Editors’ note: Paul exhorts the Thessalonians “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thess. 4:11). In 1983, John Piper preached on this passage (1 Thess. 4:9-12) and highlighted four reasons why God wills work. (To read the sermon in its entirety, see here.)
1. To Glorify God and Increase Our Joy
First, God wills work because when we work in reliance on his power and according to his pattern of excellence, his glory is made known and our joy is increased. Since our being created in God’s image leads directly to our privilege and duty to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:27-18), I take it that human vocation involves exercising a subordinate lordship over creation by which we shape and control it for good purposes.
God takes man on as his deputy and endows him with God-like rights and capacities to subdue the world—to use it and shape it for good purposes. At the heart of the meaning of work is creativity. If you are God, your work is to create out of nothing. If you are human, your work is to take what God has made and shape it and use it for good purposes.
So what is the difference between a human being at work and a beaver or a bee or a hummingbird? They work hard; they subdue their surroundings and shape them into beautiful structures that serve good purposes. The difference is that humans are morally self-conscious and make choices about their work on the basis of motives which may, or may not, honor God.
2. To Provide for Our Needs
The second reason God wills work is that by working we provide for our legitimate needs. Before the fall, man lived in a garden where God provided his food on trees. All Adam and Eve had to do was pick and eat. That's why the essence of work is not sustenance of life—God gave himself as the sustainer.
But when they chose to be self-reliant and rejected God's fatherly guidance and provision, God subjected them to the very thing they chose: self-reliance. From now on, he says, if you eat, it will be because you toil and sweat (Gen. 3:17-19). They are driven from the garden of ease to the ground of sweat. The curse under which we live today is not that we must work. The curse is that in our work we struggle with weariness and frustration and calamities.
But hasn't Christ come to lift the curse (Gal. 3:13)? Doesn't he restore us to our original pre-fallen condition with God? The answer is: Yes, but not all at once. Christ delivered a mortal blow to all evil when he died for sin and rose again. But not every enemy is yet put under his feet.
By necessity we work to provide for our needs. Christ says, “Don't be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, or about your body, what you shall put on . . . Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom” (Matt. 6:25, 32; see also Matt. 11:28; 1 Cor. 15:58). God doesn’t want his children to be burdened with the frustration and futility and depressing weariness of work. That much he aims to lift even in this age.
But the provision of our needs depends on our gainful employment in this age. The coming of Christ does not mean that we can now return to paradise and pick fruit in someone else's garden. That's the mistake made at Thessalonica. So Paul wrote them and said, “Even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If anyone will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:10-12). God has not completely removed the curse in this age. He has softened it with a promise. The curse says: If you want to eat, you must sweat (Gen. 3:19). The promise says: If you sweat, you shall eat (Prov. 12:11).
3. To Provide for the Needs of Others
The third reason God wills work is that by working we provide for the needs of those who can't provide for their own. The promise that if you sweat, you shall eat is not absolute. The drought may strike your village in sub-Saharan Africa; thieves may steal what you've earned; disability may cut your earning power. All that is part of the curse that sin brought onto the world. But God in his mercy wills that the work of the able-bodied in prosperous times supplies the needs of the helpless, especially in hard times.
Three passages of Scripture make this plain. Paul speaks to children and grandchildren regarding the aged widows: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul refers to his own manual labor and then says, “In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). He also doesn’t settle for saying, “Don’t steal; work!” but, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need” (Eph. 4:28).
4. To Build Bridges for the Gospel
Finally, God wills work as a way of building bridges for the gospel. In our work we are usually in the world. We rub shoulders with unbelievers. If we do our work in reliance on God's power, according to his pattern of excellence, and thus for his glory, we will build bridges for the gospel so that people can cross over and be saved. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, Paul exhorts the believers “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.”
There is a close connection between the way we do our work and the attitude that unbelievers will have toward the gospel that makes us tick.
Editors' note: TBT (Throwback Thursday) with Every Square Inch: Reading the Classics is a weekly column that publishes past writings on vocation.