Work is one of the most significant parts of our lives. Of the 168 hours we are given each week, most of us will spend at least 40 at the workplace. Many spend closer to 60 or 70, sometimes juggling two jobs or more. One of the most pressing questions for a Christian to answer, then, is, “How do I think biblically about work?”
Created to work
The first thing to remember is that we were made for work. Work is implicit in the “cultural mandate,” the command given by God to the first man, recorded Genesis 1:28-31. Human beings were created in the image of God for the purpose of subduing the earth, ruling over the created order as the vicegerents of God. In the words of J. I. Packer, “Man was made to manage God’s world, and this stewardship is part of the human vocation in Christ. It calls for hard work, with God’s honor and the good of others as its goal.” Labor is, therefore, one of the most important ways in which we bear God’s image, for God himself is a God who works (Gen. 2:2-3). “In contrast to Greek mythology, where the gods live a life of celestial loafing, the Bible pictures God himself as a ceaseless worker.” As John Stott writes, “Our potential for creative work is an essential part of our godlikeness.”
This biblical perspective shows the essential value and dignity of human work. In Genesis 2:15 we learn that after creating Adam, God put him in “the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.“ Even in the pristine, unspoiled pre-fallen world, man had work to do. “God has deliberately arranged life in such a way that he needs the cooperation of human beings for the fulfillment of his purposes,” observes Stott. “He did not create the planet earth to be productive on its own; human beings had to subdue and develop it. He did not plant a garden whose flowers would blossom and fruit ripen on their own; he appointed a gardener to cultivate the soil. We call this the ‘cultural mandate’ which God gave to humankind. ‘Nature’ is what God gives us; ‘culture’ is what we do with it.”
This means that any attempt to shirk work, either through thievery, desperate attempts to get rich quickly (lottery, anyone?), or through mooching off others in lives of indolence, are wrong-headed from the start.
The purposes of work
Work is is both commanded and commended in Scripture. The command to work, for example, is implicit in the Ten Commandments (as the fourth commandment begins, “six days shall you labor, and do all your work,” Ex. 20:9) and explicit in the apostolic writings (“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need,” Eph. 4:28).
The whole of Scripture commends honest labor, viewing it as a source of personal satisfaction (Eccl. 3:22), the means of providing for our families (1 Tim. 5:8), benefiting others (Eph. 4:28) and especially as a serving the Lord, as we do everything in word and deed in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:17, 23-24). Weaving these purposes for work together, John Stott defines work as “the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfilling to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.”