“What do you do for work?” is one of the most common questions that we ask when we meet someone new. For most of us, work is right at the heart of how we see ourselves and how we explain ourselves to others. Usually, it’s at the heart of our diaries, too—in any given working week, this is the place where we spend around half our waking hours.
For lots of people work is also at the heart of our relationships. A decade or so ago, shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer told us that our friends were our family. A generation before that they told us that family was family—think of shows like The Cosby Show, The Brady Bunch, or Hey Dad…! But today, isn’t the message from shows like The Newsroom, Grey’s Anatomy, or any of the crime shows like NCIS and CSI, that work is now our family?
Work is, therefore, not just an important part of how we see ourselves and how we explain ourselves to others. It’s also a big part of our culture’s view of life.
But it’s also an area that we sometimes struggle with when we’re trying to think Christianly. We’re okay when we’re talking about the gospel, or about our life together as Christians, or growing in love for one another, or sin and holiness, or trying to make disciples. But for lots of Christians, we’re nowhere near as good at speaking about work, except perhaps as something you should give up in order to do full-time paid Christian ministry. This means that for some of us a big disconnect can develop between our Christian faith and our lives at work, and we’re not quite sure what one has to do with the other.
So how should we think about the value of work in a world that God has made, but which is also going to pass away?
Work in the beginning
The important starting point in our Christian thinking about work is Genesis 1-2. The first thing to say is that work is good. It’s good because God does it. It’s good because creation needs it. And it’s good because mankind was made for it.
The idea that God works is taught to us very clearly:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)
It’s the very first explicit reference to ‘work’ in the Bible, and it’s all about God’s work of creation.
But God didn’t do his initial work of creation and then just leave things to go on their merry way. He continues to work in the creation, by sovereignly ruling all things. Psalm 104 is just one place that speaks of this work of God (e.g. vv.24-29). This work that God does is delightful, and God delights in it (v. 31).
But work is also good because creation needs it. Thus Genesis 2:5 tell us:
When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground…
In other words, right back at the very beginning, there was a time when not much was happening in creation. And the reason was there was no man to work the ground. The creation is good, and very good. But without a man to work the ground, it is somehow incomplete and unfulfilled.
Finally, work in creation is good because it’s what mankind was created for. Not just later on in Genesis 2 when the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it; or even later than that when God brings all the animals to the man to see what he would name them; but even back in Genesis 1:27-28, when:
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
It’s box 1 of Two Ways to Live, for anyone who has ever been trained in that way of explaining the gospel. God has made us in his image. And he has put us in charge of the world: to rule it, to care for it, to be responsible for it. This is the work we were made for.
One of the immediate implications for our thinking about work is that we often use the word in a much narrower sense than Scripture does. Typically we use the word ‘work’ to refer to our employment, which is why we can so easily get ourselves in knots when we’re speaking about activities that are clearly hard work but which are not employment in the usual sense, such as the work of parenting. Biblically, though, human work includes a whole range of human activities—whether paid or unpaid—that reflect our ruling of creation and which are necessary for the well-being of human communities. Work in the sense of our employment is simply one expression of the much bigger category of work that God has given us to do as his image-bearers in this world. (This is reflected in the rest of this article, by the way: many of the examples apply particularly to our primary ‘workplace’, but are also applicable to broader examples of work, whether it’s part-time employment, raising a family, volunteering as a coach on your children’s sporting team, or any other work that you’re engaged in.)
Peter Orr has helpfully argued elsewhere in this issue that “the work of the Lord” is a specific response to the resurrection of Jesus with specific, Christ-centred, gospel-advancing content, and not the regular work we are engaged in with faithfulness to Jesus. This article is therefore a complement to that position: while not thinking that our regular work is “the work of the Lord” that in itself is the work of God’s kingdom, there’s still a place for talking about how we ought to be faithful and productive in that endeavour. We can and ought to examine how the gospel shapes our lives and our work in the midst of committing ourselves to the work of the Lord.
So here is the starting point for a Christian view of work. Work is good, and we ought to keep affirming its goodness. It’s not a necessary evil that has to be endured so that we can get to the really good stuff of life, which is doing nothing. It hasn’t come into the world because of sin. It’s been there from the beginning. God does it. Creation needs it. We were made for it. It’s good.
Work after the Fall
Of course, the world of Genesis 1-2 is not quite the world we live in now, because the work that God gave mankind to do—the work of ruling the creation under him as his image bearers—is precisely what mankind fails to do. And so the image of God in us is now distorted by our sinful rebellion against God. All of our relationships are affected by this—our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, and our relationship to creation.
As a consequence of sin, and because of God’s judgement against sin, a significant element of difficulty and frustration is now introduced to the work that humanity does. So God announces to Adam:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
There’s just no getting around it. In a world marked by human sin and rebellion, work is one of the biggest areas of human life that is affected. And any of us who work know what this is like. Work can be frustrating. Work can be tiring. Work can be unfulfilling. Work can be disappointing. Work can be repetitive and boring. Work can be difficult because of the relationships that are there. Work can be difficult because it doesn’t produce the fruit that we want it to, or in the time that we want it to. I think of how many years we did speech therapy with one of our sons; we worked hard, but the progress was so slow! Work can be frustrating because we don’t have the skills we need to do a particular job that is before us. Work can embitter us if we are working hard and it is not recognized.
It just goes on and on. There are so many ways that work is toilsome and frustrating for us. But all of it stems from our rebellion and sin against God, our failure as humanity to do the work that he created us to do—the work of ruling the world under him as his image bearers.
The writer of Ecclesiastes knew about all these things, and he devoted significant time to considering these truths. As a man of considerable means he says of himself:
I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees… I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6, 10-11)
Here is a man for whom literally, in terms of his work, the sky was the limit. Yet when he pauses to take stock of what he has done, he is forced to admit to himself that work ‘under the sun’ done without reference to God our creator and judge is a completely meaningless pursuit. It is meaningless as a means of amassing wealth and possessions, because in the end when you die, whatever you have gained from your work will be left in the hands of another. And it’s also meaningless as a means of securing a reputation, because in the end when you die, within one or two generations you will be completely forgotten.
Admittedly, none of this is particularly positive. Yet it’s such a great help to us to speak about things truthfully, for it is just one case of how the Bible interprets life for us. It teaches us about the world we live in, and explains that the problem of pain and frustration in work is caused by us sinning and falling short of the glory of God, and, rather than ruling the world under him, trying to rule the world without him.
One of the things these truths can help us with, however, is evangelism in the workplace. It’s probably something that many of us find difficult. But recognizing the frustration and pain of work in this world that is so affected by human sin and rebellion can actually give us a doorway to walk through as we try to speak about Jesus.
I heard recently that Billy Graham used to say that in every culture he spoke to, people had these five things in common:
- emptiness and a quest for meaning
- a fear of death
Are these things true of the people we work with? Of course they are. Because these are the cries-of-the-heart of God’s image-bearers, whose ability to live out their lives as God’s image-bearers is now broken and distorted by sin and rebellion. And what this means is that even if people don’t go about considering life in the systematic way that the writer of Ecclesiastes went about considering life, if we can help them to stop and consider their lives they will be forced to recognize the same sense of vanity and meaninglessness that he was forced to see.
Therefore, one of the things we can do is to help people understand their own experience of life. When they find work to be toilsome and frustrating, we have an opportunity to come alongside them and say, “Yes, work is painful. It is frustrating and toilsome. And can I try and tell you why?” If we can get to this point with people, we really are very close to the gospel.
Work and the gospel
The gospel, of course, is about God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the one by whom and for whom the entire creation has been made. He is the perfect image of God. He is the perfect man. In contrast to the first man, Adam, he came and perfectly ruled the creation under God—in his sinless life, in his sacrificial death, in his resurrection to glory, now at God’s right hand in heaven. If we want to see a man perfectly ruling the world under God, Jesus is the one to whom we must look.
Significantly, there are a few places where Jesus describes his life and ministry using the category of work. In John 4:34, for example, he says:
My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.
In John 17:4, he prays to God his Father:
I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.
This is not a new idea in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God’s work in the world is not just limited to his initial work of creation, or even his ongoing work of sustaining the creation. It includes his special work of salvation (e.g. Josh 24:31; Isa 10:12).
But the Lord Jesus comes along and draws together both threads. His work is the perfect fulfilment of the work God had given to mankind as God’s image-bearers, to rule the world under him. And his work is also the perfect fulfilment of the work that God has done in salvation history. As a result, any thinking that we want to do about our work must now take place in and through him.
In terms of our big work as humanity—the work of ruling the world under God—that only happens now as we accept in faith and obedience that Jesus Christ is Lord. If our ability to rule the world in the way God intended was broken by us stepping out from under God’s authority in sin and rebellion, it follows that the only way for it to be restored is to come back under God’s authority. This is exactly what the gospel calls us to do, as we acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the one who rules all things. Therefore our rule of the world now is carried out as we submit to his rule of the world, and as we seek to please him in all things and serve him in all things.
This means our whole approach to work is now completely transformed. One passage that shows this very clearly is Colossians 3, where Paul gives instructions to wives and husbands (vv. 18-19), to children and fathers (vv. 20-21), and then to slaves and masters (3: 22-4:1).
Admittedly the category of household slaves is not prominent in modern society (though there are similar roles in other cultures) and there are important differences between this role and the situation of work that most of us are familiar with. Yet Paul’s instructions to slaves are clear:
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 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. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:22-25)
An important question worth probing with these instructions from Paul is what place they have in Colossians. This was a group of Christians in danger of beginning to follow all sorts of human traditions and rules about how they live (2:8-23), in part because of a belief that Christ was not sufficient. Part of Paul’s solution is to show that Christ is totally sufficient (2:9-15, 17). In fact he is more than sufficient: he is absolutely supreme in all things:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-19)
In other words, here is a letter that blows our mind with this incredible teaching about Christ—about how exalted he is, and how supreme he is, and how his rule and authority over the church, and indeed over all things, is utterly without contest.
But then we come to the back end of the book and we find all these instructions about the minutiae of daily life, and about my duties as a wife or a husband, or as a child or a father, or as a slave or a master. But how are the details of my daily life, in whichever of these roles that I have, connected to the supreme Lordship of Jesus Christ?
Paul’s answer is that when we get these roles right they will be the very expression of our submission to the supreme Lordship of Jesus Christ. So the slave is taught to work hard, and to obey their earthly masters. They are to do this not only when they are being watched, as people-pleasers. But since Jesus Christ is Lord, and since he is always watching us, they are to work hard, with sincerity of heart, working as to the Lord.
The gospel doesn’t mean that work is now to be despised. It means that our approach to work is transformed. In fact for most of us work will be one of the main areas of life in which our submission to the supreme Lordship of Jesus Christ is to be expressed most consistently. When a Christian goes to the office on Monday morning, they do so as someone who fears the Lord, who loves the Lord, who serves the Lord, and obeys the Lord. That means their motivation at work is not to please men but to please the Lord. And so they will work hard all the time. And they will work sincerely, and with honesty and integrity and godliness and humility and gentleness and patience. For work is an expression of their Christian faith.
This understanding of work under the rule of the Lord Jesus makes sense of some other things. In Ephesians 4:28, for example, Paul gives this instruction:
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
For some, who used to steal, their new commitment to honest hard work is the very expression of their repentance and their submission to the Lordship of Jesus. The gospel does not overturn our commitment to work. It re-shapes it and transforms it, and makes our work an expression of our submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Yet the gospel also teaches us that this world is set to pass away, which is why Jesus calls us to seek first the kingdom of heaven, and to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth. This in itself ought to be a constant rebuke to the worldliness by which we can so easily idolize our jobs or our professional lives, or the way that we can let ourselves be defined more by the work that we do than by Christ Jesus our Lord. It ought to rebuke any tendencies in us to let our jobs feed our greed and materialism. All of these things are a particular danger for those of us who are university trained and professionally employed, and who put the work that we do so close to the centre of how we see ourselves.
The gospel confronts all of these worldly tendencies, and it teaches us to keep living in this world, but for the world to come. As a result, for all of us, high on our list of priorities, is a new commitment to seeing the gospel go out into whatever pockets of community we find ourselves in, including our workplace.
This actually liberates us to think in what may be a fresh way about one of the questions that often gets asked concerning Christians and work. The way the question often gets asked is whether I should keep doing my job as a physiotherapist, accountant, teacher, engineer, or whether I should quit my job and go into full-time financially-supported gospel ministry. The problem with asking the question that way is it can hide the real issue. The real issue is whether we are seeking first the kingdom of God; whether we are storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven; whether we have let the Lordship of Jesus Christ completely transform our priorities and values in life, and our sense of identity.
You can do these things as a physiotherapist, accountant, teacher or engineer, and you can do these things in full-time financially-supported gospel ministry. And you can not do these things as a physiotherapist, accountant, teacher or engineer, and you can not do these things in full-time financially-supported gospel ministry. It’s terrible that we must admit such things, but it’s true.
For all of us, the gospel should completely transform our priorities in life, including our priorities at work, so that now in everything that we do, life is to be lived to the glory of God (which means for the salvation of many: 1 Cor 10:31-11:1) and as an expression of our submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. For all of us, that ought to produce a commitment to sharing the gospel that is willing to forsake our friendships, our reputations, our status, our popularity, our being considered as wise in the eyes of the world, or being considered for this or that promotion. For some of us, the gospel will cause such a significant disruption to our priorities in life that we leave the secular workforce and go into full-time financially-supported gospel ministry.
But that final choice, in and of itself, is actually the small question. The big question is about us and the Lord Jesus Christ, and whether we are seeking his kingdom first in all things, including our work.
Work at the end
Understandably, whatever the Bible teaches about work is only fully understood when we consider it alongside what the Bible teaches about rest. In fact, if we look back at Genesis 2:1-3, we find that the Bible has been teaching about rest for as long as it’s been teaching about work, for God worked in creation and then he rested from his work.
In the Ten Commandments, the pattern of God’s work and rest was to become the pattern for Israel, working six days and resting on the seventh (Exod 20:8-11), as she modelled to the surrounding nations what it meant to be the people of God who were enjoying God’s work of salvation. It would not do for Israel to exhibit the same kinds of workaholism that is so prevalent in cities like Sydney today. Later on Israel was meant to enjoy rest in the Promised Land (e.g. Deut 12:10). For a time she did (e.g. 2 Sam 7:1), although it was taken away from her in the judgement of the exile.
Then the Lord Jesus comes along, calling people:
Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Ultimately, of course, we will not rest until we take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of us: the salvation that will be revealed in the last day, and which will take place in the New Jerusalem, where our songs of praise and thanksgiving will never end. The Bible does not describe this future using the category of work, yet it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to consider it as a joyful work of God’s heavenly people, much as a greater fulfilment of the joyful work the first man and woman were to do. Strictly, though, work will stop, but rest will continue.
I said a stupid thing the other day. I was talking to a neighbour who commented about how busy I was. To which I responded, “Better to burn out than to rust”. What stupid male bravado is encapsulated in those words!
Perhaps as a choice between the two, one is better than the other. But what a foolish response for someone who knows that God doesn’t want me to do either of them. Work hard? Absolutely. Because work is good, and it’s a necessary part of life as God’s image-bearers in this world that God has made. More than that, because we know that Jesus is Lord, and because he is always watching us, therefore we will work as to the Lord. But rest as well? Definitely. Not for the sake of rusting, but rather for the sake of enjoying God’s good provision for our needs, and as an expression of our certain hope that through Christ we will enjoy God and his good work of salvation to the end of the ages.
- F Graham, Billy Graham in Quotes, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2011, p. 280. ↩