Work, like so many other things in our culture today, has been politicized.
Over the last few years, articles lamenting the lack of workers due to the “great resignation” have been common. Some blame the declining workforce on government programs that pay people to not work, while others blame corporations and businesses that undercompensate their employees, but either way, we have all the seen the results of an exodus of workers from the marketplace. Help wanted signs are everywhere and supply chains are stalling out. Another example of the politicization of the workplace: California has recently been debating legislation that would shorten the work week to four days, while requiring companies to keep pay levels stable. How the economics of this are supposed to work out – paying people the same amount for less work – is never explained, of course. But it is one more way work has become a politically contentious issue. Different views of work stem from different worldviews.
Confusion over and frustration with work is almost as old as humanity. In the biblical account, work predates the fall. The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that he is a worker; he works by making a creation in the space of six days, and then rests (celebrates!) on the seventh. The first thing we learn about man is that he is a worker too because he is made in God’s image. The human race is given a job in Genesis 1:26-28. That job basically has two components, to take dominion over the earth, using creation’s built-in resources to construct a God-glorifying civilization, and to multiply, which will result in an earth filled with divine image bearers. In Genesis 2, this job description becomes more focused and specific for Adam: he is to guard and cultivate the Garden of Eden. Work in an unfallen world would no doubt have been challenging, but it also would have been a constant source of meaning, fulfillment, and joy. Sadly, those conditions did not last long.
In Genesis 3, Adam and his wife revolt against God’s law and design. The result is a curse that we have been living with ever since. The curse hits the woman in the realm of child-bearing and child-nurturing (Gen. 3:16); the human race will still multiply, but now it will be a painful process. The curse hits the man in the realm of work; the human race will still take dominion over the creation, but now thorns and thistles will get in the way, making it a far more difficult (Gen. 3:17-18).
But as the Biblical story unfolds, we find that frustration and futility for workers in a fallen world are not the only realities. God is continually showing that he will ultimately push back the curse, to bless work and to bless humanity through work. Later in Genesis, Noah works by building an ark. That ark is a cosmos in miniature, and carries Noah and his family through the decreation of the flood into a new creation, inaugurated with a reissuing of the mandate of Genesis 1 (cf. Gen. 9:1-7). In Exodus, we find God’s Spirit giving Bezalel wisdom for the specific purpose of working with the raw material of creation – stone, wood, and precious metals – to create objects of glory and beauty to be used in the tabernacle (Ex. 31:1ff, 35:30ff). Bezalel was filled with the Spirit precisely so he could work skillfully with his hands. Proverbs stresses the importance of diligent labor, pointing to the positive example of the ant and the negative example of the sluggard (Prov. 6:6ff). While the ant is self-disciplined, needing no captain to tell her what to do, the sluggard fails to take dominion over the creation and thus the thorns begin to rule over him (Prov. 24:30ff). While the sluggard’s failure to work reverses the dominion mandate, the faithful son fulfills the dominion mandate. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon not only continues to affirm the goodness of work, even in a fallen, vaporous world, he calls on man to enjoy the fruits of his labors along with his wife/helper (Ecc. 2:24, 8:15). Work is central to the Bible’s wisdom literature because these books (especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) are largely about how to fulfill the program of Genesis 1:26-28 in a post-fall creation.
When we come to the New Testament Scriptures, the story of work continues to unfold. We know that Jesus came on a mission of love and redemption to do the work of saving us from our sins. But before he undertook that task, he did a different kind of work. While the gospels focus on the three year public ministry of Jesus as a rabbi, we know he spent much of the first thirty years of his life working as a carpenter, likely running a small family business and engaging in manual labor, just as his father Joseph had (Mark 6:3). The fact that Jesus served many years in a “secular” vocation, working with his hands, before working with words in a “spiritual” vocation, as a rabbi, should forever obliterate any secular/sacred dichotomy for Christians. Work can be a form of worship. Work is Christlike. Charles Spurgeon explains:
The true way to serve the Lord in the common acts of life is to perform them as unto himself; and this can be done with everything which it is lawful to do. God forbid we should maintain, as some do, a broad, unbending distinction between things secular and religious…
To a man who lives unto God nothing is secular, everything is sacred. He puts on his workday garment and it is a vestment to him: he sits down to his meal and it is a sacrament; he goes forth to his labour, and therein exercises the office of the priesthood: his breath is incense and his life a sacrifice. He sleeps on the bosom of God, and lives and moves in the divine presence. To draw a hard and fast line and say, “This is sacred and this is secular,” is, to my mind, diametrically opposed to the teaching of Christ and the spirit of the gospel.
Thus, when tax collectors and soldiers came to John the Baptist to repent and be baptized, he did not tell them to leave behind their “secular” jobs and go on preaching tours as missionaries; instead, he told them to fulfill their respective vocations in righteousness (Luke 3:12-14). The gospel does not take us out of our jobs; it sends us into our jobs to do the work we have been given to do “with gladness and singleness of heart” (as the Eucharistic benediction puts it). Our weekly work is the liturgy after the liturgy. The coming of God’s kingdom does not negate the call to work but restores work to its original purpose.
Paul addresses work in several places. In 1 Corinthians 7, he develops a doctrine of vocation, explaining that the sum total of our roles and responsibilities in daily life are assigned by God. In Colossians 3:23, he tells slaves (and therefore all workers) to do whatever work you find to do “heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:14, Paul calls on Christians “to work with your hands” as a way of providing for themselves. While intellectual labor is just as pleasing to God as manual labor, many in recent years have pointed out that working with one’s hands (whether vocationally or as a hobby) has many advantages, especially in an age of “virtual reality.” Working with one’s hands forces the worker to attend to the nature of objective reality; it is a reality check. Almost thirty years ago Christopher Lasch pointed out that American elites were in danger of losing touch with reality precisely because they had lost touch with the physical world:
The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life… Their only relation to productive labor is that of consumers. They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality…as distinguished from the palatable, immediate, physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women. Their belief in “social construction of reality” – the central dogma of postmodernist thought – reflects the experience of living in an artificial environment from which everything that resists human control (unavoidably, everything familiar and reassuring as well) has been rigorously excluded. Control has become their obsession. In their drive to insulate themselves against risk and contingency – against the unpredictable hazards that afflict human life – the thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.
Finally, John’s Revelation picks up on a prophetic theme (cf. Isa. 60:1ff) and shows us that our work has eternal value. In some way the things we do as workers in this life will become the treasure of God’s kingdom in the consummation of all things (Rev. 21:24). Our works will follow us into the glory of the world to come (Rev. 14:13). Work was already present with man in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden. And the fruits of our work will be with us in the end, in the New Jerusalem. The Bible is the story of God’s creation and the story of man as God’s image bearer. But for these very reasons, it is also the story of work – work blessed, work cursed, and ultimately work redeemed.