The beginning of an essay penned by Bob Black in 1985 entitled “The Abolition of Work” read, “No one should ever work. Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.” In a leisure-loving culture, many would wholeheartedly echo Black’s sentiment. Americans spend approximately 50 percent of their waking hours devoted to work. Is work a curse, or is it something that humans were uniquely designed to do? In stark contrast to the assertions of Bob Black, the significance and beneficial nature of work is a resounding theme in the Bible.
The origin of work is depicted in the book of Genesis. In the opening passage, God is the primary worker, busy with the creation of the world (Genesis 1:1-15). The Bible states that God worked for six days and rested on the seventh day. These passages reveal that God was the first to do work on the earth. Therefore, legitimate work reflects the activity of God. Because God is inherently good, work is also inherently good (Psalm 25:8; Ephesians 4:28). Furthermore, Genesis 1:31 declares that, when God viewed the fruit of His labor, He called it “very good.” God examined and assessed the quality of His work, and when He determined that He had done a good job, He took pleasure in the outcome. By this example, it is apparent that work should be productive. Work should be conducted in a way that produces the highest quality outcome. The reward for work is the honor and satisfaction that comes from a job well done.
Psalm 19 says that God reveals Himself to the world by His work. Through natural revelation, God’s existence is made known to every person on earth. Thus, work reveals something about the one doing the work. It exposes underlying character, motivations, skills, abilities, and personality traits. Jesus echoed this principle in Matthew 7:15-20 when He declared that bad trees produce only bad fruit and good trees only good fruit. Isaiah 43:7 indicates that God created man for His own glory. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we read that whatever we do should be to His glory. The term glorify means “to give an accurate representation.” Therefore, work done by Christians should give the world an accurate picture of God in righteousness, faithfulness, and excellence.
God created man in His image with characteristics like Him (Genesis 1:26-31). He created man to work with Him in the world. God planted a garden and put Adam in it to cultivate and maintain it (Genesis 2:8, 15). Additionally, Adam and Eve were to subdue and rule over the earth. What does this original work mandate mean? To cultivate means to foster growth and to improve. To maintain means to preserve from failure or decline. To subdue means to exercise control and discipline. Rule over means to administer, take responsibility for, and make decisions. This mandate applies to all vocations. The 15th-century Reformation leaders saw an occupation as a ministry before God. Jobs should be acknowledged as ministries, and workplaces should be considered as mission fields.
The Fall of Man depicted in Genesis 3 generated a change in the nature of work. In response to Adam’s sin, God pronounced several judgments in Genesis 3:17-19, the most severe of which is death. However, labor and the results of labor figure centrally in the rest of the judgments. God cursed the ground. Work became difficult. The word toil is used, implying challenge, difficulty, exhaustion, and struggle. Work itself was still good, but man must expect that it will be accomplished by “the sweat of his brow.” Also, the result will not always be positive. Although man will eat the plants of the field, the field will also produce thorns and thistles. Hard work and effort will not always be rewarded in the way the laborer expects or desires.
It is also noted that man would be eating from the produce of the field, not the garden. A garden is symbolic of an earthly paradise made by God as a safe enclosure. Gardens also symbolize purity and innocence. The earth or field, on the other hand, represents an unbounded, unprotected space and an emphasis on loss of inhibition and worldliness. Therefore, the work environment can be hostile, especially to Christians (Genesis 39:1-23; Exodus 1:8-22; Nehemiah 4).
It is said that man has three basic needs in life: love, purpose and significance. Many times, humans attempt to find purpose and significance in work itself. In Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, Solomon details his search for meaning in a variety of projects and works of all kinds. Even though the work brought some degree of satisfaction in accomplishment, his conclusion was, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
Other critical biblical principles regarding work are:
• Work is done not only to benefit the worker, but others also (Exodus 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Ephesians 4:28).
• Work is a gift from God and, for His people, will be blessed (Psalm 104:1-35; 127:1-5; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, 5:18-20; Proverbs 14:23).
• God equips His people for their work (Exodus 31:2-11).
There has been much debate recently about societal responsibilities and obligations toward the unemployed, uninsured, and uneducated in our society. While many of those affected by economic downturns truly desire to work and can’t find employment, there are a number of U.S. citizens who have become generational welfare recipients, preferring to remain on the government dole. It is interesting to note that the biblical welfare system was a system of work (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22). The Bible is harsh in its condemnation of laziness (Proverbs 18:9). Paul makes the Christian work ethic abundantly clear: “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially those of his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
In addition, Paul’s instruction to another church regarding those who preferred not to work was to “keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” And he goes on to say, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’" Instead, Paul instructs those who had been idle, “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:12).
Although God’s original design for work was perverted by sin, God will one day restore work without the burdens that sin introduced (Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 15:1-4; 22:1-11.) Until the day when the New Heavens and New Earth are set in place, the Christian attitude toward work should mirror that of Jesus: “My food, said Jesus, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Work is of no value except when God is in it.