The Dignity of Work
|“We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” (Second Thessalonians 3:11-12, NIV)
“He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:28, NIV)
“Everybody’s working for the weekend.” Such are the words of a rock song that was popular when I was a young person. (If memory serves me correctly, the rock group called “Loverboy” wrote this song.) These words encapsulate a common attitude toward work today. Many today would view the ideal life as a life of never-ending idleness, recreation and entertainment. The “real life” is viewed as a life of being able to do what you want when you want to, and not having to worry about how to pay for it. Perhaps this is the reason why many play the lottery or gamble away their future savings — all in the hopes that they will strike it rich and not have to work for the rest of their lives. In the meantime, those who are either unwilling or unable to live off the meager provisions of the government dole – i.e., those who have no choice but to try to hold down a job – often view their daily work with a grudging attitude as that which is to be tolerated. But in their heart of hearts they are “working for the weekend,” when they can have free time to indulge in their own recreations. Their daily work is but a means to enjoying idle time on their days off.
Certainly the Scriptures do not condemn the moderate enjoyment of recreations and wholesome entertainments. At the same time, God’s Word does not condone this very common “working for the weekend” attitude toward work. In fact, the mindset that exalts idleness and loathes busy-ness, labor and daily work is at heart a pagan mindset, one that needs to be repented of. God’s Word calls us believers to adopt a vigorous, God-honoring, self-denying work ethic wherein we seek to serve God through our daily vocations and labors.
God created mankind to work. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, and before man’s fall into sin, God gave Adam a work assignment. He blessed Adam with a vocation – a calling. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15, NIV) Indeed, both Adam and Eve were given a vocation. “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”” (Genesis 1:28, NIV) Work was not the result of man’s fall. Rather, God called the first couple to exercise dominion over the earth and its creatures as His stewards and representatives, under His Divine Lordship, for His glory, and all before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. This godly dominion would not only involve procreation (although that was obviously included in the dominion mandate), but also godly labor to subdue and rule over the creatures.
Tending the garden. Subduing and ruling over the creatures. That would take work – and lots of it! It was only after man’s fall into sin that mankind would be condemned to eke out an existence in the face of scarce resources and a hostile environment “by the sweat of his brow” (Gen. 3:19). Only as a result of sin is our labor a wearisome “labor unto death.” But before the fall Adam and Eve’s labors were a joy and a delight, for labor was given by God to man as part of the very order of creation. But even after the fall, and even in the face of toilsome labor in the midst of “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18, NIV), through God’s “common grace” even unbelievers can experience a measure of satisfaction and delight in their diligent labors and in the products of those labors. How much more should we who profess Christ as Lord and Savior pursue our work with diligence and take delight in the work which God has given us to do in this present age, especially since the Scriptures assure us that our labor in the Lord is not in vain, and that everything we do as unto the Lord will receive a gracious reward.
Theologians have noted that at the creation God established three “creation ordinances” among mankind: Marriage, Labor, and the Sabbath. (For marriage, see Gen. 2:20-25; Matt. 19:3-8. For the Sabbath, see Gen. 2:2-3; Exod. 20:11; Mk. 2:27. And for labor/work, see Gen. 1:27-28; 2:15.) These “creation ordinances” are structures or patterns of life that God imposed upon mankind from the very beginning. We may infer from the Genesis account that Adam and Eve were to imitate God as His image-bearers by working six days (labor) and resting on the seventh (the sabbath), just as God their Creator did (Gen. 2:2-3). They were to procreate (Gen. 1:28), so as to propagate the human race and thus to raise sons and daughters who would join them in the work of subduing and ruling the earth under the Lordship of their Creator and as His representatives. The reward for continuing faithfully in their Divinely-given vocation would have been consummated, eschatological life – the eternal life that was symbolized by the tree of life and its fruit (Gen. 2:9). Only after completing their earthly vocation would they obtain their heavenly rest. However, Adam and Eve failed in their vocation. Adam – the representative of the human race – fell into sin (and we fell in him – see Rom. 5:12-21). Because of our fall in Adam we cannot fulfill the original dominion mandate as God requires. We cannot gain eternal life by the labors of our hands. But Jesus Christ, the second or “last” Adam, has fulfilled the dominion mandate on our behalf through His redemptive labors in His life, death and resurrection; and by those labors He begets spiritual children through the gospel as sinners are brought to new life in Christ. Through His “labor,” His work of atonement and resurrection, we are given access to the reality symbolized by the tree of life. We believers are blessed with the promise of consummated, eschatological, eternal life in the new heavens and new earth! Since Christ’s redemptive labors have gained us eternal life, why should we continue in this present age to pursue our daily labors and vocations with vigor? Not because those labors will gain us eternal life, but because our labors in this life are part of God’s calling on our lives and are vehicles for expressing to God our gratitude for His gift of salvation through the redemptive labors of His Son.
Even though mankind is fallen in sin and has failed to live up to the original dominion mandate, the “creation ordinances” still continue as valid life structures, even in this fallen world. Marriage (which is between a man and a woman only – contrary to homosexualist propaganda) is still a foundational creation ordinance, and God recognizes the validity of marriage even among unbelieving couples. Fallen man is still morally obligated to render God the worship due to His Name (and thus the sabbath principle, wherein man is to set aside time for rest from his daily labors and for special acts of religious worship, continues to be valid even after the fall). And man is still required to labor in his calling to rule and subdue the earth under the sovereign Lordship of God, even though man now has the additional burden of doing so by the sweat of his brow and in the face of scarcity and a hostile environment. The fact that labor is a creation ordinance dignifies our work — whether that work involves a “holy” calling such as preaching the gospel or missionary work, or a “secular” or “common” calling, such as repairing cars, developing new technologies, running a small business or changing dirty diapers. And the fact that we who know Christ have been redeemed from sin should add further dignity to our daily labors, for our labors are an opportunity to glorify God, and as we do our work diligently as unto the Lord we bear silent but powerful testimony to the transforming presence of Christ in our lives. Let us work and labor unto the Lord who so graciously redeemed us, knowing that our labor in the Lord is not in vain! Let us remember that as believers we are not “working for the weekend”; instead, we are working for the Lord – whatever our vocations might be!