Why do we work? What value do we attach to our work? Does our choice of jobs matter?
There's a lot of talk in Christian circles these days about work. Much of that talk seems to put a value on work that I simply don't find in the Bible.
What does the Bible actually teach about work?
- God works ... and then rests. (Gen 1).
- As God's creatures and agents in the world, we work (Gen 1:28-30). That means that work is a core part of what it is to be human. Work is not something that gets in the way of leisure; work is good.
- However, work in a fallen world will be frustrating and difficult (Gen 3).
- Work in a fallen world can also express our desire to find identity and meaning apart from God. (Gen 11).
- God cares that we work honestly, being fully conscious that he can see us working (e.g. Col 3:22ff).
- The general expectation is that we all should work. However, those whose task is the preaching of the gospel aren't required to work in the conventional sense; instead, they are to be supported by God's people (1 Tim 5:17-18).
I can really only find two reasons in the Scriptures as to why we work:
- We work in order to provide for our own basic needs and those for whom we are responsible. In so doing, we are not being lazy or a burden to others. We work to survive (2 Thess 3:6-14).
- We work so that we might be generous (Eph 4:28).
I often hear people adding a third reason based on the mandate in Genesis 1:28. However, I believe that Genesis 1 is teaching nothing more than that God gives human beings the right to use the resources of this world in order to enable them to thrive. It is really just an aspect of the first reason above: we work to survive in God's world.
If all of this is true, then it means that we don't work to find fulfilment, meaning and satisfaction. We don't work to find status and significance. We don't work to exercise power. And we don't work in order to advance the kingdom of God or advance the gospel.
To be honest, I hear people saying the last of those things all the time. It represents a confusion about how God is at work in the world. God is working in the world through the proclamation of Christ crucified. Work itself doesn't proclaim Jesus—our lives in themselves don't proclaim Jesus; the only thing that advances the kingdom of God in this world is the verbal proclamation of the message about Jesus Christ and him crucified. We may do some of that gospel proclamation during our work life, but our work itself is not the work of the kingdom.
The implications of this are massive. It means that our paid work is less significant than the gospel proclamation and ministry that we do. Sharing the gospel and teaching a Bible study group, a Sunday school class or our own children about Jesus is far more important than the work we do in order to survive and to enable us to be generous.
Now, if that is the case, then we will make decisions in life based on that priority. We will choose to turn down the promotion or the transfer if it will get in the way of the gospel proclamation ministry we are doing. Conversely, we will stay in an otherwise unsatisfying job if it is providing us with excellent gospel opportunities.
Of course, if someone was to offer you the chance to no longer have to work in order to live, but rather to spend more of your time in your real priority (gospel ministry), then wouldn't you want to say ‘yes’ straight away? Perhaps you have excellent reasons for saying ‘no’ that are ground in the priority of gospel proclamation, but this probably applies to less of us than we think. If you decline that opportunity without good reason, doesn't that expose the reality that your work is a greater priority to you than the proclamation of the gospel?