Series: Born to Work (part 2) By Rosie moore.
Work preceded the Fall. It isn’t evil, nor a side effect of sin, but work is part of the good universe that God created and essential to the blessing bestowed on Adam and Eve (Gen 1:28-31). Since the creation, God has given us work to do, so Christians everywhere, in every age, should see all our work as worship. Even in the least glamorous and most mundane job on earth, we can be fruitful in our work.
In fact, Scripture mentions more than five thousand professions, trades, and means of employment, including weavers and spinners, stonemasons and craftsmen, builders, carpenters and tanners, musicians, poets and washermen, merchants and physicians, tentmakers and blacksmiths, soldiers and tax collectors, priests, prophets and scribes, watchmen and shepherds, farmers and fishermen, doctors and lawyers, cupbearers, bakers, kings and queens. I’m sure I’ve missed a few! The Bible does not distinguish between noble and lowly, blue collar and white collar work. Those are the world’s categories, not the Lord’s.
Work is a gift.
Since God intends our work for His glory and our good, work is a gift to enjoy. It is not a burden to endure. Our specific job may not be needed in the new heavens and new earth, but our work still elicits God’s pleasure and Christ’s eternal reward. Paul urges us to put our whole hearts into our work, as if we are working for the Lord, not a human master:
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favourtism.” (Col 3:23-25).
If this was God’s instruction for a first century slave with no rights or status, it is surely for us too, irrespective of our occupation.
Work is intrinsically valuable.
Solomon observed that work is intrinsically valuable and satisfying, regardless of how our culture perceives an occupation:
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart” (Eccl 5:18-20).
But wait a minute, didn’t the curse of Genesis 3 turn work into toil and futility, sweat and tears? Didn’t God say to Adam,
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:17-19).
So then, is work a gift or a curse?
The curse on work.
Genesis 3 gives us a realistic framework to understand why we have so much frustration and painful toil in our work. The curse explains the daily grind of producing fruit from stubborn ground, infested with thorns and thistles:
A harsh boss or lazy employee. Relentless deadlines and assignments. Unfair pay and no job security. Under appreciation and partiality. Long shifts and office politics. Incompetent managers and annoying co-workers. Mundane and repetitive tasks. Computer crashes and loadshedding. Market crashes, bankruptcy and retrenchment. Corruption, theft and collusion. Workplace bullying. Regulations and red tape. Traffic jams, transport problems and inadequate resources. Chronic illness and burnout.
Whether we are an employer, employee, entrepreneur, volunteer, student, or homemaker, the curse means that we must expect to face obstacles and temptations in our work. The blood, sweat and tears of work may seem overwhelming at times, and the Bible doesn’t minimize the effects of sin. The curse is real.
But despite often feeling frustrated in our jobs, the Bible assures us that work has intrinsic value and dignity, because our Creator God is himself a worker, and we are made in His image. The fact that God’s Son was a carpenter who worked hard with his hands from the age of about twelve to thirty (Luke 3:23) implies that productive work is part of God’s plan for his children.
That is why we are commanded to labour six days and on the seventh day to rest (Ex 20:9-10). We have been given responsibility to care for God’s Creation, to cultivate it and tend it. This is our work.
Moreover, our work is part of the “all things” that God works together for the good of those who love Him, to sanctify us and make us more like Christ (Rom 8:28-29). The fact that work is intended for our good and God’s glory gives our work a transcendent purpose.
And so, as a believer, my attitude and the way I do my work (especially when it’s hard) is a powerful witness to the world. In fact, in writing to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul mentions diligent work as one of the marks of those who “walk properly before outsiders”. Our witness is not evangelizing our colleagues. It is earning their respect by working hard and doing our job faithfully:
“But we urge you, brothers… to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12).
And so, when we are discouraged by our work, we need to see our labours through God’s eyes, not through the blurry lens of our emotions or the world’s false philosophies. A clear biblical perspective will take the drudgery and boredom out of work. It will remind us that our work is not so much about what we do, but what we are, and who we are becoming.
In the adversity of painful toil, God is testing our faith to grow perseverance (Rom 5:3; James 1:3). He is teaching us that our strength to work comes only from Him, through faith. It is the Lord who establishes the work of our hands, not ourselves (Ps 90:17).
Dualism versus dignity.
One of the most destructive philosophies about work springs from the Ancient Greek lie of dualism. Dualism assumes that the physical is lowly and common, whereas the spiritual is elevated and lofty.
That’s why first century slaves were made to do all the manual work. The free people took pleasure in art, philosophy, music, literature, and politics, which they believed were noble works of the mind. Similarly, Jewish culture had a disdain for secular work, reflected in this proud prayer from the Talmud:
“I thank You, O Lord, my God, that You have given me my lot with them who sit in the house of learning and not with those who sit at the street corners, for I am early to work and they are early to work. I am early to work on the words of the Torah and they are early to work on things of no importance. I weary myself and they weary themselves, but I weary myself and profit thereby and they weary themselves to no profit. I run and they run. I run towards the life of the age to come and they run toward the pit of destruction.”
We may say, “What an awful self righteous prayer!” But dualism comes in subtle disguises today. It may lead us to reject the work that God has given us to do, to feel ashamed of our work or title, and to make sinful comparisons with others. It may tempt us to envy those with more recognition, status, or success than us, or it may fool us into believing that certain work is below us. Full-time Christian workers may begin to feel smug and superior to lay Christians, believing themselves to be “professionals” while ordinary Christians have inferior jobs of hay, wood and stubble.
In contrast, the Bible has a high view of work, including manual labour. Scripture is refreshingly down-to-earth and sensible about work to keep food on the table and rain off our heads. The Bible certainly does not call us to a life of leisure, nor does it distinguish between first- and second-class work:
“A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing” (Prov 20:4). And again, “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag, and if his hands are idle, the house leaks” (Eccl 10:18).
While dualism equates physical labour with low status in life, the Bible equates hard work with human dignity. The calling of a minister is not higher than other vocations such as business, carpentry or bricklaying.
Go to the ant, you sluggard!
There is nothing elitist about God’s Word. Christians are called to see work as part of our worship, whether we wear a suit or an overall, whether we work with a scalpel or spade. The Bible commends those who are self-motivated and diligent in their work but has harsh words for anybody who finds an excuse not to work hard. Hard work is a spiritual law that God has woven into his Creation. Even the tiny ant understands it:
“Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food 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 robber,
and want like an armed man.” (Prov 6:6-11).
Do you see a man skilled in his work?
Our kids are in their twenties now, in the throes of learning new skills and struggling to keep up with the demands of their work. Two of them are in healthcare and will have no control over where they are sent to do internship and community service.
We cannot always choose our work hours, our boss, or our career path, but we can always choose how we will work. Solomon focuses on our responsibility to become skillful in our work, regardless of our occupation:
“Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will serve before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men” (Prov 22:29).
Angela Duckworth agrees:
“…There are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time―longer than most people imagine….you’ve got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people….Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it…it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love―staying in love.”
― Angela Duckworth, Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success.
Lord, we know that the Fall affects much of our work, but we thank you that your redemption influences every area of life too. Thank you that Jesus died for us, rose for us, reigns in power for us, and prays for us in our work. We long for the restoration of all things, but in the meantime, we pray for eyes to see how our work can participate in the redemption of all life. As we go to work this week, help us to see that we are all priests called to offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim your excellency in a world of darkness (1 Peter 2:5; 9-10). Help us to trust in you for strength and to establish the work of our hands. In Jesus’s name, Amen.