A Biblically Integrated View of Work
There are several ways of developing a biblical approach to work. One is to do a concordance study of the word. Another is a creed-based approach in terms of God as Creator, Reconciler and Re-Creator—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here I will identify broad perspectives and principles that can help us place work within a scriptural framework of relationships—to God, humanity and the earth (Wright, pp. 89-90, 100).
God’s work. The God of the Bible is a worker, in contrast to the ancient Near Eastern gods, who slept while their human slaves labored. Sadly, many of us forget that before we get up on Monday morning, God has already been at work: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). Jesus said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). The Sabbath is a reminder that we live by God’s work, not our own (Genesis 2:3; Matthew 11:28; Hebrews 4).
Exploring the wide-ranging biblical imagery of divine work can give us a greater sense of being junior partners in God’s work of creation, preservation and redemption.
By seeing our work in the light of God’s work, we can see God’s hand in our everyday tasks. Unless we do so, we will underestimate the importance of God’s work and either worship our work or think it worthless. But work can be an expression of worship or communion with God. It should not be confused with or replace our corporate worship, but it is an everyday offering of our whole selves, bodies and minds, to God (Romans 12:1-2). “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women” (Ephesians. 6:7).
Human work and human relationships.
- Work is not only to provide for ourselves (2 Thessalonians . 3:10-13)
- and our families (1 Tim. 5:8)
- but also “to have something to share with the needy” (Ephes. 4:28 NRSV).
So work is one of the basic ways we fulfill our social responsibilities. Many things we make at work also provide the stage in which people can interact, for example, telephones and furniture. Making hand-held video games largely does not. From a biblical view one question we can ask of our work is whether it furthers relationships or not.
While we should distinguish ourselves from what we do, we should not divorce the two. Being and doing flow into each other. A mother working in a shop does not stop being a mother while she is at work. Her homegrown experiences and skills are valuable (even if unrecognized) in her paid employment, and her experience on the job will be reflected at home.
The author of Ecclesiastes provides a balance between being and doing by emphasizing relationships. He has a word of warning for both the envious workaholic and the lazy shirkaholic who neglect relationships and lead meaningless lives. The alternative is that “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. . . . A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:9-12 NRSV). So, after communion with God “community building is every person’s second full-time job”
The same writer provides a commentary on the fallen or cursed dimension of work or toil (see also Genesis 3:17-19). Work done out of mere ambition and selfishness and work neglected out of laziness are both vain. Even work with good motives will often be ignored or wasted. We all die, and our work will not last; it is transient. While we have opportunity, we should simply enjoy working, as well as the food and drink it puts on the table, as a gift from God. It is best to have modest expectations of work and not try to build lasting monuments (Eccles. 2:18-26)
Our groaning as we toil is part of creation’s groaning, longing for liberation from the vanity to which it was subjected by God in hope (Romans 8:20-23). But under the risen Son, work done for God and others are not in vain, even if society may not value it. In the new heavens and new earth “my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain” (Isaiah 65:22-23 NRSV). “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Caring for the earth. According to Genesis 1:28 (NRSV), as those made in God’s image, we are to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” This is balanced by the direction in Genesis 2:15, in which Adam is to till and keep the garden, or serve and preserve it. This has not only agricultural but also cultural dimensions, as Adam’s naming the animals shows. As God’s representatives we are to care for the earth (see Ecology) and each other in the productive realm of work and the reproductive realm of family. Women are involved in both realms. The wise woman of Proverbs 31 is involved in providing food, land and clothing, planting vines, trading and caring for the poor. Her work was publicly recognized, bringing her praise in the city gates (Proverbs 31:10-31). This needs to be heard in a world in which women are often paid less in jobs and work a second shift at home and in which many people receive no recognition for unpaid work done well.
In the divine economy, work is evaluated according to the way it fosters or retards relationships—between ourselves and God, our companions and the earthly resources we are called to develop.