You wouldn’t know it by looking around my home (a drop zone for busy teenagers), but the targeted ads that pop up when I’m online often revolve around cleaning products—laundry detergent, dish soap, and multi-purpose cleaners. Having watched an array of ads touting the benefits of products to remove dirt and grime, I’ve been struck by the recent emphasis in these ads on “gentle” products. Strong enough to tackle the problem, but mild enough not to destroy the dirty items, or my hands, in the process.

Gentleness that still achieves its purpose is worth considering when evaluating cleaning products. But as I’ve reflected on this idea, it’s also served as a lens to look at other forms of work. Work that happens in homes, churches, schools, and workplaces. It’s good to get our hands wet doing the work to teach the class, organize an event, prepare a meal, or lead the meeting. However, even with the best intentions, sometimes a task stops being gentle on the worker and instead slowly turns harsh or damaging. A project can seem so urgent or the needs of a group can be so great that we sometimes allow the work to become harmful in the process. In the end, God’s gift of meaningful work can result in painful feelings of resentment, anger, and bitterness. 

Sometimes those feelings are simply the result of the strain that exists because sin has distorted God’s original intention for work. Sometimes those feelings are the natural reaction to working in exploitative environments. Even though Scripture compels employers to treat their employees fairly (Colossians 4:1; James 5:1-4), many workers still struggle against unfair practices. But sometimes my choices have also contributed to the problem.

I’ve discovered there are some helpful things to consider when I find myself asking, “How did I end up feeling hurt and damaged by this work?”

When work starts to feel harsh, I’ve given myself permission to step back and consider if the work is an assignment from God or if I’ve jumped into a task without his guidance. My experience has been that work from God reflects his character and compassionate care. In a beautiful passage in Isaiah, God’s tender compassion is pictured as a father who gathers his children “in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11). When our hands are hard at work there will be challenges and unexpected struggles, but we should also be experiencing the peace described as a newborn baby snuggled up close to a parent. It is God who “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (v. 29), tender Spirit-filled power that helps us do the work that comes from Him.

Another lesson I’m still learning is work that was intended to be gentle may gradually become abrasive if I don’t comply with God’s guidelines for work. Just as God gives us assignments that reflect his compassionate care, he also understands our limitations. He “knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). The need to rest is not a weakness but a gift that God created to complement work. 

Rest doesn’t come naturally to me, so it takes intentionality to regularly set aside my work and be reminded that I am not the sum of my productivity. Even when I’ve realized the issue, I can still find myself trying to control the unfurling chaos in my own power and according to my own timeline instead of accepting God’s invitation to rest. A willingness to put work or an assignment aside is a way to acknowledge that I need his guidance and strength to ease the stress of the work so that it can become gentle again.

It’s been helpful for me to realize that just because I’ve been asked to start an assignment doesn’t mean I’m always supposed to be the one to finish it. The gentleness of God also gives me permission to recognize when I’ve reached my limitations. Knowing that Jesus treated others in such a way that it was said of him, “a bruised reed he will not break” (Matthew 12:20; Isaiah 42:3) keeps me from pushing myself when my part in the work should be over. It can be difficult to acknowledge that I’ve done all I can do. I continue to remind myself to seek God’s guidance not only on the beginning of an assignment but along the way to know when it is time to finish my part. 

It is meaningful, and often fun, to get my hands wet working alongside others. Doing the work in the power of the Spirit also gently preserves my heart and hands in the process.

—Written by Lisa M. Samra. Used by permission from the author.