Founders Journal · Spring 2004 · pp. 11-15
The Spirituality of Work
Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not an inch of any sphere of life over which Jesus Christ does not say, ‘Mine.’” The recovery of the centrality of God in our theology has implications that go far beyond the doctrine of salvation. The church desperately needs to recover a vision of the richness and significance of all facets of life if we are to glorify God in the fullness of the created order.
The arena of work is one sphere of life that cries for special attention. Most of us will spend the majority of our waking hours as adults doing work. If we also count the time invested in preparing for a career and the time each day preparing for work and traveling, and then add in the time spent working at things we don’t get paid for, then it is no stretch to say that most of us will probably work about half of our lives. Therefore, it is extremely important that we understand the Lordship of Christ over this huge area of our lives.
Christians neglect this area of the Lordship of Christ for a variety of reasons. Some have a secret fear that their life is insignificant to God because they’re not in full-time Christian service. They worry that working a “secular” job dooms them to be less pleasing to God. Others struggle with laziness in their work and dismiss the voice of conscience because they believe God isn’t concerned about their work life. Still others fight with the temptation to make an idol out of work, seeking to find something in work accomplishments that can only be found in knowing God. The remedy for all these problems is a proper understanding of the spirituality of work.
Basic to Humanity
Genesis 1 is foundational to our understanding of what it means to be a human being. Therefore, it is a pivotal passage in determining God’s attitude toward work:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” …God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:26-28, 31).
According to this passage, work is basic to what it means to be a human made in God’s image. First, we are called to subdue the earth and rule over it. What does this look like? Genesis 2:15 tells us that for Adam ruling and subduing meant cultivating and keeping the garden. The task for each of us won’t necessarily be exactly the same as Adam’s assignment. The world is a big place. The task of subduing and ruling encompasses every legitimate occupation. A plumber is called to use pipes, gravity, and principles of pressure to channel water and other things in ways that are useful to people. A factory manager is called to learn how his factory operates and coordinate others in applying their skills to subdue and rule. A teacher is called to pass along knowledge so that others can be equipped to subdue and rule. All occupations call us to subdue and rule in some fashion.
According to Genesis 1, we are to bring order from chaos. Because we are made in God’s image, we are to imitate God in our limited way. We are to be creative! While we can’t bring something out of nothing the way God can, we can bring order out of chaos.
Furthermore, work itself is not a curse (Genesis 1:31, compare 3:17-19) Subduing and ruling are part of what God was talking about when He said “and behold, it was very good.” Beware of speaking of your work as though it is a burden to be avoided. Work is a good thing! Some seem to think that work is nothing but what you do to get to the really good stuff – leisure, entertainment and relaxation. That attitude is completely unbiblical! Work is the good stuff.
Work is a calling – a vocation (from the Latin word for “call”). A job is more than just a way to put food on the table. God made us for this very purpose! Work is an offering to God. It is a glorious thing. It is our way of reflecting back the glory of our Creator, because He is the original Worker!
All work has great dignity. Whether someone scrubs toilets or serves as president of the United States, his work has dignity in God’s sight. Adam had the best job the world has ever seen, and he was a farmer. We may not hear trumpets blaring or crowds roaring when we rake the yard or clean the kitchen, but our work brings pleasure to God. That fact alone invests our work with great dignity regardless of where it ranks in terms of social status or pay scale or personal enjoyment. As Paul says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23–24).
Work is a stewardship. As a result, we have no right to make a god out of work. We should do it because we delight in God! We worship God with our work; we don’t worship work as our god. Because we are answerable to God for our work, we have no right to elevate work above our other assignments, such as resting and worshiping.
Work After the Fall
Scripture is quite clear that work remains our calling even after the fall (Genesis 3:17-19). However, work is now cursed by difficulties, frustration and unintended consequences. You pull weeds, and they’re back tomorrow. You spend days preparing for a sales presentation, and you still stumble over the critical points when talking to the customer. You repair your car, and it takes three times as long as you thought, and you cut your finger in the process. This doesn’t mean we should avoid work. Instead, it means we must work harder!
A crucial point must be made in light of the pietistic tendencies of modern evangelicalism. Work does not take a second place to evangelism. Efforts to lead people to Christ are a central part of a Christian’s life, but work is still important to God even in a fallen world. Work is not merely a forum for evangelizing our co-workers. Many Christians seem to think that being a good Christian at work means putting a Bible verse on your desk or a little fish on your business card. Now these may very well be good things to do. However, being a good Christian at work means first and foremost laboring to be excellent in one’s calling for the glory of God. In fact, if we can communicate by our attitude, by our actions and by our words that work is significant to God, we may very well win people to Christ that way. One of the most basic needs we have as human beings is to feel that our lives are significant. If we can communicate a biblical view of work to people, we can show them that in Christ all of life becomes significant. People are hungry for significance. We must show them that Christ gives significance to their every labor.
Work and Eternity
How often have we heard that “the only things that will last forever are the Word of God and the souls of men”? Contrary to this oft-repeated view, the Scriptures teach that our work will last forever. The lasting nature of work appears in two ways.
First, worthy accomplishments in this age will endure for the age to come. Many Christians seem not to understand this. “There’s no point in putting too much effort into good work, because it’s all going to be burned up one day anyway, right?” This is simply false. When Scripture speaks of burning at the end of the age (2 Peter 3:10-12), we must see this as a refining, purifying fire, not a destroying fire (compare Romans 8:20-21). Consider the parable of the ten servants who were each given a mina to invest while the master was away. When the master returned, the minas were not thrown out. In fact, the one who hadn’t invested his mina had his given to the one who gained ten minas. See also Revelation 21:24-26, where the glory and honor of the nations are said to be brought into the new heavens and new earth.
How can work remain in the new heavens and new earth? How can the teaching of the first-grade teacher remain or the fabric produced by the textile worker? The Bible doesn’t tell us the details, but it does reveal that somehow God will make our work here and now a testimony to His glory for all eternity. Could there be any thought that could make you more committed to the work God has called you to do?
The second way that work will last forever is that there will be meaningful activity on the renewed earth. The culture often depicts heaven as nothing more than sitting on a cloud strumming on a harp. It’s no wonder a lot of people don’t think much about eternity if they think it’s going to be like that! But the truth is that this final dwelling place will be suited to redeemed human nature. We won’t be floating on clouds playing harps for all eternity! According to Revelation 22:3, “there will no longer be any curse.” The curse on work will be lifted! Notice however that the curse is lifted – work is not! Work will then be exactly what God intended for it to be in his original, very good creation. Notice also in Revelation 22:5 that we will reign. This brings us back to the pattern laid out for humanity in the creation account – we will be subduing and ruling!
Many of us are called to fields of labor that are more mental than physical – students, pastors, professors, writers, and others. Therefore, it is worthy of note that God is just as concerned with mental effort as with physical effort. In fact, the calling to exercise the mind is basic to what it means to be a human made in God’s image. Adam’s very first recorded act of ruling was fundamentally an act of mental labor. He named the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). This involved far more than just giving each animal an arbitrary label. The biblical idea of naming involves assigning an appropriate title that describes the essence of the one named. Adam had to study, compare and contrast the animals to assign appropriate names to each of them. This was hard mental labor!
Gene Edward Veith has said that education is one area where Christians are winning the culture war. Our culture has become so lazy and misguided about hard mental labor and so swallowed up by the worship of leisure and entertainment, that Christians are actually in the lead in this area. Hard mental work for parents, teachers, and students in this generation may mean that Christians will be the people best equipped in the next generation to be the intellectual leaders of the day. Daniel and his friends succeeded in excelling their peers intellectually (Daniel 1:19-20) and providing important leadership in their day. God may be calling some to hard mental labor in our day to raise up some Daniels for the next generation.
The study of God’s creation – including the study of God’s image-bearer man in his being, relations and institutions – can and should be an act of joyful worship. God declared the creation to be “very good” and worthy of our deepest intellectual effort to understand and appreciate. We study the creation because the creation tells us something of God. We study the creation so that we can come to know God Himself better. The niece of Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction and inventor of the generator, remembered her uncle in this way:
I shall never look at the lightening flashes without recalling his delight in a beautiful storm. How he would stand at the window for hours watching the effects and enjoying the scene; while we knew his mind was full of lofty thoughts, sometimes of the great Creator, and sometimes of the laws by which He sees meet to govern the earth.
Psalm 19:1-2 tells us, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.” May our mental labor yield such reflections on God’s glory!
The exercise of the mind to study God’s creation is an application of the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). How do we love God with all our mind? By using every thought of our mind to know God, to delight in Him, and to honor Him with our obedient thoughts. What better way to do this than to devote our mental labor to bringing glory to God!
We live in a pragmatic culture. If it doesn’t make us richer, healthier, or more beautiful, we find little value in it. However, study has inherent value. We are dealing with a God who observes the thoughts of men and takes pleasure in thoughts to His glory as well as in outward actions. Therefore, we should not only eat and drink to His glory but think as well.
The true story of Eric Liddell is told in the movie Chariots of Fire. He knew God was calling him to go to China as a missionary with his sister. In a key scene, he tells his sister that he plans to delay going to the mission field so that he can continue training for the Olympics. She is crestfallen and frustrated with him. He then tries to help her understand his decision: “Jenny, Jenny. I know God created me for His service, but He also made me fast! When I run, I feel God’s pleasure!” Not many of us will be able to feel God’s pleasure while training or racing to an Olympic gold medal. However, we can all work, and we can all have the experience of feeling God’s pleasure when we do.
Christ has said “Mine” to the sphere of work. Let us then submit our work and everything else to Christ’s Lordship. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and nothing has lasting significance apart from Him. When our work is done to His glory, its significance is eternal.