As we come to celebrate another Labor Day, it may be beneficial for us to step back for a moment and consider what Scripture has to say about the rhythm of work and rest—i.e. the cyclical configuration by which all the events of our lives occur. Learning the theology of work and rest is one of the greatest challenges of our own day. Many of us have adopted faulty views of work, and therefore have faulty views of rest. We are commanded to do all the work that needs to be accomplished every week in the six days that follow, and lead up to, the glorious day of rest. Then we are commanded to rest. This rhythm of work and rest is both a creational and a new-creational (i.e. redemptive) ordinance. The suffix to the 4th commandment in Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:15 teaches us this. God commanded His people to rest one day in seven because He rested from the work of creation and because He redeemed them from the hand of their enemies. In short, we need to learn to work hard at learning to work as unto the Lord and we need to learn to work hard at learning to cease from our labors, by resting in the finish work of Christ.
Work is one of the most important of the creation ordinances. Before the fall—work was pleasant. God charged Adam with the task of taking the Garden out and turning the world into the Garden. Adam embraced the command to dress and keep the Garden with a sense of satisfaction and delight. When sin entered the world, God cursed the ground and promised our first father that work would now be burdensome. Thorns and thistles made man’s labors difficult and unpleasant. Now, man must eat by the sweat of his brow.
In addition to the burden placed upon man’s labors, the fall also brought about imbalanced and perverted views of work. After the fall, men began to work for their own glory. Cain built a city and named it after his son (Gen. 4:17). Man turned inward and therefore began to work for all the wrong reasons. We see this worked out in our own day in the way in which we have lost the idea of vocation (i.e. calling). Most people in America today view a job first and foremost as a mean to an end (i.e. a way to get provisions, possessions, pleasures, etc.). Because the idea of vocation has been lost, people now jump from job to job throughout the course of their lives. If we viewed our work under the rubric of God’s calling, we would be more apt to settle into whatever lawful work God has gifted and called us to do—and, we would seek to do it for His glory. The garbage man—who picks up trash to better the community and to bear witness to the goodness and greatness of God—is fulfilling his vocation as unto the Lord. Fulfilling the mandate from our God to be fruitful for His glory must be the ultimate goal of our labors rather than merely seeking after a fruitful retirement. As John Calvin so helpfully wrote:
We know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every man applies himself diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.
The other dilemma with which we are faced in our own day is that most of us do not know how to cease from working. In his sermon “Work and Rest,” Tim Keller offers several suggestions as to why there is such a heightened sense of obligation for us to overwork today. He explains:
A. Jobs (even whole departments) if they don't perform—and if they don't turn profit—are eliminated. There has never been a culture where job security has been so bad.
B. It used to be that people at the top of the company used to make 10 or 20 times what people at the bottom of the company make; now, it's more like 100 to 200 times. And partly as a result of this, people who make large amounts of money are expected to put in enormous numbers of hours. If you don't want to do it, there's a line behind you. Whereas people on the bottom are having to take multiple jobs. So everybody's overworked. It doesn't matter where you are on the scale. In order to make ends meet, they have to take multiple jobs.