Faith and Work
The Christian’s faith (grounded in all that the Bible teaches) is inseparable from and should inform his or her daily work, whether paid or unpaid.
The Christian’s daily work, whether in the home or in the office or under a clogged sink, and whether paid or unpaid, matters to God. Working with our hands, heads, and hearts is dignified as it is through our work that we contribute to the flourishing of ourselves and our neighbor. We love our neighbor by doing good and just work. The grand, beautiful, and liberating biblical story provides concrete and compelling evidence that our work matters to God.
Many Christians believe that God has a hierarchy of work. They believe that God deems some work as incredibly noble and important—such as that of a pastor, missionary, or nonprofit worker—and all other work is neither noble nor significant. The Bible, however, tells an entirely different story. To understand that story of noble work, we must begin in the beginning.
Act 1: Creation—God’s Introduction
The Bible is a big story; a story loosely divided into four acts: Creation, the Fall of Man, Redemption, and Complete Restoration. In Act 1, or Creation, we are introduced to God. Remarkably, God does not introduce himself to us as our redeemer, warrior, refuge, savior, or king. Rather, God, on the opening pages of Scripture, introduces himself to us as a worker.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so, on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Gen 2:1–3, italics mine)1
Note how the word “work” appears three times in this passage. And this passage is a recapitulation and springboard from Genesis 1:1–31, which describes God’s work week, the first work week recorded in Scripture.
During God’s work week, he created mankind in his image. What does it mean to be created in God’s image? In other words, how do we—using the verbal idea—image God? We image or imitate God functionally and ontologically.
Image-bearing as Functional and Ontological
Ontologically speaking, we share God’s nature. God is relational; we are relational. God is moral; we are moral. God expresses emotion; we express emotion. God is rational; we are rational.
Functionally speaking, we do similar activities as God does. God manages or stewards; we manage or steward. God creates; we create. God works; we work. God rests; we rest.
Image-bearing as Imitating
To image God is to work. To work is to image God. Adam and Eve were co-laborers in the garden. Adam and Eve imaged God as workers. Adam and Eve’s first work assignment was to work and keep the garden (Gen 2:15). Adam and Eve’s long-term work assignment was to work in such a way that all persons might flourish (Gen 1:26–28). Not only is our work a means to imitate or image God, but human rest is an imitation of God’s rest; however, most of us are chronic Sabbath violators (Exod 20:8–11).
Using this outlook on work, the following definition seems helpful: “The expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community, [the city], and glory to God.”2 Our work serves others. Our work serves our neighbors.
What Does It All Mean?
All human workplaces—at home, in the office, under a clogged sink, or on a construction site—were intended to operate by the virtues of justice, righteousness, hospitality, charity, and kindness. All human work in some mysterious way is intended to contribute to the flourishing of all humankind. Changing a diaper, taking out the garbage, creating a spreadsheet, writing an email, sending a text message, doing a PowerPoint presentation—all these forms of work contribute to the flourishing of fellow image-bearers, whether those under the same roof, in the same office, in the same city, or who share the same planet.
Sadly, however, the story does not end here.
Act 2: The Fall of Man—Workplace Drama
A new worker enters the drama: the Evil One. The Evil One, who Scripture later identifies as Satan, disrupts the blissful Garden economy and Adam and Eve’s (and our) work rhythm. Through his line of questioning, the Evil One plants doubt in Eve’s mind such that Eve makes God’s original command onerous. Notice what God said in Genesis 2:16–17, “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die,” and notice how Eve articulates that same command in Genesis 3:2–3, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’” Eve added the phrase, “not touch it.” The Evil One went on to convince Eve (and Adam) that God could not be trusted. This first human couple disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the rest is history.
Adam and Eve’s sin caused many problems. Central to the matter of faith and work, God cursed the place Adam would spend much of his time: the workplace. Take particular note of God’s sentence against Adam:
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ 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.” (Gen 3:17–19)
Because of this curse, our workplaces will be riddled with painful labor; human efforts in the workplace will yield both good and wasteful products (the meaning of ‘thorns and thistles’); workplaces and work will not be easy, rather anxious toil and sweat will be the norm.
Although some workplaces and coworkers are difficult, work itself—whether paid or unpaid—is not a curse. Work is not a consequence of the Fall. Adam and Eve were assigned work before Act 2. Because of its difficulties, the workplace becomes one of the primary places where Christians are either formed into Christlikeness or deformed toward ungodliness and idolatry.
Work is still sacred, but now work is hard; work is still sacred, but now work is infected with sin. The temptation to think too little of work leads to idleness (1Thes 4:9–12), and the temptation to think too much of work leads to idolatry (Exod 20:4).
But in the providence of God, the story of work does not end here.
Act 3: Redemption—Jesus, a Blue-Collar Worker
With Christ’s debut, he announced a new management structure of the world and also provided his followers with a new work-view. Jesus spent most of his short 33 years on earth as an apprentice in Joseph’s carpentry shop carving wood and laying stone. Yes, Jesus worked with his hands. Yes, Jesus likely went home with sawdust and mortar on his hands, on his clothes, and in his hair.
Jesus reminds us of the dignity of work. Jesus demonstrates that work can be enabled by the Holy Spirit. Jesus valued everyday work; just consider his many parables centered in the workplace. He spoke of sowers, farmers, and tax collectors.
Because of Christ’s work of redemption, Christians belong to a kingdom of priests and priestesses. Yet, this “priesthood of all believers did not make everyone into church workers; rather, it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling” says Gene Veith in God at Work.3 And there is no pecking order in the relative importance of work. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way: “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”4 Our work is priestly, significant, and uplifts mankind.
Christians must be mindful of the reason they were rescued from the filthy kingdom of darkness and called to this kingdom of priests and priestesses (Col 1:13; 1Pet 2:5, 9). Tim Keller puts it aptly, “The ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins but also the renewal of this world” (italics mine).5
Our individual and institutional decisions, then, are not benign; they either contribute to the flourishing of others or undermine the flourishing of others. Pursuing the common good requires us to not retreat from engagement with our increasingly post-Christian and religiously pluralistic society; rather, we are called to love our neighbors in concrete ways, no matter what they believe, just as Jesus commanded us to do in the Great Commandment (Matt 22:34–40). The renewal of all things for the common good must have at its center a focus on neighborliness (Luke 10:25–37).
Based on this call to neighborliness and the common good, Christians must take a careful look at their surroundings. Where is brokenness an obstacle to human flourishing? Where is your neighbor being hampered? In the words of Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy,6 once we see, and once we learn of something, we are implicated to do good.
In our present cultural moment where the gospel is viewed as being implausible, the Christian’s Monday-through-Friday work makes the gospel—and even the existence of our God—plausible. In other words, in our cultural moment, the gospel must be seen before it is heard. As we image God in the workplace by doing good work, as we are faithful to do our work with excellence, as we are faithful to show up on time, as we serve as conduits of common grace in the workplace, we give skeptics, agnostics, “nones,” and unbelievers a front row seat to see the truthfulness of the gospel. Our work can bear witness to the veracity and plausibility of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we do our work with excellence in the power of the Holy Spirit, as we do justice as Micah 6:8 admonishes us to do by speaking out against injustices in the workplace, as we serve our coworker—our neighbor—by doing good work, as we do our work with a Christian attitude, we treat our coworkers to pleasant foretastes of the workplace aroma in the new heavens and new earth. Yes, God wants his people to bring some of the future new heavens and new earth shalom, albeit proximate, into the present through our daily work.
As our coworkers pause and see the quality of our work and witness, our attitude in doing our work, that should pave the way for unforced on-ramps for spiritual discussions with our coworkers.
Act 4: Complete Restoration—a Return to Workplace Bliss
Christians should expect to work with delight in the new heavens and new earth. Our work and our workplaces will once again be blissful because our workplaces will be bereft of disappointment, setbacks, thorns and thistles, and tears (Rev 21:4).
Our work and workplaces will function as God originally intended them to work at creation (see Act 1). But what of our work on this earth prior to the new heavens and new earth? What will come of it? Does it amount to nothing more than refuse in a landfill? New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright explains,
What you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or work; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.7
In short, the outcome or fruit of our work in the present might make it, through the resurrection power of God, into the new heavens and new earth. The elder Apostle John had this idea in mind when he penned these words in Revelation 21:24–25, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.” When John speaks of “splendor” he is including the work of our hands, our hearts, and our heads in our present moment!
The work you do, God will bring its glory into the new kingdom. Take heart that your work is not in vain (1Cor 15:58), so do your work to the glory and praise of God (Col 3:23–25).
- Bobo, Luke B., ed. Whatever You Do Six Foundations for an Integrated Life (Overland Park, KS: Made to Flourish, 2019).
- Keller, Tim with Katherine Leary Alsdorf. Every Good Endeavor (New York: Penguin, 2012).
- King Jr., Martin Luther. Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
- Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (London: One World, 2015).
- Stott, John R. W. Issues Facing Christians Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).
- Veith, Gene. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
- Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
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