Christian perspective on Work

I pulled this content out of a longer post meant for a more general audience.

The Bible is clear that God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:28). God designed us for action–to exert energy and employ skill to produce goods for human flourishing. This was all before sin when God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Work is not a result of the curse! Even the description for woman’s creation was to be “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18), a helper for what? We don’t need much help relaxing. The exhortation here is to use, not squander, the energy we are given daily through food and rest, to accomplish his mission — the work — he gave us to do in the world. For us, such work is a central aspect of what it means to be human.

Now would this pre-sin work have been free of pain? That is a hard one, but the work we have now is clearly intertwined with pain. Immediately post Adam’s fall, God curses the creation, and he also curses our work:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Genesis 3:17–19)

So our work is simultaneously good and cursed. While we hunger for creation to be set free from its bondage to corruption, I’m convicted that a future in heaven will not be characterized by sitting around doing nothing, but more by freedom to work and move and expend ourselves in joy, finally unencumbered by the curse.

Paul loves to talk about work and effort. He tells us that some in the church were idle, refusing to work — waiting, they claimed, for Christ’s imminent return. Paul saw it as a spiritual-sounding covering for laziness. He put himself and Timothy forward as examples of hard work.

You remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

We were not idle when we were with you, . . . but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thessalonians 3:7–8)

Paul not only commended hard work (Acts 20:35Romans 16:612Colossians 4:132 Timothy 2:6), but criticized the idle and lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:152 Thessalonians 3:6711Titus 1:12–13). And he was not the first. Proverbs warns against the folly of sloth (Proverbs 12:242719:15) and against the sluggard (fourteen times). Twice we read:

A little sleep, a little slumber,
     a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
     and want like an armed man. (Both Proverbs 6:10–11 and 24:33–34)

The opposite of the sluggard is the diligent (Proverbs 13:4) and upright (Proverbs 15:19). Laziness will catch up with us; it’s just a matter of time (Proverbs 6:6–1120:421:2524:30–34). Laziness makes ridiculous excuses to protect its own comforts (Proverbs 22:1326:13). Sluggards may even think (and say) they are smart and develop elaborate rationales against just doing hard work (Proverbs 26:16).

Paul tells us to work with our hands and to “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).

Mooches and thieves alike were to find a new work ethic once they came to Christ. “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” (Ephesians 4:28). But! The Bible also talks about rest and underscores the futility of making work and end in itself.

This starts with our understanding of merit and grace. No message about work is more important (and more unique to Christianity) that the idea that work does nothing for God’s favor. Human effort and exertion have nothing to do with “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). The Bible is so wonderfully specific here, our standing before God “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). More good stuff on this in Romans 4:4–52 Timothy 1:9Titus 3:5.

Enter rest. Christian faith itself (justification by faith alone) is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). It is in this rest that we then exert ourselves with remarkable, even supernatural, ambition for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.

The desires for this work are driven by the gift of “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we’re justified, but he gives us new hope in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts. We can then work for love, not fear. Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:213:16–17Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:814).

Ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God in them. Max Weber called this “the Protestant work ethic.”