Work is one of the most significant parts of our lives. Of the 168 hours we are given each week, most of us will spend at least 40 at the workplace. Many spend closer to 60 or 70, sometimes juggling two jobs or more. One of the most pressing questions for a Christian to answer, then, is, “How do I think biblically about work?”
Created to work
The first thing to remember is that we were made for work. Work is implicit in the “cultural mandate,” the command given by God to the first man, recorded Genesis 1:28-31. Human beings were created in the image of God for the purpose of subduing the earth, ruling over the created order as the vicegerents of God. In the words of J. I. Packer, “Man was made to manage God’s world, and this stewardship is part of the human vocation in Christ. It calls for hard work, with God’s honor and the good of others as its goal.” Labor is, therefore, one of the most important ways in which we bear God’s image, for God himself is a God who works (Gen. 2:2-3). “In contrast to Greek mythology, where the gods live a life of celestial loafing, the Bible pictures God himself as a ceaseless worker.”As John Stott writes, “Our potential for creative work is an essential part of our godlikeness.”
This biblical perspective shows the essential value and dignity of human work. In Genesis 2:15 we learn that after creating Adam, God put him in “the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.“ Even in the pristine, unspoiled pre-fallen world, man had work to do. “God has deliberately arranged life in such a way that he needs the cooperation of human beings for the fulfillment of his purposes,” observes Stott. “He did not create the planet earth to be productive on its own; human beings had to subdue and develop it. He did not plant a garden whose flowers would blossom and fruit ripen on their own; he appointed a gardener to cultivate the soil. We call this the ‘cultural mandate’ which God gave to humankind. ‘Nature’ is what God gives us; ‘culture’ is what we do with it.”
This means that any attempt to shirk work, either through thievery, desperate attempts to get rich quickly (lottery, anyone?), or through mooching off others in lives of indolence, are wrong-headed from the start.
The purposes of work
Work is is both commanded and commended in Scripture. The command to work, for example, is implicit in the Ten Commandments (as the fourth commandment begins, “six days shall you labor, and do all your work,” Ex. 20:9) and explicit in the apostolic writings (“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need,” Eph. 4:28).
The whole of Scripture commends honest labor, viewing it as a source of personal satisfaction (Eccl. 3:22), the means of providing for our families (1 Tim. 5:8), benefiting others (Eph. 4:28) and especially as a serving the Lord, as we do everything in word and deed in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:17, 23-24). Weaving these purposes for work together, John Stott defines work as “the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfilling to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.”
Work in a fallen world
But we all know that real life in the workaday world is often complicated, frustrating and unfulfilling. Work problems are real: stress, job dissatisfaction, unemployment, the question of fair wages, and other ethical concerns demand careful consideration that moves beyond the mandate of Genesis 1, but without losing sight of it.
The ultimate reason for the complexity of work and its attendant problems is the sin, reaching back to the fall of man in Genesis 3. Part of the five-fold curse following the fall is the curse on the ground, which now bears thorns and thistles, so that man now eats his bread “by the sweat of [his] face” (Gen. 3:18-19). Work, in other words, is now fraught with obstacles and etched with frustrations. As someone once quipped, “man was meant to be a gardener, but by reason of his sin he became a farmer.” Work after the fall is not simply the creative work of construction and cultivation. We must now also push back against the effects of the fall. There are constant obstacles to overcome with the forces of entropy, disintegration, and decay constantly working against us. Work now involves not only planting, but weeding; not simply doing, but undoing. Like Jeremiah the prophet, we often have “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow” before we can “build and … plant” (Jer. 1:10).
To use the lament of Ecclesiastes, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:22-23). Work, like childbirth is not only joy, involves labor. The problems of job-related stress, unjust labor laws, et cetera, are an index to our present condition: life in a fallen world.
The redemption of work
But the Scriptures also look forward to the final redemption and restoration of the created order, including the realm of work. In Isaiah 65, for example, the prophet records God’s promise of a “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17) where his people
shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity… (Isa 65:21-23a)
This hope of new creation is picked up in multiple places in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21-22). The apostles viewed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as the inaugural event in new creation, with Jesus himself as the firstfruits of the harvest and the gift of his Spirit as the guarantee that final redemption is coming. And its in this very context, having given his most eloquent and theologically rich defense of the resurrection, that Paul says to the early Christians, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58, emphasis added).
Though we continue to labor in a fallen world, we no longer labor without hope, but with the unshakable confidence that our work, done in service to the Lord Jesus, counts.
J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993), p. 236
“Work, Working,” in Ryken, L., Wilhoit, J., Longman, T., Duriez, C., Penney, D., & Reid, D. G., ed.,Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 965. This article presents a well-rounded biblical theology of work that has informed the structure and content of my post.
John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) p. 219.
Stott, pp. 222-223
Stott, p. 225.
W. F. Forrester, quoted in Ryken, et all, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
“In the story of the Fall woman’s pain in giving birth (Gen 3:16) parallels the curse on work (Gen 3:17). The Hebrew word for toil and pain in these verses is the same, and Forrester notes that “in language after language the same word is used for toil and child-bearing, e.g., ‘labour’ and ‘travail.’” (Ibid.)