Work: Foundational Truths for Uncertain Times
This blog is adapted from Dan Doriani’s book, published in July, Work That Makes Difference.
At the moment, Western culture is facing a post-covid crisis in our view of work. Everywhere we go, we see Help Wanted ads. Restaurants that recently paid $9-10 per hour are offering $16 and a signing bonus and they still get no takers. People are tired of no-skill, mean-boss, dead-end jobs and they will endure them no more. Economists say, there are over 9 million jobs available in the United States and no one seems to want them. Many of these jobs are entry level, low skill, low pay propositions. But the work crisis crosses each stratum of society. Professionals, including pastors, decide they aren’t just tired of their work, they are weary unto death. They walk off, often without another job, seeking a couple months of rest and reflection. Most of them are confident that something good will turn up, but many are too tired to care.
The upheaval and burdens of Covid may be the catalyst, but many of us – I include myself – ask questions like: “Do I still want to do this? Is it time for a change? Should I keep bearing the absurd burdens, following the foolish rules of my current job? Do my current tasks matter? Enough to stay where I am? If I have options – do I? - where do I want to invest my skill and energy? How important is income? How long can I go without it? Will life be better with less money and also less toil, anxiety, and disappointment? Answer to these questions will be sound if they rest on the right foundation – the prime biblical teachings on work. We can correctly answer complicated questions about the woes of work when we know the God-given, biblical basics.
Principle 1: Work is good but fallen. Work is the source of great satisfaction and deep pain because it is both God’s good creation and a sin-blasted human activity. The workplace is like a garden after a hailstorm – well-planned, colorful, and shredded. This is true of all work. When we leave the frustrations of one job, we inherit the disorders of another.
Still, work is good and God designed humans to work. Indeed, God himself works. Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17).
Scripture compares God to a shepherd, a king, a potter, a farmer, and a warrior; all of these entail work. The Lord created heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1–2:4; Isa. 45:18; Col. 1:16–17). He also sustains them (Heb. 1:2-3). Because he made us in his image, we can be creative as we develop, sustain, and protect his world. Since God commissioned Adam and Eve to work before the fall, work is intrinsically good. Yes, sin makes work miserable, but we shouldn’t view labor as an evil and nothing else. Pagans despised work and thrust it onto animals or slaves. Today, we train machines and hire people with low skill (Gen. 1:26; 2:15).
We are creative because the Creator made mankind in his image. No human can create out of nothing (ex nihilo), as God did, but we can create in a secondary sense. We reshape existing materials – rock, sand, wild plants. Our intellectual creativity is similar. T. S. Elliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Beyond that, our desire to mend the broken, improve the insufficient, and optimize the inefficient echoes God's resolve to redeem his broken world. Furthermore, our drive to make plans and accomplish them echoes the God who planned and accomplished redemption. Like the Son, we can embrace great projects and say, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34). When we complete our work, we may even exult "It is finished" as Jesus did (John 19:30).
On the other hand, humanity's rebellion led God to curse the ground. As a result, work became toilsome and frustrating. Now thorns and thistles blight human labor. Disorder and entropy afflict creation. Sin mars all our activity (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:18–23) and we expect to complete our work with the sweat and blood of suffering, for we follow Jesus, whose work brought him unique anguish. Efforts to reverse the results of sin provoke resistance too. No one wants to lose a system that serves their interests. Dedicated workers who want to reform work must be willing to suffer, as Jesus suffered, but suffering doesn’t make work evil.
Principle 2: By working with his hands, Jesus ennobled honest manual labor. By working with his hands, Jesus honored shepherds, farmers, carpenters, servants, and everyone else who uses skill and muscle. When Paul commanded believers to work with their hands (Eph. 4:28), he validated manual labor.
Don’t tell yourself, “Everyone worked with their hands in past ages.” They didn’t and Greek society typically scorned manual labor. Today, technology reduces manual labor. Machines dig ditches and assemble automobiles. Powerful tools make construction and repair vastly easier. Nevertheless, the Lord respects both mental and physical labor and we should too.
Few societies value labor correctly. Today, professional athletes can make 1,000 times more than grade-school teachers. But who has a bigger influence? Let’s not expect society to value our work correctly. God honors what seems dishonorable and calls it indispensable (1 Cor. 12:21–26).
Principle 3: Work shapes human identity. People called Jesus "the carpenter" (Mark 6:3). When Scripture identifies people as priests, fishermen, soldiers, merchants, or tax collectors, it acknowledges the link between work and identity. Through our work we shape the world, but our work also shapes us. It lets us gain certain skills. We also see the world in light of our skills and experiences. Still, God primarily establishes human identity by making humanity in his image and adopting believers into his family. Again, that should help us endure difficult work. There is more to us than our salary or work product.
Principle 4: Work and vocation are not identical. Jesus worked with wood and stone, and Paul made tents, but they had other God-given callings. Tent-making was Paul’s job, his source of income. Preaching as an apostle was his vocation whether he got paid for it or not.
Our jobs and vocations can be at odds too. We can temporarily work at an unpleasant job to make a living or to get started in a field, even as we look for a position that better fits our gifts and interests. We find our vocation when we serve in the place that lets us use our gifts and make a difference in this world.
Principle 5: Human abilities vary and God respects all of them. We have a social duty to provide for our families (1 Tim. 5:8). It is our spiritual duty to exercise our talents, whether many or few, to give food, water, clothes, health, and care to our neighbors (Matt. 25:14–30). Steadfast labor counts; fruit matters too (Ps. 1:3; 92:14; Isa. 32:1–8; 45:8; John 15; Rom. 7:4–5). We should bear the most fruit when we exercise our strategic gifts – if possible.
Principle 6: The Lord worked six days and rested one, setting both a pattern and limit for humanity. The Lord said, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath. . . . On it you shall not do any work" (Ex. 20:9-10). The Lord both works and rests. His pattern leads away from two common errors: ceaseless toil and laziness. He corrects both workaholics and sluggards. He says, "Mankind must work" and also "People must stop working." There is more to humanity than its labor. Like God, we work, rest, and reflect. The law instructs the faithful to work six days, then rest, but after Jesus' resurrection, the week begins with rest, so we can celebrate Jesus’ redemption.
Principle 7: God calls every disciple to full-time service. The Bible never proposes that some work is sacred and some secular. Faithful farmers, manufacturers, engineers, teachers, homemakers, and drivers please God as surely as faithful pastors do. As long as their work is honest, disciples can always pray "Thy kingdom come" as they work – whether they are paid or not (Matt. 6:10, 33). In our work, we can become the hands of God. When we ask for daily bread, God grants it through farmers, bakers, and grocers. When we pray for clothing and shelter, he gives it through shepherds, cotton farmers, and construction workers. Human service often goes unseen (Matt. 25:31–46). Laborers are often invisible, like the stage crew for a play. Here too, we detect an echo of God's work, since the Spirit's work is often unseen.
These principles will not answer every painful question about work, but they will keep us from pitching into grave error. In times of uncertainty, that is no small help.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.