How Should Christians Think about Labor and Work?

TGIF (“Thank goodness it’s Friday”) is a common expression today. Implicitly it reflects many people’s attitude towards labor and work. Ultimately, what people work for is time away from work, as represented by the arrival of Friday and the beginning of the weekend. What people most desire is not to work but to enjoy leisure and pleasure. Or, people view work merely as a way to pay their bills thus allowing them to do what they really desire, namely, not to work.

How should Christians think about work, especially when work is so devalued by many in our society? Obviously much could be said, but I will limit my answer to three biblical truths that must govern our thinking about labor and work.

First, work is a gift from our triune God and not a curse. From the beginning of the Bible’s story, God, as the Creator of the universe, is not only viewed as doing work which he takes complete satisfaction in—“It was very good” (Gen. 1:31)—but he also creates humans in his image to work. In fact, at the heart of our creation as the image of God is our representative rule over creation (Gen. 1:26-28), where we are called to work by “putting everything under our feet” (Ps. 8:6). Work, then, is part of God’s glorious plan for us. Although work is greatly affected by the entrance of sin into the world (Genesis 3), work is first a gift of God. In fact, even in the new creation, we will work (Rev. 22:3). At the heart of our redemption in Christ is our restoration to the purpose of our creation which is to know and glorify God and to rule over the world (Heb. 2:5-18).

To view work as a gift is contrary to our society’s view of work. But Christians must reject the mentality of our day and return to viewing work as a God-given gift. It is an amazing truth that God created us to be his vice-regents and to use our abilities to rule as stewards over creation. In fact, God deliberately created this world to require the labor of humans to make it productive. God did not create the world to produce on its own; instead, he created it in such a way that it is our job to plant, sow, explore, and harness the world’s resources. No doubt, God provides the soil, seed, sunshine, and rain, but we have to do the plowing, sowing, and reaping. God provides the fruit trees, but we have to prune them and pick the fruit.

Second, work is to be done, not for its own sake, but to the glory of God. Paul states this truth this way: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Col. 3:23). Why do we ultimately work? To put food on the table? To pay the bills? No doubt, these reasons for work are partly correct, but there is much more to it. Just as our triune God created us to know and glorify him, he created us to work to glorify him.

When this truth is lost, our work becomes tedious if not meaningless. In the West which was greatly influenced by Christianity, people did not always view their work as tedious. For example, due to the influence of the Protestant Reformation, there was a correct emphasis on the value, dignity, and meaning of work. For many people, work was done for the glory of God. Think of how Johann Sebastian Bach inscribed the letters, “SDG,” on the bottom of his compositions—“Sola Deo Gloria” (“To God alone be the glory”). When the Puritans came to America to start a new life, their aim was to glorify God in their work, which resulted in what is called “the Puritan work ethic.”

When people took seriously God’s Word, work flourished in nations influenced by the Gospel. When people worked ultimately for God’s glory and his pleasure, they had satisfaction in their work. What a contrast to our day! When surveys are taken, a huge number of Americans say that they have little satisfaction in their work. Why? Because our society has made work as end-in-itself. People try to find meaning and purpose for their lives solely in terms of their work, but a job is a very poor substitute for God. Significance, self-worth, and contentment cannot be found solely in work; it is only found in a person’s relationship with the living God and it is out of that relationship that work is to be done.

However, the heart of our problem is that we are rebels against God and we want to go our own way. We want to make and serve our own gods. But because God created us for himself, we are never satisfied until we stop our rebellion, acknowledge our sin, and cry out to the Lord Jesus Christ who alone can save us. Work is never meant to be a substitute for God and to fill the void in us—only Christ can do that. And when our Lord Jesus is central in our lives, then in our work and labor we find satisfaction, contentment, and lasting joy.

This truth was beautifully illustrated in the movie, “Chariots of Fire.” The movie depicts the quest of Harold Abrahams and missionary, Eric Liddell, to win gold medals in the 1924 Olympics, a feat they both accomplished. However, a huge difference between them was contentment. Everything Abrahams did was for himself, while everything Liddell did was for God’s glory. On one occasion Liddell said to his sister Jennie, “I believe God made me for a purpose—for China. But he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel his pleasure!” By contrast, Abrahams, one hour before his 100 meter final, says to his best friend: “I’m 24 and I’ve never known contentment. I’m forever in pursuit, and I don’t even know what it is I’m chasing.”

Third, work requires diligence and whole-hearted commitment. Paul reminds us of this truth in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10. When Paul encourages the Thessalonians to withdraw themselves from every brother who walked disorderly and not after the apostolic tradition, we might think he has in view false doctrine, but instead he is speaking about the people’s work. What Paul reflects in this passage is the teaching of the entire Bible. God expects us to labor hard in our work. Our work is a gift and it is to be done to God’s glory but both of these truths require that we work hard at our work.

Today, people have forgotten the importance of working hard. We live in a society that demands our rights and expects someone else to pay our way. People have the attitude that they can work less, earn more, and have someone else pay for their lack of work. No doubt, Scripture teaches us that we need to help those who need help. But for those who can work, we are to labor hard at our work. God is pleased with nothing less than our full devotion to our work. In ever realm of life, whether it is Christian service, family life, daily work, or school—God is not pleased with half-hearted service.

How should Christians think about labor and work? We need to view it as a gift and privilege. We must always do our work for God’s glory. We must work hard and give ourselves whole-heartedly to what God has called us to do. If these three truths are embraced and practiced, they will not only change our view of work but it will result in our good, the betterment of our society, and ultimately the glory of our triune God.

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