Thinking Biblically About Work

One of the many blessings that God promises faithful man is that he will bless the work of his hands. This is a promise that appears several times over in Deuteronomy alone (e.g. 14:29; 15:10; 16:15; 24:19; 28:12). This is a very rich blessing indeed when we consider just how central work is to life in this world.

It’s important to understand that we are called by God to work. When God made Adam, the very first thing he did was to give him a job to do. He gave him the task of exercising dominion on his behalf (Gen. 1:26-28). This included such things as “working” and “keeping” the garden and naming the animals (Gen. 2:15, 19-20a).

Some people assume that life for Adam and Eve in Eden was a life of inactivity—lounging beside the pool, sipping lemonade, and working on their tan. Not so. God gave Adam a job to do.

It’s vitally important to understand that God commands us to work and that this command is not a post fall commandment. In other words, work is not a part of the curse which resulted from sin. The original command to work came before the fall, at the time of creation. It was Adam’s God-given calling, and this calling was included in God’s assessment that everything he made was not only good, but very good (Gen. 1:31).

The fall, of course, complicated things immensely. Work has become much more difficult than it was before. The earth doesn’t yield as much produce with as much ease (Gen. 3:17-19).

We tend to think of work as a necessary evil, as something to be done only because our survival depends on it. We tend to think that life is really only lived on the weekends when we can play. But I would argue that work is not only not a necessary evil, but a positive good.

The drive to work is a fundamental aspect of our being, and not simply necessary for our well-being. By this, I mean, that God, in making man after his own image and likeness, has woven into our very nature the drive to work. God is the divine archetype for man, the pattern after which man is made. And God is the ultimate worker. He made the heavens and the earth with his great wisdom and power. He exerted his strength. He exercised his ingenuity. He brought his artistic talents to bear. And he still, today, continues to work by upholding the world by the word of his power. “My Father is working until now,” Jesus said, “and I am working” (Jn. 5:15). God, then, is the ultimate worker; and we, being created in his image, have been called to imitate him.

This calling is so fundamental to our being that without work a man without work feels emasculated. The tragedy of a man not having a job lies not only in the fact that he cannot provide for his family. The worst part of it is that he doesn’t feel himself to be a man. If he doesn’t have something productive to do he’s lost much of the meaning for his existence. In this respect, work can be thought of as being therapeutic. Meaningful work, productive work, keeps a man sane. Honestly. I’m not overstating the case merely to make a point. If a man is depressed and troubled, if he doesn’t feel good about himself, one of the best things he can do for himself is to get up and go to work.

In a very real sense the meaning and purpose of a man’s life are wrapped up in his work, in his life’s calling. It’s an important aspect of his identity. What he does goes into the shaping of who he is. The opposite is also true:  who he is is reflected in what he does. This is why when you get some men together who don’t know one another, one of the first things they’ll ask each other is, “What do you do? What kind of work are you in?” We believe we have a natural, God-given interest in work, and we intuitively know that we can learn something important about a man by knowing what he does for a living and what his attitudes are toward his work.

One of the great needs of our time is to recover the sense of work as a calling from God. Some people see the goal of the Christian life as some kind of neo-platonic flight from this world and its concerns, instead of living faithfully in the world and fulfilling the callings which God has given us.

Along these lines, we must remember that every lawful calling is a worthy calling, and every lawful calling is one in which the Christian may glorify God. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the only calling in which a Christian “really” serves God is full time Christian ministry, meaning as a pastor or as a missionary, or something of that sort. No. Every Christian is in full time Christian service, of one sort or another, whether as a pastor, or a missionary, or a teacher, or a farmer, or a stay at home mother, or a mechanic, or a nurse, or policeman, or a line worker in a factory. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it’s a lawful enterprise and you do it with all of your strength to the glory of God.

We must not over-spiritualize the Christian faith.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire, winner of four 1981 academy awards, including Best Picture. It’s the story of runner Eric Liddell, a devout Christian, whose athletic career culminated in winning the gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. He was called “the flying Scotsman.” He was called this because, in the first place, he was from Scotland, and in the second place because he had a rather unorthodox running form. He would flail his arms as he ran, which gave him the appearance of a bird in flight.

Liddell was born to missionary parents who served the Lord in Northern China, but he received most of his education in Great Britain, where he excelled both as a student and as an athlete. He was fond of both rugby and track and field; but once he reached his early twenties he devoted himself exclusively to his running. His sister pressured him to give up his running and go back to China with her to serve the Lord on the mission field. She thought he enjoyed his running too much and that it was a distraction from his Christian service. Wasn’t he neglecting the real means by which he was called to serve the Lord?

Liddell struggled with knowing what to do. Was his sister right? Was he forsaking the Lord by pursuing his running? Would God be more pleased and better served if he quit his running and went to the mission field? These questions troubled him. He sought the advice of his pastor. And the advice his pastor gave him is a challenge I want to give you. He said, “Eric, you can praise the Lord by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don’t compromise. Compromise is a language of the devil.”

Shortly after this in the film, Liddell informed his sister that he would return to the mission field, but first he must complete his athletic training and competition. Trying to persuade him to return to China with her at once, she told him that God had made him for a purpose and that he should forget his running and be about the more important business of preaching the gospel. To this he replied, “Jenny, I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure…To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt…To win is to honor Him.”

Eric and his pastor were right. There are many different ways to serve the Lord—and to do so as acceptably, as well, and as meaningfully as a minister of the gospel. Terry Applegate observes,

Leland Ryken, in his book, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, does an excellent job of documenting this understanding of work and business that existed in Puritan theology. He writes:

William Tyndale said that if we look externally “there is difference betwixt washing dishes and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God; none at all.” William Perkins agreed: “The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep ... is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” This Puritan rejection of the dichotomy between sacred and secular work had far-reaching implications. For one thing, it renders every task of intrinsic value and integrates every vocation with a Christian's spiritual life. It makes every job consequential by making it the arena for glorifying and obeying God and for expressing one's love (through service) to one's neighbor. Thus Hugh Latimer saw in the example of Christ the true dignity of all work:  This is a wonderful thing, that the Savior of the world, and the King above all kings, was not ashamed to labor; yea, and to use so simple an occupation. Here He did sanctify all manner of occupations.2

Their view of how Jesus Christ sanctified work by engaging in it Himself as a carpenter and, I might point out, as an independent businessman is very insightful. “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”3 Quoting Ryken once more:

For the Puritans, all of life was God's. Their goal was to integrate their daily work with their religious devotion to God. Richard Steele [a Puritan scholar] asserted that it was in the shop “where you may most confidently expect the presence and blessing of God.”[1]

I couldn’t agree more. Honor the Lord in your work and he will honor you in your work. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). When we do this, even the most apparently mundane task is filled with sacred significance.




[1] Terry Applegate, Vocation as a Government in Chalcedon Report, March 2000 (http://chalcedon.edu/faith-for-all-of-life/the-biblical-doctrine-of-government/vocation-as-a-government/) My apologies for the quote within a quote within a quote, but not sorry enough not to do it.

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