One of the problems with a materialistic (economic, not metaphysical) culture is that we see work and labour almost exclusively in monetary terms. That is, the worth of a work is exclusively in the amount of money the worker earns from it.
A related problem is that a materialistic culture often equates human dignity with the monetary value of a person’s work. That is, your worth is in what you do and how much money you make from doing it.
There is a growing emphasis on work and labour in our society today, with terms like “hustle (the noun and the verb),” and “hustling” making the rounds. However, the emphasis is a materialistic one that ignores the underlying dignity of labour.
A good proof of this is the glorification of internet fraud in our clime. Musicians sing about it, people flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, parents help and rejoice with their children who make money from illegal means, and the larger society is indifferent about it (even the law enforcement want a share of the spoils).
Since what we are glorifying is money rather than the dignity of labour, the source of the money makes no difference and “getting the bags” is all that matters. Conversely, the dignity and impact of what you do are couched almost exclusively in monetary terms such that “it is either making money or it is not making sense.”
How should believers living in a materialistic culture think about work and labour?
The creation and dominion mandate
After God created man as the climax of his creation, he commanded him to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This work began in earnest when God placed man in the garden and commanded him to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:8, 15).
God also commissioned him to name the animals (2:19, 20). To help Adam in his work, God gave him Eve as a helper.
From the above, it is clear that work precedes the fall. If there were no fall, man would still have continued to work. Adam, Eve, and their progeny would have continued to work even as they multiply to fill the earth.
Therefore, work is good. It was part of the unfallen creation. Moreso, the first man and woman worked even though everything they needed was in the garden (Genesis 2:8-17). Their work was not valuable because it was absolutely necessary for their sustenance. Consequently, the value of work must transcend its current necessity for sustenance.
Concerning the nature of the work before the fall, John Morris writes, “God knew that idleness was not good for mankind, so He assigned to Adam the responsibility of “dressing” the garden, perhaps to keep the plants from overrunning everything. This was not difficult work, but enjoyable, and perhaps involved artistic expression. Likewise, he was to” keep” it, or, literally,” guard it.” God has placed us as stewards over His creation, and we must take diligent care of it.”
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, he placed a curse on Adam concerning his work: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19).
The painless work in the unfallen creation would now be painful because the ground will be uncooperative – it will produce thorns and thistles. Secondly, man’s sustenance would now be tied to his work – through painful toil, you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
Unlike the garden, where everything was richly available, man would have to cultivate the land and produce everything needed for his sustenance. And this work would be in painful toil.
But the curse does not obliterate the creation mandate – fill the earth and subdue it. Though the filling of the earth will now be through a painful process – pains in childbearing – it remains man’s duty to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1-3). Though the ground and the animals would be uncooperative, it remains man’s duty to subdue the earth (Genesis 9:1-3).
Consequently, while the fall made work a necessary means for sustenance, it did not obliterate the primary purpose of work – subdue the earth. Adam had everything in the garden, but he still worked and kept the garden and named the animal to fulfil the creation mandate. He was extending man’s dominion over the created order via the ground and the animals.
And as Adam’s children, we inherited that mandate. Therefore, the primary purpose of our work and labour is to subdue the earth and extend man’s dominion over the created order.
Three implications are evident as a result:
- Work can be purposeful even it does not earn anything.
- The primary value of work is not in what it earns but its impact – how it contributes to the fulfilment of the creation mandate.
- Every work that contributes to the fulfilment of the creation mandate is valuable.
The person who takes leather and exercises dominion over it to create a shoe that serves human needs is fulfilling the creation mandate. So is the programmer who takes some 0s and 1s and turns them into an app that meets people’s needs.
The woman who takes raw rice, pepper, salt, maggi, etc., exercises dominion over them to create a delicious meal is fulfilling the creation mandate. And so is the woman who takes some ignorant kids and labour to socialize them by educating them (either out of the home or inside the home).
All four of them are fulfilling the creation mandate. It doesn’t matter if the programmer earns 20x as much as the shoemaker; they are both doing valuable and purposeful work that fulfils the creation mandate. And it doesn’t matter that the woman who cooks and educates her kids at home does not directly earn from those labours; her work is as valuable and purposeful as the shoemaker and the programmer.
Conversely, the man who scams others and steals their money is nothing but a criminal. His work is neither valuable nor purposeful, irrespective of how much money he earns from it. He denies other people the rewards of their labour. The politician who steals public funds is not contributing to the creation mandate; he is fleecing people of their rewards. It doesn’t matter how many houses he has built with that money.
To summarize, the primary value of work is not the money the worker earns from it but how it contributes to the fulfilment of the creation mandate.
Work, independence, and sustenance
Again, this does not mean that money and sustenance are not related. In fact, the Bible uses the monetary rewards of work to encourage people to work (instead of lazy around).
Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to work with their hands to earn their own money and stop depending on others and gossiping around town (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). In his second letter, he called on those who are idle to work to earn the food they eat (2 Thessalonians 3:11-13). They should be busy instead of being busy bodies.
Solomon also used the positive economic results of labour (abundant food, satisfied desires) and the negative economic results of indolence (poverty, unsatisfied desires) to encourage his son to do the former and eschew the latter (Proverbs 6:10; 12:11; 13:4)
Thus, we see that the economic rewards of labour and work can be good motivations to encourage people to work. Similarly, busyness (as opposed to laziness, being a busybody, gossiping, and idleness) is also a motivation to work.
Work and good works
Another motivation the Bible employs is our capacity to do good works. The monetary rewards of work increase our capacity to do good.
Paul laboured so he could help the weak and experience the blessedness of giving (which is more than that of receiving – Acts 20:35). He encouraged the Ephesians to work so they may have something to share with those in need (Ephesians 4:28).
Paul also called Timothy to admonish those who are rich to be rich in good works (1 Timothy 6:18-19) and prayed that God would abundantly bless the Corinthians so they can abound in every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8).
So increased capacity to do good works is another motivation for us to labour.
However, when we read Paul, we discover that there are motivations to work and labour that are more fundamental than the three above.
How do I mean?
Paul sees work as a calling. Your work is not just a list of tasks you do to earn enough money to sustain yourself, get busy, and do good to others; it is a call of God upon your life.
In 1 Corinthians 7, he encouraged every believer to live in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17).
The language of call and assignment is important to Paul. He used it in the first chapter to describe our election to salvation (1 Corinthians 1:26ff). Here, he says that God also calls us to certain situations in addition to our salvific calling.
In 1 Corinthians 7, he encouraged the believers not to think that their newfound faith means they must make some drastic decisions – the circumcised becomes uncircumcised, and the slave immediately escapes his servitude (verses 17-24).
Paul told them to calm down and remain in the situation where they were since it was God that assigned it to them. While the slave can work to gain his freedom as opportunities arise (verse 21), he should not think that his newfound faith somehow immediately nullifies his relationship with his master.
“If God called us to freedom, shouldn’t that nullify every servitude with immediate effect?” No, said Paul. Your current situation is part of God’s assignment. While you work for your freedom, don’t let your current situation trouble you. You are already the Lord’s freedman, and the opportunities will come to get your freedom but for the time being, see your current situation as a slave as God’s calling and assignment.
Therefore, our work is not merely what we do to earn money but the place in life where God has placed us to fulfil the creation mandate.
Paul puts a finer print on this in his letter to the Colossians. He told the slaves to do their work with all of their heart, as someone working for the Lord and not for human masters (Colossians 3:23). Paul admonished that the Christian slave should obey his master whether he is present or not (and do it with reverence for the Lord).
He gave similar instructions to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:7). In both passages, he reminds them that it is the Lord that will ultimately reward them.
Consequently, when we put 1 Corinthians 7 and Colossians 3 together, we see that our work is a calling and assignment from God, and when we work, we should do it as if God is our employer (and rewarder).
Working for God
In what sense are we working for God?
I believe the Psalms provide us with a good pointer. In Psalms 104:24-30, we learn that God provides for the needs of all creatures on the earth. God gives food and good things (verse 28) to all creatures. When God opens his hands, he satisfies the desires of every living thing (Psalms 145:13-16). The Psalmist sees God’s provision of food for all creatures as part of his love that endures forever (Psalms 136:25).
Jesus himself told us that God sends his rain and causes the sun to shine on all people (Mathew 5:44-45). He is the one who provides plenty of food for all (Acts 14:17).
But as the sustainer of the universe, God does more than provide food. He is the supplier of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).
How does God supply every good and perfect gift to every creature? He does it through the work and labour of other creatures.
He gives us food through the work of the farmers and cooks, clothes through industrial farmers and tailors. Put any valuable work in there and see how God supplies his creatures’ needs through that work.
Therefore, when we work, we are instruments in God’s hands for the sustenance of his universe; he uses our labours (the labours he empowers us to do – Isaiah 26:12) to provide for his creatures as the creator and sustainer of all things.
This is why Paul tells us to look beyond our employers and look to God, who uses our labour to accomplish his purposes of blessing others. Consequently, our work is one of those things we are to do to the glory of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:31).
As believers who are consciously and actively living for God’s glory, we should work such that the person who receives our work will give glory to our Father in heaven. Our work should bless people into thanksgiving and glorifying.
The creation mandate and working for God
We can put this section and the one on the creation mandate together by saying the primary value of work is that as a fulfilment of the creation mandate, God uses it as a means of sustaining the universe and supplying the needs of its inhabitants.
That is, in the same vein that we are subduing the universe through our work, we are also supplying, as God’s hands, the needs of God’s creatures. Consequently, the design of the creation mandate is to glorify God.
The more we subdue the earth, the greater our capacity to provide for the needs of God’s creatures and the more blessings God’s creatures receive, the more glory they give to God.
As believers, we must be primarily motivated by God’s glory in every work that we do.
Money, busyness, and good works are important, but the primary value of work (what makes work “work”) is that it fulfils the creation mandate and, as a result, glorifies God as he uses it to supply the needs of his creatures.
If we believe that we are working for God, it changes our attitude towards work.
The multi-dimensional nature of calling
A final point deserves some space.
Again, if the primary value of work is the creation mandate and how it glorifies God, unpaid work is not valueless work. The mother that cooks the food, educates the children, and clean the home is doing valuable work.
When we see work as a calling and assignment from God – the place in life where God wants us to fulfil the creation mandate – our understanding of what constitutes work expands.
The call to be a father or a mother in the home is work. The call to be a citizen in a nation is work. The call to politics is work. The call to the mission field is work. The call to a charity organization or NGO is work.
The job that brings in the cash is not the only thing that qualifies as work.
Therefore, the call to work as unto the Lord and seek his glory extends beyond our paid employment.
What are the implications of this point?
You should be seeking excellence in every valuable work God calls you to
If you are an excellent Accountant but a horrible father, you are not glorifying God as you should. If you are a good mother but a horrible secretary, you are not glorifying God as you should.
You can find purpose outside your paid job
Some people do some jobs where they find it hard to see how it contributes to anything meaningful or valuable. Some of those might need to keep the job to pay the bills. You don’t need to find your biggest passion in your paid employment necessarily. It may be voluntary work over the weekend somewhere else that does it for you.
However, you must keep doing your job excellently well (and you might just find the passion later on).
Sometimes you have to do a job to provide for yourself (and your family if you have one) – whether you find fulfilment there or not – while you find fulfilment somewhere else.
You can do all kinds of work outside your paid employment
Even if you love your paid job, you can always do more God-glorifying work. You can join a political party, go for missions, volunteer for some charity work, write a book, start a blog, etc. Rest is good, but we should not idolize it. While many people idolize work, many of us also idolize rest.
The idea of making so much money so we can retire at 39 and then go live the rest of life in an endless vacation is unbiblical. Remember that the primary purpose of work is not to make money but to fulfil the creation mandate as a way to glorify God. Even if you retire from paid employment at 39, you can do so much work to fulfil the creation mandate before your body gives way. Lazying around in idleness because there is too much money is ungodly.
God told Israel to work for six days and rest for a day. Even if your paid employment does not take much work (and time), you can do other things to maximize your capacity. God has equipped us with different capacities for work – health, skills, talents, opportunities, etc. – and everyone should seek to maximize that in a way that does not idolize work. Again, since we are different, the work A will do that will make work an idol, B will do it, and it won’t be an idol. It’s the same for rest.
Consequently, we should all be concerned about our faithfulness rather than another’s.
Unemployment need not equal laziness
Even if you can’t get paid employment, you can keep doing valuable unpaid work while you keep searching for a job.
However, there is always a temptation to idolize calling and the creation mandate. Therefore, let’s all listen to the words of O.S. Guinness and take caution:
“Do we enjoy our work, love our work, virtually worship our work so that our devotion to Jesus is off-center? Do we put our emphasis on service, usefulness, or being productive in working for God—at his expense? Do we strive to prove our own significance? To make a difference in the world? To carve our names in marble on the monuments of time? The call of God blocks the path of all such deeply human tendencies. We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself.”
The greatest call is our election to God and reconciliation to him through Jesus. And the greatest mandate is to know him (Philippians 3:10) and be conformed to his image (2 Corinthians 3:18).
God at Work by Gene Edward Veith
The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God’s Purpose For Your Life, O.S. Guinness
On the Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther