Work: Curse or Calling?

The Need for a Renewed Vision

A song title—“Working for the Weekend.” A restaurant sign— “T.G.I. Friday’s.” An employer’s lament—“It’s so hard to find good help these days.” What do they have in common? Each in its own disturbing way tells us something about the way our world approaches work.

For so many, work is just a necessary evil, the only means of obtaining the resources necessary to purchase satisfaction and security. But it’s a sad way to live, if only considering the number of hours an average person works in a lifetime. It’s a sadder way to live when one assesses the quality of the pleasures and protection that money can buy. But it’s even sadder when we recognize that God’s blessed institution of work is scorned. Its goodness is denied by those too blind to see it.

We should be very happy, then, that we’ve been saved from the world’s view of work. Much more than just working for the weekend, we have the high privilege of working for the Lord. Far superior to the spurious gratitude expressed for one day (Friday), we can offer genuine thanksgiving for everyday (even Monday).

But these are realities that we often forget, aren’t they? Which one of us would deny it? As we sink into the ruts of our weekly work routines, our vision often becomes short-sighted. Soon, the complaints of our lips betray a perspective that is not too different from our unbelieving coworkers. When this happens, we dishonor our God and Savior, we rob ourselves of joy, and we squander the opportunity to win our neighbor for Christ.

What we need from time to time is a renewed vision. I don’t mean the renewed vision that the CEO would create, as he gathers his company’s employees to discuss profit goals and stock options at the monthly pep rally. I’m thinking, rather, of the restored perspective that comes from slowing down long enough to see our work in light of God’s Word. To be sure, a company manager has a certain vision of work, but it is very limited. God’s Word, however, gives us a point of reference outside of this world. Reading this Word is like having access to a satellite camera, or like standing on the moon to peer down upon earth. From that vantage point we can absorb the broadest picture, and then zoom in and out on our office cubicle, our tractor cab, our kitchen counter, our school classroom, our church nursery, our community’s needs, seeing all the work God has given us from the perspective of heaven.

As we open God’s Word to have our vision refocused, we find that it is has much more to say about work than we had remembered. Beyond that, there are so many verses that one could camp on for weeks, for years, indeed, for a lifetime. What shall we do? Well, more than anything, we must see the whole of the Bible, the whole of history. Consider the theme of work along the timeline of creation, fall, redemption, consummation.

Backing up to the Beginning

Looking at creation before the fall into sin, one of the most important things we observe about work is also one of the most obvious: we see that work was there. Back in the early chapters of Genesis, before sin, before thorns and thistles, before frustration, pain, complaints, and feelings of emptiness, work was there. Back at the beginning, in a creation that God pronounced good anda world in which man and woman found constant satisfaction and joy at all times, there was work.

As obvious as this reality is, it must be repeated and absorbed. In a culture where work is often despised and scorned as an evil we cannot do without, we need to be reminded that the curse which came later was not work. Work itself is a good, God-assigned task; it is a glorious calling from the Creator. “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Gen. 2.15). Even marriage, instituted by God, was related to the work calling. The woman was created as a helper suitable for the man (Gen. 2:18). United together, man and woman were partners not just for love, but for labor: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it….” (Gen. 1:28). They were mandated to cultivate the creation by exercising dominion within it. God had invested them with minds and muscles, and attached the reward of fruit to their work.

The plain truth that work was part of the good creation is an important truth, but it’s not the greatest one. Another obvious fact too easily passed over is discovered by asking this question, Who is the first person we find working in the Bible? The answer is not Adam: “And on the seventh day God ended his work….” (Gen. 2:2). We learn that work is not only ordained by God, it is divine. Closely connected to God’s intention to make man in His image (Gen. 1:26a) was God’s intention to have man labor in ruling over creation (Gen. 1:26b). In other words, God not only made man God-like, He also gave him a God-like task.

When we are tempted to despise work, we should remember that work is not only a duty, but a great privilege and blessing. Anyone who has endured a hospital bed for a week will confirm this. But we have testimony far greater than a restless spirit or bedsores, we have God’s own Word in which He reveals Himself as a God who loves to work and takes pleasure in His work. And to His highly honored creature, His image-bearer, God gives the glorious responsibility of laboring in creation.

In this delightful task of cultivating creation man must have had great pleasure. We can be sure that in the time before sin entered the world Adam and Eve never thought their work was empty, pointless, or boring. No, they were made like God, and happy in their God-like task. They had work to do which was filled by God with meaning. In this work, performed for the Lord, they saw the glory of labor.

But why does an institution of such magnificent heights lie today in the depths of derision? Why do few people think of work as enjoyable, satisfying, dignified, glorious?

The Plunge that Hurt Work

The beautiful story of creation is rudely interrupted by mankind’s fall into sin. This rebellion would have enormous consequences for man and the creation. The Lord responded to disobedience, in part, with curses. God pronounced sentences aimed at man and woman’s distinctive and primary spheres of labor. The area where the woman was to experience great fulfillment, childbearing, would be disturbed with pain and anguish (Gen. 3:16).

The realm in which man was to enjoy satisfaction in providing sustenance for Himself and His family, would be disrupted by uncooperative soil (Gen. 3:17–19).

The Lord’s mercy is clearly evident here. His punishments would not make the woman childless or the ground infertile. No, life would be preserved. But work would now be difficult and tedious, plagued with pain, sorrow, and frustration. Even the marriage partnership so important for labor would be adversely affected (Gen. 3:16). Taking all this into account, it’s clear that the “hard day at work” has a long history.

But sin affected not just the realm of labor, it affected the laborers themselves. Our difficulties with work extend beyond hard ground; hard hearts were also a product of man’s rebellion. When those two meet—obstinate man and stubborn soil—a dangerous combination is stirred. The poisonous gas that arises takes two different forms: surrender and pride.

When rebellious man encounters the cursed soil, one of his responses to the tedious struggle is surrender. Man quickly discovers that creation won’t hand over its fruit without a fight. He shakes the tree of creation with all the strength he has but the harvest it yields is small. He wonders if it worth the trouble. Tired of exerting himself, aggravated by the resistance he encounters, he finally admits defeat. He lies down under the tree and gives up. His surrender doesn’t take the form of a white flag, but it is just as striking: “I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding; and there it was, all overgrown with nettles; its stone wall was broken down” (Prov. 24:30–31).

The presence of such surrender today is apparent. Nearly any employer can tell you about bored, apathetic, and slothful employees. Unfortunately, Christians are not immune to these diseases. In his Principles of Conduct, John Murray observes this point in his chapter on labor: “The principle that too often dictates our practice is not the maximum of toil but the minimum necessary to escape public censure and preserve our decency.”

Murray doesn’t stop there. He makes this charge, “so far has our thinking diverged from the biblical patterns of thought on the divine institution of labour, and to such an extent has the concern for ease and entertainment come to prepossess us, that sloth and lassitude have invaded the most sacred vocations.” (And for those who want specifics, Murray obliges. He goes on to take aim at slothful ministers with overly refined tastes, calling them “parasites” on the church.)

This surrender is only one response to the difficulty of work. Not everyone retreats; some charge forward in their own strength. This second reaction, which also ignores the Creator, is one of pride. Here, sinful man attacks the unyielding creation with self-confidence. He raises his battle flag and yells, “I will overcome,” and pushes forward. Although employers may welcome such ambition, and business magazines may salute such drive, God is not pleased.

In God’s perfect providence the wicked often prosper. It appears as if their strength and determination have won. “Therefore pride serves as their necklace…their eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than heart could wish…they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walks through the earth” (Psalm 73:6–9). Through the Psalmist’s experience, we believers have learned that this apparent success is definitely short-term— destruction is their final destiny (Ps. 73:18). It’s odd, then, that at times we still envy the wealthy wicked and try to follow in the footprints of their success. We, too, often engage in the struggle of work with hope in our own human might. While this response is not subject to the same public shame as laziness, again, it is no less offensive to God.

There is hope, however. Relief from the bipolar disorder of laziness and arrogance comes through the blood of the cross.

Restored to Our Glorious Calling

Into the disordered world, God sent His Son to work. Jesus Christ came to fulfill the task that the Father had assigned Him. Avoiding the pitfalls of sloth and pride while enduring pain and resistance beyond our comprehension, He worked with His eyes set steadily on His Father above. Finally, He could pray, “I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do” (John. 17:4).

For our Savior “blood, sweat, and tears” was not an expression of speech, it was a way of life. Through His struggle, the Suffering Servant redeemed us and restored us.

That second item—restoration—is one that deserves more attention than it sometimes receives. Redemption does not come with a brand new set of blueprints for life. God’s salvation does not abolish work, it restores us to work.

Remade in God’s image, we are fit to labor again for our God in meaningful ways. As Ephesians 2:10 puts it, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

Delivered by Christ’s death and resurrection, we are no longer enslaved to the sloth that assumes all work is vanity, nor are we imprisoned by the pride that boasts of overcoming by our own strength. Instead, we labor in humble gratitude and firm reliance on the God who calls us to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

“In the Lord”—those are the words that must govern our toil. The New Testament Scriptures repeatedly insist that the motivation and direction of all our efforts must be God-ward. And nowhere is this emphasis more pronounced than in the apostle Paul’s words to servants: Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as menpleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance: for you serve the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:22–24).

Nothing is more liberating, more encouraging, and more glorious, than to know that we labor for the Lord. Are you paralyzed by the fear of men? Are you tempted to give up because your work seems meaningless, fruitless, unbearable, or unappreciated? Look up to the heavens! You labor coram Deo, that is, before the face of God!

We must give thanks to God for the rediscovery of this reality during the Protestant Reformation. The true Protestant work ethic was a firm understanding of divine vocation or calling. The Reformers stressed that each believer has a calling, a task or station appointed by the Lord. This emphasis was transforming, for nothing adds more dignity to our toil or instills a greater sense of responsibility than knowing that God Himself has assigned us our work, whatever it is.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes, “the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing.” He soon explains what this means in the midst of hardship:

[E]ach man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God. From this will arise also a singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid or base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight. (III.x.6)

The End of our Work

We are further encouraged in our calling when we consider our work in light of future glory. We must learn that the value the Lord attaches to our labors never evaporates.

I recall hearing of a survey years ago in which people toward the end of their lives were asked what they wished they would have done differently. Among the top three answers was this confession, “I wish I would have done more things that will last after I die.” Most people sense the fading quality of their achievements.

The good news for Christians, as we already heard from 1 Corinthians 15:58, is that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. This truth bears repeating, especially when we realize that its firm basis is the victory of Jesus Christ over death. The resurrection context of these words, “your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58), means that our labors performed in Christ are not emptied by death.

Indeed, Revelation 14:13 pronounces just such a benediction on those who have stood firm in the Lord under trial: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.’” It seems that our prayer, “establish the work of our hands for us” (Ps 90.17), is answered more fully than we could have dreamed. The Lord remembers the works of His people forever.

Looking at Ourselves

Our renewed vision brings great encouragement and motivation. It should also lead to self-examination. As we labor before our God, the cross, and the glory to come, we may want to ask ourselves some searching questions.

Am I living a life worthy of the gospel in the way I labor? Am I conscious of God’s presence when my boss is absent, or when my teacher isn’t assigning a grade? Can I sincerely say that I work heartily as to the Lord?

Does my attitude toward work provoke unbelievers to ask me for a reason of the hope that is in me? Or, is my approach so similar to theirs, my complaints so ordinary, that they rarely detect a difference?

Do I work for recreation as the world does? Or, do I enjoy recreation in its proper place in order to help me work?

Is there anything uniquely Christian about the way I live after age 65? Do I recognize the dangerous possibility of making myself unserviceable to Christ’s church and kingdom by assuming the world’s view of retirement? How does the Bible’s teaching about calling invest this stage of life with real purpose and real pleasure?

When, by God’s grace, we live in the light of His Word, we enjoy the blessings of bringing honor to our God, of finding satisfaction in our toil, and of making the most of every opportunity to win our neighbor for Christ.

Rev. Todd Joling is the pastor of the Faith United Reformed Church in Beecher, Illinois.

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