A biblical overview of work

By Zhongchao Ma, Bethel Seminary San Diego

2017 winner of the 100,000 Hours Colloquy!

The Bible describes God as the first one who engages in work (Gen. 1:1-2:3; 2:4-9). Beyond this initial work of creation, God is seen to be working in believers (John 14:12; Rom. 8:28; Phil. 2:13) and towards a new creation (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21). According to Genesis 2:15, Adam’s first job was to till the garden and to keep it – this was his work, and it was good. While the Fall introduced Sin into work, work itself is clearly an activity ordained by God and therefore has its value deeply integrated with the one doing the work. This paper will discuss the purpose of work, how Christians are to discover their vocation, the challenges that come with work, and the desired outcome of work. Furthermore, I will discuss the personal and ministry application of the principles raised in the paper.

Purpose of work and its contributions to the economy

Work seems to have largely lost its purpose today – that is except for one, money. It seems that at a minimum, work meets the needs for survival, and at best, it generates extravagant wealth. Quoting John Wesley, Finn harshly cautions:

“Do you gain all you can, and save all you can? Then you must, in the nature of things, grow rich. Then if you have any desire to escape the damnation of hell, give all you can; otherwise I can have no more hope of your salvation than for that of Judas Iscariot.” (Finn 2013, 176)

The tragedy is that most people, Christians included, are primarily concerned about the money a job generates rather than the work itself. Having worked with countless young adults in New York City, Keller re-articulates David Brooks’ quote, “so many college students do not choose work that actually fits their abilities, talents, and capacities, but rather choose work that fits within their limited imagination of how they can boost their own self-image.” (Keller 2012, 102) Quoting Dorothy Sayers, Keller observes the tragic result of losing sight of the true purpose of work: “Doctors practice medicine not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living – the cure of a patient is something that happens on the way. Lawyers accept briefs not because they have a passion for justice, but because the law is the profession which enables them to live.” (Keller 2012, 65) Undeniably, a narrow view of work and its purpose leads many to conclude that work is meaningless and its sole purpose is for financial return.

Yet when we look at the biblical story, work is fundamentally rooted in God and the way we were created. While work has been made more painful due to the Fall, work was central in Genesis 1 and 2. “Work is a gift from God. Work is something we were built for, something our loving Creator intends for our good.” (Sherman 2011, 102) Therefore, the purpose of work is not merely physical, but is primarily a theological concern: we must discover work in view of God, his creation, and humanity’s role in creation.

Finding your own vocation

Knowing this, how are Christians to find their vocations? I find that Sherman’s Venn diagram to be helpful. In it, there are three circles: God’s priorities, an individual’s passions and gifts, and the world’s needs. The intersection of these three circles is the “sweet spot”. (Sherman 2011, 108) For example, the one pursuing full time ministry might be compelled by the Great Commission (God’s priorities and the world’s needs) and be given pastoral gifts (individual passions and gifts) along the way.

Since God created humanity as well as work, finding one’s vocation cannot be an isolated, individual decision. In this generation, we tend to ask the question ‘what job shall I choose?’, but the real question to consider is ‘what is God calling me to do?’ Veith notes that “our vocation is not something we choose for ourselves. It is something to which we are called.” (Veith 2002, 47) The most basic things to do in seeking our vocation is through prayer, studying God’s words, and nurturing the relationship with God.

Challenges in work

An important aspect in our discussion of work is the Fall and its effects. Although work is a blessing, it is also a curse. While work can be satisfying since it is what we were made for, it can also be frustrating, pointless, and exhausting. Work is a virtue, but it is tainted by sin. (Veith 2002, 63) Sherman fleshes out some of the effects of Sin on work, warning Christians:

“We sometimes act as though success at work equates to a successful life. It doesn’t. Somethings we make an idol of our careers. We need to repent. Sometimes we make decisions about jobs as though the ultimate purpose of work were self-fulfillment. It’s not. Sometimes we judge people’s worth based on their career position or status. We should seek God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we allow work – which is just one dimension of our lives – to crowd out family or worship or relationships or play or Sabbath. We must resist.” (Sherman 2011, 105)

Making work our idol ultimately comes from poor theology – namely that Christians are not to have any gods before Yahweh (Ex. 20:3) and that work must serve the neighbor, not self (Mark 12:31). When our pride and need for personal significance become core to work, work necessarily leads to competition, disunity, and strife – which makes unity and love between people impossible. (Keller 2012, 111) Work becomes a vehicle for self-glorification and eats away at an awareness of human dignity rooted in humanity’s creation in the image of God.

Outcome of work and economy

The outcome of work goes well beyond the individual and the family – it extends to the economy and ripples into the future. As the history of Christian views of economic life continues to impact economic life in our times, our day-to-day work will undoubtedly have effects into future economic life. Finn has compiled some helpful Christian foundations for us to think about as we engage in work:

  • Creation and redemption calls us to a more responsible life;
  • Economic life (and therefore work) is religiously significant;
  • As Christians, we need to set proper vocational goals. Instead of simply pursuing economic rewards, Christians must recognize that human development is integral and that our deeper relationship with God is the ultimate good in our lives;
  • Values beyond ourselves must be maintained, including human dignity and the common good. (Finn 2013, 331-337)

Sherman’s book is rooted in Proverbs 11:10a: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices”. Quoting Timothy Keller, Sherman defines the righteous as “those who are willing to disadvantage themselves for the community while the wicked are those who put their own economic, social, and personal needs ahead of the needs of the community.” (Sherman 2011, 16) Since the righteous are oriented towards God, they do not fall into idolizing their jobs and they view work in eschatological terms. (Sherman 2011, 48-49)

Personal reflection and ministry application

As a seminary student, I have the wonderful benefit of listening to my professors’ lectures and attending reading groups such as this. They repeatedly reinforce the biblical principles (such as inherent human dignity, religious significance of work, care for and restoration of the whole of creation) which underlie the doctrine of vocation. Even so, the grind of daily life wears down my patience and tempts me to treat other people as objects rather than God’s beloved, made in his own image. Therefore, the ultimate reminder and challenge for me as a future full-time minister is to stay connected with God through prayer, reflection, and meditation so that his love of mankind might pour into me and overflow into ministry.

As one called to minister to the Chinese people, I have come to recognize many significant challenges they face. Unlike those from the Western world, who are familiar with concepts such as human dignity, the Chinese culture historically does not teach these values. As such, it takes more time for the Chinese to hear, to process, and to live out core tenets related to work. The doctrine of work discussed in these four books will take time to understand and live out.

Conclusion

As I have tried to show, work – an activity which almost every individual will spend a significant amount of their life engaged in – must be grounded in correct theology in order for it to be the blessing that God intended it to be. As a Chinese-American Christian, I am particularly interested in the future of Sino-theology. This reading group experience has opened my eyes up to some of the theological concerns behind the Chinese people’s understanding of work and its purpose.

Bibliography

Finn, Daniel K. Christian Economic Ethics : History and Implications. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

Keller, Timothy, Katherine Leary. Alsdorf, and Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Every Good Endeavor : Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. New York, N.Y.: Dutton, 2012.

Sherman, Amy L. Kingdom Calling : Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2011.

Veith, Gene Edward. God at Work : Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. Focal Point Series. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2002.

Image © kaboompics | pixabay.com

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