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Christian Apologetics (5): The Christian Work Ethic (1)

D Vallance, Detroit

"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen 1.31).1

God is a worker. He worked for six days to create the world, and then contentedly rested on the seventh day, delighting in a complete and perfect work (Gen 1.1-25). Although the initial creation work is complete, God continues to work on other projects, including the conservation and redemption of the cosmos (Col 1.17; Heb 1.3). The Lord Jesus said, "My Father is working until now, and I am working" (Jn 5.17). In praying to His Father, the Son further stated, "I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (Jn 17.4, AV).

Since God works, work is part of His character - since God is good, work is good (Ps 25.8; Eph 4.28). Before He even created Adam, God said that He made man for work: "Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’" (Gen 1.26). God expects His people to work as He did: "Six days you shall labour, and do all your work" (Ex 20.9). He gave man work as a gift. When we work, we demonstrate the likeness we bear to God, the model "Worker", and please Him.

Dominion requires work — taking responsibility for the creation and carrying out the tasks needed to administer it. To subdue the earth means to exert control and discipline (Gen 1.28). God brought the animals and birds to Adam to see what names he would assign to them (Gen 2.19). Since names have meaning in Scripture, Adam had to size up each animal and perceive its unique abilities and purpose. By naming the animals, Adam also claimed responsibility for them, since naming (or renaming) in Scripture signifies authority (Gen 17.5,15; 32.28). Thus dominion includes classification, organisation, and domestication of the animals. It implies cultivating the ground, extracting resources, creating tools, establishing processes, and creating efficiencies.

In Genesis 2, God ordained agriculture: He expected man to cultivate the ground, and to work and keep the garden (Gen 2.5,15). To cultivate means to foster growth and to improve. To keep means to preserve from failure or decline. Although food was plentiful, Adam was granted the pleasure not only of maintaining the garden, but of arranging it for order and beauty. As a taxonomist, Adam was the first scientist; as an arranger, he was the first artist. His work involved creativity, originality, beauty, quality, and benefit. And God gave Eve to Adam to help him with all of this — there would now be a committee to plan things and a team to carry them out (Gen 2.18).

But what is work? Physics provides an initial answer: work is applying a force over a distance. So work gets things done. But work is much more than the mechanics. Work is engaging in mental and physical activity in order to achieve a desired result. The worker sets up and carries out the tasks needed to create a product. And once the he has successfully conceived, organized, executed, and finished his creation, work compensates the worker. Its best compensations are not financial; work rewards the worker with satisfaction, fulfilment, and purpose — and for the Christian, the knowledge that he has glorified God — whether or not he receives a paycheque. Good work brings pleasure, and a job well done yields satisfaction that is worth more than wages. Good work is its own reward.

Many people consider work a curse — an unwelcome and unpleasant consequence of the fall. This is false, although it is true that the fall altered the character of work. Before Adam sinned, he worked in a garden paradise, God’s special enclosure of order and purity and innocence. After the fall, however, Adam was expelled to the field — a wild and unfenced place without any innocence or inhibition. Instead of being helpful, the work environment became hostile (Gen 39.1-23; Ex 1.8-22; Neh 4). In the field, the pleasure of work was now mixed with pain, and Adam had to struggle against a resisting earth to the point of sweaty exhaustion (Gen 3.17-19). Beside the crops, thorns and thistles now sprang up, symbolizing frustration and failure. Things no longer went as planned, hard labour did not guarantee success, and whatever could go wrong did. To work no longer simply meant to be joyfully productive; it meant to struggle to be productive in the face of opposition and hardship.

Not only did the fall change work, it also changed the worker. Man’s innate love for work became infected with selfishness. Sluggards and thieves began to surface. So did tyrannical masters, and most of humanity eventually fell into slavery. Countries that abolished slavery nevertheless succumbed to the industrial revolution. Magnates still regarded human beings as expendable commodities. In many cases, workers were deprived of the joy of conceiving projects and the satisfaction of seeing them completed. They were reduced instead to dehumanized stiffs who were expected to insert a certain quota of pegs into holes hour after hour.

Despite the effects of the fall, however, work still retains its inherent dignity, and still rewards honest workers with satisfaction. Work continues to please God, and the persistence of His people in the face of onerous work conditions and unreasonable masters doubly pleases Him (1 Pet 2.18-19). Although God’s original design was perverted by sin, He will one day relieve work of the burdens that sin placed on it (Is 65.17-25; Rev. 15.1-4; 22.1-11).

Hard work is pleasing to God. Solomon tells us that work is profitable, and Paul expands this by teaching that work is service to God (Rom 12.11; Eph 6.6-8, Col 3.22), makes a person self-sufficient (1 Thess 4.12; 2 Thess 3.12, enables him to provide for his family (1 Tim 5.8), presents a good testimony to others (1 Thess 4.12); and enables him to give generously (Eph 4.28).

Work is for the Lord

"My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (Jn 4.34).

God saved us by grace apart from works, and His grace continues to keep us. We do not retain His favour by our works. We mean far more to God than the work we do, and what we are to Him is much more important to Him than what we do for Him. Nevertheless, we show God our gratitude by doing righteous work, enabled by His Spirit (Gal 5.22-23).

It is easy to break life into compartments — to regard family life, work life, and assembly life as unrelated categories. The Bible won’t allow that. We live all of life before the Lord, and we should consider everything we do as service to the Lord. Thus, for the Christian, there is no such thing as secular work. All legitimate work is the Lord’s work. As A W Tozer stated, "It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, but why he does it". When our bosses hand down righteous work assignments, they are actually delivering assignments from the Lord, because all authority is God’s authority (Rom 13.1). And if every work assignment is from God, then every completed project is for God. William Tyndale said that if we look externally, "there is a difference betwixt washing of dishes, and preaching of the Word of God; but as touching to please God, none at all". This gives great purpose and joy even to the most menial tasks — and it means an eternal reward, not just an earthly.

Work is therefore worship — a way to express our devotion to Christ (Eph 6.5-7). We not only serve God in our daily work, but we serve Him through it — the work itself is worship (Heb 13.16). When we serve others, we serve God, and remind Him of His perfect Servant (Is 42.1). No matter what the political or economic system, a Christian who humbly and faithfully works glorifies God. Spiritual life cannot be confined to some "sacred" space; it is everywhere we are, and in every place we work. As Richard Baxter put it, "This interest of God in your lowest, and hardest, and servilest labour, doth make it honourable and should make it sweet". In his preface to Grace Abounding, John Bunyan asked, "Have you forgot the milkhouse, the stable, the barn, and the like, where God did visit your soul?".

Work, however, ceases to be worship if we use it for self-promotion. Solomon warns us against trying to find purpose and significance in work itself, apart from God (Eccl 2.4-11). We must not let our work define us, especially if we are good at it. Anything we obsess about, other than God, is an idol. If we work to gain the admiration or — even worse — the envy of others, we are displacing Christ from his rightful place as Lord. We therefore should not work to dazzle our co-workers or to intimidate our competition, but to honour the Lord, and to keep the focus on Him (Col 3.22; 1 Cor 15.58).

Work should be Excellent

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (Eccl 9.10).

When God viewed His own work, he pronounced it excellent (Gen 1.31). God deserves our best, and He expects us to strive for excellence in everything. Excellence is not perfection; it is doing the best we can with the time and resources we have. As imitators of God, we make sturdy, long-lasting furniture, deliver reliable reports, write well-argued papers, and give flawless customer service. We faithfully keep the home, and attentively raise the children. We exceed expectation, and leave every place and project better than we found it. In striving to meet this standard of quality, however, we must remember that any success we have is from the Lord, and the praise belongs to Him. As soon as we start saying, "My work is clearly better than everyone else’s", we have installed ourselves as the centre of attention and displaced Christ. We are to be excellent for His glory, stay humble, and make sure that the praise flows to Him (1 Cor 10.31).

Work should be Ethical

"A false balance is abomination to the Lord: but a just weight is his delight" (Prov 11.1).

We must be careful to balance excellence with ethics. We honour (or dishonour) God not only by the quality of our work, but by the way we carry it out. We should be punctual, honest, and faithful in our work. We should not pad résumés, fudge numbers, or pilfer time (Tit 2.10). If we arrive late to work, take long lunches, or surf the web on company time, we are thieves.

Further, while it is good to work, not all work is good. A Christian work ethic requires not only working hard, but working in a worthwhile enterprise. Paul instructed the Ephesians to stop stealing and start doing good work that benefits others (Eph 4.28). Good work resembles God’s own work: it is useful and beneficial. It creates and reinforces what is true and good and beautiful. Although no occupation is completely free of ethical entanglements, Christians should steer clear of any jobs that plainly encourage what is false, evil, or ugly. Obvious examples of such bad work include promoting harmful substances like liquor or tobacco, selling junky merchandise, or becoming scam artists (Deut 25.13–16; Prov 11.1; 20.10; 20.23; Micah 6.11). Work should help people, not harm them. After a day’s work, our consciences should inform us not only that we have worked hard, but also that we have done something worthwhile.

To be continued.

1In this series of articles, unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations from Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version.

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