A Theology of Work
Most people will, at one time or another, complain about their job. I know I do. It’s easy to see what is wrong with everything and everyone around you and wish you could work someplace else. As the old saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
But do we think about our work within the context of our understanding of God, creation and calling? The tendency is to think of work as something we do separate and distinct from the kingdom of God. For some, it’s something to be endured. But the Bible has much to say about work that is positive.
Of the many images and metaphors we use to describe and explain God, he is also “worker.” In contrast to Greek mythology where the gods sit around drinking wine and meddling in the affairs of human beings, the God of the Bible is a worker. We first meet God as creator (Gen 1) and although God is said to have rested from his work on the seventh day (Gen 2:2), this does not mean that he has ceased to work. A few verses later he is back to work (Gen 2:21-22). Even then God does not cease working since he is not just the creator of the world but also its caretaker (Job 12:10; Ps 65:9-13; 104).
As God’s creation we have a divine mandate to work. In Gen 2:15 God not only creates humanity, but places them in the garden “to work it and take care of it.” The curse that is later attached to work in Gen 3:17-19 doesn’t make the work a curse. True, our work is harder and can be difficult at times, but it is not part of God’s curse. Work has been part of the human experience from the beginning of creation.
One way to think about work is in the context of our calling. In his essay, “The Place of Work in the Divine Economy,” Rob Banks comments on how too often people differentiate between their “daily work” and God’s calling on and purposes for them. Banks points out that such a view affects our understanding of the value of our work as well as how it contributes to God’s kingdom.1 Putting it another way, Scot McKnight says; “Let God’s kingdom work swallow up what you do.”2
One place where we see work and kingdom coming together is in 1 Thess 4:9-12. There Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to “work with [their] hands” so that their work is a witness to who God is and the relation of the church to God. In this passage he focuses on the community’s love for one other and how that love makes them different from those around them. Paul commends them for doing well in this area, but he wants them to do more. And he asks them to demonstrate it in an unusual way. The physical expression of their love, if you will, is revealed in the way that they interact with one another and those on the outside. And it all has to do with their jobs, the work that they do.
9Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (NIV)
What is somewhat surprising about Paul’s words here is that he doesn’t appeal to God’s original intent for humans to work (Gen 3:19). Rather, he appeals to their love for one another, a principle that finds its earliest expression in Lev 19:18 and was emphasized by Jesus during his ministry. Paul is suggesting that one way that the Thessalonians can show the love of God to one another and those outside of the church is by working and not being a burden.
In light of the emphasis on work in the Bible, we should try to be the best workers we can. As Paul suggests, our failure to work can bring disgrace on the church and Paul is concerned that society not get the wrong impression about the church. Similarly, Christians today should strive to do and be the best they can. Realizing that we have a biblical mandate to work, we should not fall below society’s standards in regard to work. By failing to fulfill our own role within society, we are in danger of not fulfilling our calling from God to work in the creation on behalf of the kingdom. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians suggest that Christians should be model citizens in the way that they do our jobs. We can show love of God and neighbor by doing the work God gives us.
1Robert Banks, “The Place of Work in the Divine Economy: God as Vocational Director and Model,” in Faith Goes to Work (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 200), 21.
2Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 145-56.