In American society the way most people seem to relate to work is by a desire to escape from it. Often the good life is painted as the life with the least work- or at least the least burdensome and personally restrictive work. This is a tendency that I find in myself quite often. However, a biblical outlook on work demands something different from Christians. The Scriptures do not portray work as an evil that must be endured, but rather as a basic piece of human existence, with some serious moral freight attached. Work has a normative role in the life of man, as well as central ethical connection to the command to love our neighbor.
Work Is Normal
We first see the normative role of work in the creation story of Genesis. In Genesis 2:15 it says that God put man in the garden “to work it”. Work is part of human existence before sin ever existed- indeed it can be seen as crucial for God’s mandate for man to govern and subdue the creation.
While we should be careful not to put too much weight into this, it is undeniable from the evidence in Genesis that work is not something that we should seek to escape, contrary to the American vision, but rather something we should seek to do well. While work may have taken on a more burdensome aspect after the fall- the curse in Gen. 3:17-19 makes this clear- it is not something we should seek to do without.
A positive understanding of work is bolstered by the New Testament witness as well. In the example of Paul, and of Christ himself, we see that even the most spiritual of men were not above working with their hands. 1 Thess. 4:11 provides a vision of the Christian life that would not be all that popular among evangelicals today: “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands”. A simple life of labor is not to be looked down upon, but rather is something to be commended!
Of course, in all that I’ve said so far it is clear that work is normal, but it is not so clear why. In one sense the purpose is obviously to glorify God, but within that given, how does God use our work to that end?
Work Has a Purpose
Thankfully, Scripture gives us some insight here. Work is not only commended for its own sake- rather it has serious ethical import for the Christian life. By examining the New Testament witness on the subject, it becomes clear that work should be seen as a way in which Christians fulfill one of the key ethical precepts of our faith- to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Paul used it to fund the ministry of the gospel so that he would not be a burden to the congregations he served. He warns in 1 Tim. 5:8 that to fail to provide for one’s family was to deny the faith. Eph. 4:28 also encourages labor so that one may “share with anyone in need”. It is clear that work has a positive ethical function in the Christian life- namely as a key way in which we love our neighbor.
If we accept this understanding of the purpose of work- that it is a key means by which we love our neighbor- that has serious implications for how we relate to our work. In this understanding, all work, regardless of how personally fulfilling it is, takes on extreme spiritual significance. Even the most menial labor is a tool that can be used by God to love our neighbors and glorify His name.
This means that we should take our work, and what we do with the fruits of our labor- very seriously. As Christians we do not work for personal fulfillment, nor even only to meet our material needs- we work as a way of loving people. That’s a way of relating to work that runs absolutely counter to our culture.
I’m still thinking through personal application of this concept. It seems there are many ways in which this impacts my life. Feel free to comment below with your own thoughts on how this idea affects day-today life!