The first “real” job that I ever had was working the snack bar at a local pool. It was a fine way to make money as a 16-year old, but I can’t say that it was deeply fulfilling work that changed the world. Since it was the first summer that I had my driver’s license, however, I did appreciate having a few extra bucks to spend when I went out with friends.
I’d like to tell you that I learned some profound life lessons or that it instilled a deep commitment to the values of hard work, responsibility, and being a meaningful contributor to society, but I don’t know that I really got too much of that while handing out push pops and boxes of Lemonheads to sopping wet kids who dropped piles of coins on the counter outside my little window.
Why do we work? What’s the point? Is it something that we are supposed to do with our time, or is it some necessary evil that we must endure as a way to provide us the opportunity to do the things in life that are really enjoyable?
Scripture presents us with a pattern, a healthy, creational, and even redemptive rhythm of work and rest. In my last post, I offered a brief theology of rest, and here I’m going to offer a brief theology of work and some suggestions about how to go about it in ways that can help us grow in Christ. Let’s begin by turning to a little account from the book of Exodus.
“Then Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filed him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving word, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver–by any sort of workman or skilled designer.
Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded.'” (Exodus 35:30-36:1, ESV)
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh man, not another post about Bezalel and Oholiab—I’m tired of hearing about these guys, amirite?” Give me a chance, and I’ll try to show you why I’ve always found this story to be such a fascinating part of the Exodus story. But first, let’s see why the biblical view of work that we see depicted here is so different from our cultural view of work.
Our cultural view of work.
Work, in American culture at least, is typically understood to refer to gainful, identity-conferring employment. It’s really just a synonym for ‘job’: what you do so that you can receive a paycheck. Because of this false one-to-one correlation under which we operate, we often think of thing like homemaking or volunteering as pursuits that are noble, yet somehow inferior to ‘real work’.
We tend to believe that our identity and status are conferred upon us by our paid employment. If you’re not convinced of this, try using the phrase ‘blue-collar’ or ‘white collar’, and see what kinds of assumptions and stereotypes immediately surface. Consider the emotionally and even physically disparate reactions you may have when you are introduced to someone who is a Fortune 500 CEO and someone who is a part-time temp.
Because we believe that our identity is conferred upon us by your job, many people feel pressured to find their “dream job”, so that they can “make a difference in this world”. There has been much research about how often millennials changed jobs in their first decade out of college, and lots of theories about why this happens, but it’s usually not seen as a bad thing. This kind of unsettledness in work is just a way to quickly leverage experience into pay raises, grow careers, and move around to experience new locations before “settling down”.
I get the sociology and economics behind this, although I think a deeper cause has to do with the fact that we’ve bought into the lie that our employment (or lack thereof) determines who we are as a person, so that identity had better be ideal. This view, however, ultimately leaves us jaded or prideful and, if we take a step back, exposes our idols.
If you want to see a biblical case study of this, just check out Genesis 11 and the story of the Tower of Babel. In short, here’s what happened: some people gathered, found an acceptable location, and said, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly”. This shows industry, organization, project management, and even advanced construction technology for the day–and none of this is bad.
The wheels come off and the sin comes out, however, as the story goes. The people then say, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens” (i.e. we are our own gods) “and let us make a name for ourselves” (i.e. we are going to worship ourselves). What happens? The LORD scatters them across the face of the earth and confuses their languages.
This is so often what we do. We pursue work as a way to “build for ourselves”, “make a name for ourselves”, and establish our own self-sufficiency and divinity–which is ruinous in the end. It produces divisions and disruptions between ourselves and others.
Any of that sound familiar? Those are the narratives that we’re fed, and they lead us to view our work through a certain set of lenses. What we don’t always realize, however, is that those lenses are warped and cracked. We can gain a clearer vision of work when we look to Scripture, so let’s consider what we find there.
The biblical view of work.
If we were to define work as we find it portrayed in Scripture, it could be as God-imaging, culture-making activity.
In his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster writes: “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” This kind of understanding includes goods and services. You may get paid for them and you may not. This view also begins to orient us away from ourselves. But we can say even more, and a great deeper definition comes from Tim Keller in his book Every Good Endeavor, when he says: “Work is rearranging the raw materials of God’s creations in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish.”
So when did this kind of work begin? In the very beginning. In the Garden. Genesis 2:15 says: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Work, in other words, is a good part of creation.
We can find this view of work affirmed when we look at Jesus himself. Phillip Jensen said: “If God came into the world, what would he be like? For the ancient Greeks, he might have been a philosopher-king. The ancient Romans might have looked for a just and noble statesman. But how does the God of the Hebrews come into the world? As a carpenter.” In Jesus’ everyday life, we see God dignifying the act of work.
That’s how it was supposed to be, but we know that’s not how it is. Work is creational and good, but sin has wrecked that. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, as God was pronouncing the curses upon them and upon this earth as a result of their sin, he said, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground.” (Gen 3:19). Keller points out that in this fallen state, work has now become fruitless, pointless, selfish, and idolatrous.
The good news, however, is that the Gospel flips the script. It let us know that our identity does not come from our work, it comes from Christ. It lets us know that we do not have to earn our salvation. Our work is not a way to achieve eternal life or establish identity. Our work, then, serves a different purpose.
Work becomes a way for us to bear witness to the coming renewal and restoration of all things, and a way to reflect God by using the gifts he has given us. To get back to the text above, consider what we see with Bezalel and Oholiab and the Tabernacle.
Do you know who the first person in Scripture to be said to be filled with the Spirit is? Not Abraham, Joseph, Moses, or even Aaron the priest. It’s two men called to cut stone, carve wood, shape metal, embroider cloth, and teach others to do the same.
In the midst of this grand, sweeping Exodus story about God miraculously delivering his people from Egypt, and in the shadow of legendary, larger-than-life figures like Moses and Aaron and Miriam, it was two blue-collar, manual laborers who were said to be “filled with the Spirit” to do “work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded.”
Yes, the Tabernacle was the holy place designed to remind God’s people that God dwelled in their midst, but we’re not meant to think that only building holy places is God-honoring work. The New Testament shows that this same Spirit is given to all who belong to Jesus Christ by faith, and that God equips all us to work in all different ways (Colossians 3:17; 23-24).
Our work, therefore, is a way for us to reflect the Triune God. [As a theological aside: all three Persons of the Trinity participate in all the works of God, and yet there are some works most commonly prescribed to Father, Son, and Spirit. As another theological aside: I find that most of the language used in reformed vocational theology is limited to the notion that we imitate God by creating–and then we’re given examples from the arts. This is true, but I think that more can be said, which I’ll now try to sketch out in brief.]
We can reflect the image of God the Father when we create. In the words of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Only God can create out of nothing, just by speaking the cosmos into existence. We create derivatively. This is the work we were given to do in the Garden: to tend and cultivate and work God’s creation in ways that image him as Creator. The sculptor who carved the designs in the stonework of the church were I serve or the florist who arranges various blooms into an incredible bouquet have re-arranged raw materials in creative ways.
We can reflect the image of God the Son when we serve selflessly. Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). Work that is service to others—especially when done with a focus on them—images the God who serves. Have you ever thought that the chef or waiter at the restaurant might be reflecting the very Jesus who fed the multitudes when they were hungry? That the person giving you a pedicure might be reflecting the very Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples?
We can reflect the image of God the Holy Spirit when we sustain, maintain, and renew. The Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life”, and works to sustain, maintain, and renew this world. That means the worker on the assembly line, or the paper pusher who files the same form a thousand times a day is maintaining and sustaining a much larger picture, and imaging the Spirit. It means the mechanic who replaces a piston head and the doctor who places a stint inside an atrial valve are renewing something that was broken, and imaging the Spirit.
If any of that sounds familiar to you, then I’m glad. Because it doesn’t to everyone. Whether this view of work is familiar to you or not, let’s press on to the next step: actually bringing this view to bear in what we do.
How to pursue this kind of vision.
The first step is fairly subtle, so pay close attention:
Do something with your time, whether you are paid for it or not, that utilizes your skills and abilities in ways that look beyond yourself and contribute to the world around you. Unending leisure is not the end goal. We have a vocation, or calling, which we can pursue through our work.
In his book, Garden City, John Mark Comer puts it like this: “…calling [vocation] is…what God made you to do. How you’re hardwired by God…Calling isn’t something you choose, like who you marry or what house you buy or what car you buy; it’s something you unearth. You excavate. You dig out. And you discover.” In short, you have something that God made and equipped you to do, and that work is good. Go and do it.
We can say more, however, which is that we are to do good work well. In her famous essay, Why Work?, Dorothy Sayers offered this: “The biblical doctrine of work is the gracious expression of creative energy of the Lord in the service of others to create shalom…The only Christian work is good work well done…then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is church embroidery or sewage farming. What is the Christian understanding of work? …It is that work is not, primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties…the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
This raises some questions, though, like, “What is ‘good’?”, and, “How do you do it ‘well’?”
Much can be said, but let’s start with this: ‘good’ work is work that contributes to the common good and towards building the biblical concept of shalom (i.e. healing and restorative wholeness within society, relationships, and creation itself).
Reformation theology has long pointed out that this means there is no such thing as sacred/secular divide. It’s not as if “church” work is ‘good’ and “worldly” work is ‘bad’. The investment banker who helps enable entrepreneurial work to transform a community is doing good work. The city planner who works with an eye towards the formation of rich and diverse community is doing good work. The manufacturing plant worker who helps assemble the airbag that keeps you safe in a car accident it doing good work. ‘Good’ comes from the motives, the methods, and the results, not necessarily the field of work.
[As another brief aside–there are obvious examples of ‘non-good’ work: e.g. the exploitative pornographic industry, illegal weapons sales, human trafficking, or illicit drug running. We can point to the easy ones; the difficulty comes from the many ‘grey’ areas. We need to think carefully and intentionally about these things.]
Practically, this means that you should pursue your vocation, yes, but do good work well, whatever lot may fall your way. I have the privilege of ministering to many undergraduate and graduate students, and this is a vital concept for them in our current cultural moment. Refusing to accept anything other than your “dream job” may leave you poorly using the opportunity that God has given you to do good work well.
For example, when I was in seminary, I also worked as a Starbucks barista. I often found myself wondering which activity, in that moment, was contributing more to the common good and the immediate well-being of those around me: learning the nuances of ancient Hebrew poetry or making an excellent latte for someone who is having a lousy day? Even as I pursued what I believed was my true vocational calling, I tried to do the work that was in front of me at that time as well as I could for the benefit of others.
This is seen in the famous quote from the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, who said, “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lives a great street sweeper; who did his job well.’”
2017 is 500th anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation. One of the main biblical teachings the reformers recovered and celebrated was this kind of biblical understanding of work. There were different emphases within their teaching, however. Luther tended to emphasize the idea that good work done well is a way for us to serve others and show our love for neighbor. Calvin tended to emphasize the idea that good work done well is a way for us to create and renew culture.
These aren’t mutually exclusive ideas, and both are important aspects for us to embrace as we live into a robustly biblical view of work.
There is a lot more that can be said on this (and many great organizations that are grounded in this notion of work), and there’s a lot more that we should do because of this. Most of your time this week is going to be spent working. That work may be writing a paper for a class, drafting a blueprint for a building, stocking shelves, teaching a class, arguing a court case, debugging computer code, changing a diaper, filling a spreadsheet, monitoring a patient’s vital signs, or cleaning dishes.
As you steward your time and your activity, are you engaged in activity that uses your gifts, abilities, or personality in ways that are directed outside of yourself? If so, then you are working—and that’s a good thing. So do it well, whatever it is, with the anticipation of one day hearing the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Merciful and majestic God, we confess that we too often labor to build our own kingdoms rather than bearing witness to yours. We look for identity from our employment rather than from our Savior. Teach us how to do good work well in all of its varied forms and manifold beauty. Let the way in which we use our time honor you and bear witness to your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.