theological sense (although this can happen as well  ), but political and economic salvation. For those with this particular mindset, those who are not doing well in life are simply those who do not work hard enough, because hard work is a magical sort of activity that will automatically lead to better results. Such a simple-minded mindset is helpful to people on a variety of levels, despite its falsity, because it allows someone to think that if they do more and work more that they will be successful, allowing them to stave off the despondency and depression that result from not knowing what one can do to better one’s position, at least until they cross beyond the limits of their capabilities and find themselves still without success, and now with a great deal of anger at others (and perhaps even themselves) over the place that they have found themselves in.
A belief in the automatic payoff of hard work is not as great as it used to be, though. Recent polling suggests that only about 41% of Americans polled believe that life is fair nowadays for those who are willing to work hard . Those who have this belief, though, tend to come to the same conclusions as that found by Job’s friends, that hard times are an automatic sign of one’s failures, except when one can blame it on the government. It is striking, and perhaps a little hypocritical, that many of the same people who believe in the automatic virtue of hard work are the same who complain about the immense burden that government regulation places on entrepreneurs. Surely such hard work ought to automatically lead to success, right? And surely those who work hard and well at the task of dealing with the nightmare of bureaucratic paperwork ought to be celebrated for that skill, as unpleasant as that task is for most of us, right? Work is work, after all, and no one would deny that dealing with regulations and paperwork can be an immensely tedious task. Therefore those who praise the value of hard work ought to at least recognize the worth of such work in our present society, even if they abhor doing such work themselves.
It is striking, though, that those who claim to value hard work the most do not necessarily value those who actually do hard work. Only about a third of Americans actually honor workers and laborers on this day , while even fewer consider the day to be an important American holiday, showing a striking lack of interest in the interests of those who actually labor. How common is it to hear the following sentiment expressed, or to think such things ourselves, “Those people should feel lucky to have a job? Why do they think they deserve more pay/fewer hours/health benefits?” It is one thing to honor hard work in the abstract, and a different matter to value it in the practical sense of dealing with one’s own employees or laborers in general. It is an easy matter to praise labor with words, not a difficult matter to set aside a day to pay lip service to the ideal of hard work, and an entirely more difficult matter to back up those words with actions.
In the course of my varied life, I have generally tried to work both hard and intelligently. That is, being a person of somewhat limited energy (as difficult as that may be for some to believe), I try to use such strength as I possess well. I do not like to waste effort on tasks that are unproductive and lack some sort of practical purpose for my own life, even if the sort of productivity I value is not necessarily economic value alone. I have seen occasions where my desires to work hard in certain situations were taken as being a bit too pushy or threatening, and others where my desires to work efficiently and intelligently and subtly were seen as not looking like I was working hard enough. I have worked in situations and institutions where hard work was rewarded well and reasonably quickly, other occasions where burdens were added without increased resources or increased rewards, even something as modest as respect.
My own experiences have convinced me that it is not hard work that grants one respect and honor in the eyes of others, but rather that the virtue of others is at least partly expressed in how they value and respect others around them. There are those who will value all people, and give a generally high level of respect to others on humanitarian grounds, while being quick to recognize the insights and worth of those around them, seeking to give praise and recognition and rewards where it is due, and to put people in the place where they will succeed the best and receive the sorts of rewards that they merit, and that would best encourage them to harder and more intelligent labor. There are others who will value others simply for what others can do for them, and who will not be quick to recognize or appreciate the labor of others, especially if such people are “beneath” them. The difference between the two cases is not one of the labor provided itself, but rather on the way in which that labor is viewed and respected by others. Nothing changed but the fact that one person viewing the hard work of others was gracious and thoughtful and respectful and the other person was exploitative and selfishly motivated.
Let that be a lesson for ourselves as well. It is not an easy task to work hard and work well when such work is not rewarded quickly, but we must remember as well that our work is not only for ourselves and only for the present. Why does God value hard work at all? Surely He does not require our efforts to accomplish his purposes, nor can we do anything through our own pitiful strength that God cannot do so much easier and more effortlessly Himself. However, through working hard we take ownership in the work that God has set for us to do. Likewise, through diligence and effort we acquire an appreciation for the hard work of others that is required in life, and the experiences we have in those tasks that may seem to be dishonorable or not valued (both because of their lack of respect in society at large as well as their lack of pay) will lead us to be more kind and respectful and gracious to others who are doing those tasks as well. Let us therefore work as well as we can, and seek those opportunities to work where we are valued. Let us also draw what encouragement we can from God, whose word includes a great deal of encouragement for those who labor  if we will only seek it out.