“This is what I have observed to be good,” the Preacher says, “that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot” (Ecclesiastes 5:18 [NIV]).
“Toilsome labor” is work that is incessant, extremely hard, or exhausting. That doesn’t sound all that appealing, does it? So why does the Preacher say such labor is good? Because, he adds, “to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart” (v. 20).
One of the reasons we can be “happy in our toil” and do so with “gladness of heart” is by recognizing that through our labors we are participating in God’s own work. As Amy L. Sherman writes in Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good,
Work is not evil, nor is it a side effect of sin. This truth can be hard for congregants to trust when they are frustrated in their jobs or unfulfilled in their careers. It’s certainly true that the curse of Genesis 3 brought toil and futility into work. Ever since, our experience of work involves pain as well as pleasure. But work itself is good. It has intrinsic value.
Our labor has intrinsic value both because, as Sherman adds, we are “made in the image of God, and God is a worker.”
Working Like God, Working With God
Because we are made in his image, God uses our labors to serve the needs of our neighbors. In fact, for most of us, the labor we are engage in during for our jobs is the primary way in which we serve our neighbors. God should therefore be, as Robert Banks says, our “vocational model.”
In his book Faith Goes to Work: Reflections from the Marketplace, Banks describes the various sorts of work God does and how through our own vocations we can imitate God’s work:
Redemptive work (God’s saving and reconciling actions) — This is work we often associate with ministry (pastors, evangelists, counselors, and so on), though it can also include occupations such as artists, writers, songwriters, or others who incorporate redemptive elements in their creative productions.
Creative work (God’s fashioning of the physical and human world) — “While only God can create something out of nothing,” Art Lindsey says, “we can create something from something—and are called to this creative task.” “Sub-creators” was the favorite term of J. R. R. Tolkien and Francis Schaeffer to describe this type of work. But other scholars, Lindsey notes, use the term “co-creators,” indicating that we participate with God in creative acts. Such workers include artists of various types (musicians, poets, sculptors, etc.), craftspeople (carpenters, weavers, metalworkers, etc.) and those who design (architects, fashion designers, urban planners, etc.).
Providential work (God’s provision for and sustaining of humans and the creation) — “The work of divine providence includes all that God does to maintain the universe and human life in an orderly and beneficial fashion,” Banks says. “This includes conserving, sustaining, and replenishing, in addition to creating and redeeming the world.” Almost any job that creates or maintains order can fall into this category. Creating and maintaining order is a role under many spheres, such as government (politicians, public utility workers, city clerks), public safety (firefighters and police officers), environmental (janitors, cleaners, garbage collectors), economic (statisticians, economists, supermarket clerks), and many more.
Justice work (God’s maintenance of justice) — Judges, lawyers, paralegals, government regulators, legal secretaries, city managers, prison wardens and guards, diplomats, and law enforcement personnel participate in God’s work of maintaining justice.
Compassionate work (God’s involvement in comforting, healing, guiding, and shepherding) — Roles that reflect this aspect of God’s labor include doctors, nurses, paramedics, psychologists, therapists, social workers, pharmacists, community workers, nonprofit directors, emergency medical technicians, counselors, etc.
Revelatory work (God’s work to enlighten with truth) — Teachers, scientists, journalists, scholars, and most writers are all involved in this type of labor.
A key step in being “happy in our toil” is to recognize which vocation model our work most reflects—and recognizing that such work has value. Which category does your own job fall into? How does knowing where you fit in help you to appreciate your role in serving the kingdom? On this Labor Day take some time to reflect on how God uses your work to imitate his own.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Joe Carter’s new work, the NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).