Americans in the 21st century have a complicated relationship to work. On the one hand, many have seen their jobs disappear due, among other reasons, to automation, outsourcing, or the hiring of less expensive, more efficient, or more willing immigrants. We are increasingly bombarded by doomsday claims that robots and artificial intelligence will in time take over nearly all vocations, leading many to argue that the government should provide a guaranteed universal basic income to every citizen of our country, since most of us will supposedly be out of work soon. From this perspective, work is viewed as something that we have lost, or has been taken away from us.
On the other hand, we struggle mightily with laziness, benumbed by the soma of endless distractions on our artificially intelligent devices, bowing down to the idol of comfort, desiring to enjoy a perpetual “weekend” of life. This perspective views work as something we try to avoid. Because it’s true – work is hard. It’s labor, a word that carries connotations of struggle, aches, tediousness, toil, grinding it out through difficult circumstances, and pain (it is no accident that the process of childbirth is called “labor”) – and we’d rather not have to endure pain.
In such a state of affairs, how are Christians to think, respond and live? Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformers brought about a transformation in the way that work was viewed. Yet the need for our thought and action to be conformed to the Scriptures is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process of reformation, particularly for new generations of believers. To this end, as with so many topics, it is surprisingly fruitful to apply a simple creation-fall-redemption grid to work.
Work is not a result of the fall. It was a gift of God in the Garden of Eden before man’s rebellion. Far from being a curse to be avoided at all cost, labor is a tremendous blessing, in which we can find fulfillment and meaning. In our working, we reflect the image of God. For God was the first worker, creating the heavens and the earth in six days and resting on the seventh day. Built into the fabric of the moral universe, and our humanity, is the pattern God set: the principle and command to work six days and rest one day. Adam and Eve were commanded to subdue the earth, and to rule over all living creature (Genesis 1:28); they were to cultivate and keep the garden God had planted (Genesis 2:15).
From the very beginning, humans were created with an abundance of creativity for a variety of tasks. John Murray, in his book Principles of Conduct, puts it well: “The subduing of the earth must imply the expenditure of thought and skill and energy in bringing the earth and its resources under such control that they would be channeled to the promotion of certain ends which they were suited and designed to fulfill but which would not be fulfilled apart from the exercise of man’s design and labor…The nature of man is richly diversified. There is not only a diversity of basic need but there is also a profuse variety of taste and interest, of aptitude and endowment, of desires to be satisfied and of pleasures to be gratified. When we consider the manifold ways in which the earth was fashioned and equipped to meet and gratify the diverse nature and endowments of man, we can catch a glimpse of the vastness and variety of the task involved in subduing the earth, a task directed to the end of developing man’s nature, gifts, interests, and powers in engagement with the resources deposited by God in the earth and the sea.” These creation mandates have not been set aside. Just as we are to continue to be fruitful and multiply, we are to continue to subdue the little and big corners of the universe that God has set before each one of us.
This creational reality is why I’m not persuaded by those who assert that artificial intelligence and robots will lead to an end of work. To be sure, certain jobs will disappear or be greatly reduced in terms of the number of people needed to fulfil them for society. But humans will constantly be creating new jobs to meet new needs and wants. Twenty-five years ago, the internet as we know it did not exist. Ten years ago, the smartphone and the tablet with its accompanying hardware and software did not exist. Consider all the jobs that have been created by the advent of these technologies. Yes, we must recognize that the transition for many people has been and will be difficult and painful. New skills will have to be learned as jobs are destroyed and created. But the fact that mankind is made in the image of God teaches us not only that we were made to work, but also that we have the creativity to respond to the innovations that our fellow image bearers might one day bring to – and upon – us.
Creation tells us that work is a blessing. But the fall tells us that work will always be hard. There is no escaping the pain of work, this side of the return of Jesus. In God’s response to Adam’s sin, he cursed the arena in which our work takes place: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread…” (Gen. 3:17-19). Now, work is hard, sweaty, toilsome, painful, and frustrating. The creation works against us. Things fall apart. Futility sets in (Eccl. 1:3; 2:18-23).
Not only is the arena of work affected by sin, we the workers are affected as well. The ways we relate to work after Eden are broken. Whether we are dead in our sins and trespasses or made alive and still fighting against indwelling sin, we see the effects of the fall in a variety of ways. Sometimes we hate work. As noted above, we are lazy, worshipping an idol of comfort. John Murray again expresses it pointedly in his Principles of Conduct: “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…[Modern man] is out to do the least he can for the most he can get. He does not love his work; he has come to believe he is very miserable because of the work he has to do. Labor is a burden rather than a pleasure.” Some struggle not so much with hating work, as with over-loving work. Our work is the idol we worship, so we overwork, neglecting other responsibilities for the sake of the promotion, the recognition, or the bonus. Even when we are able to avoid these two ditches, our motivations to work can be skewed: we struggle with discontentment, envy, a love of money, or a belief that we really are just working for the weekend or for retirement.
As we reflect on the way sin has affected our work, perhaps we are tempted to say with the disciples, “If the relationship of the man with his work is like this, it is better not to work!” (Matthew 19:10). Just as with marriage, however, fleeing to the monastery is not the solution for the difficulty of work. Indeed, the New Testament is clear: “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (II Thessalonians 3:10). We are to work in a quiet fashion and eat our own bread (II Thessalonians 3:12). It should be our ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to our own business and work with our hands, so that we will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need (I Thessalonians 4:11-12). Not only are we to work so that we won’t be in any need, but we are to work so that we will have something to share with the one who is has need (Ephesians 4:28).
The Christian has been called by God’s grace to work, and is being sanctified by the Holy Spirit to work in a particular manner. We are to work six days and rest on the Sabbath day, the Lord’s Day (Exodus 20:8-11). We are to work for the Lord Jesus: “With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free” (Ephesians 6:7-8). “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23-24). Finally, we are to work with all our heart: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10; cf. Colossians 3:23).
As an aspect of the priesthood of all believers, the Reformation recovered the notion of vocation and the goodness of work outside of the ecclesiastical domain. John Calvin explained in his commentary on Luke 10:38-42: “We know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God, than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.” B. B. Warfield, in his little pamphlet “The Religious Life of the Theological Student,” reminded us of the Protestant ethic: “It is the great doctrine of ‘vocation,’ the doctrine, to wit, that the best service we can offer to God is just to do our duty—our plain, homely duty, whatever that may chance to be. The Middle Ages did not think so; they cut a cleft between the religious and the secular life, and counseled him who wished to be religious to turn his back on what they called ‘the world,’ that is to say, not the wickedness that is in the world— ‘the world, the flesh and the devil,’ as we say—but the work-a-day world, that congeries of occupations which forms the daily task of men and women, who perform their duty to themselves and their fellowmen. Protestantism put an end to all that.” Whatever it is that God has called us to do, we are to love God and love our neighbor through what we do and how we do it. Competence, diligence, quality, integrity, faithfulness are to mark us as believers in Jesus.
Creation, fall, redemption: viewing our work through this threefold grid will change the way we approach our day to day experiences, whether in an office, a store, a factory line, or at home. Jesus has saved us and is transforming us into His likeness. He came to accomplish the work the Father sent Him to do (John 4:34). In the same way, as those made and being remade in the image of God, we are to accomplish the good works He has prepared beforehand for us to do. Our work, our labor, as difficult as it might be, is one of the most important works He has given us to do.