By Daniel J. Lee
Welcome back to "Faith that Works." In our first post, we introduced the series and explored why we need to broaden our thinking when it comes to our work. We left off with the question of how we can better integrate our work with our faith, how we can enrich our paradigm and make it more robust, more biblical. What is the meaning of our work? How do the details of our daily grind fit into God’s world, into his Kingdom; how do they relate to the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus? Let's take up where we left off, and start looking for answers.
My approach for this and following posts will be to lay out some helpful concepts the Bible provides for thinking about work, organized around its four-act story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. I'll also provide some questions for reflection and application. It might be helpful to reflect on these one or two at a time, maybe before the kids wake up, or on your morning commute, or with your spouse, friends, or coworkers.
In this post, we'll consider how our work finds its place in creation – how it finds its meaning against the backdrop of God's world, from the fields, oceans, and forests of the earth, teeming with creatures, to the constellations of stars and planets that swirl above us. In order to see this, however, we need to go back to the beginning.
Creation: Work Begins
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). In these first words of the Bible, we find the origin of work, its exemplar, and the key to its meaning. For they tell us this: that in the beginning, before anyone else had done a single thing, God worked. Having laid out his plans for the ages to come, God the Great First Worker rolled up his sleeves, and got to work.
His work, the continuing narrative tells us, was to create everything that exists. And at the pinnacle of his creation, he created a race of creatures who would resemble him, who would bear his image – human beings (Gen 1:26-30). As his image bearers, they would imitate him and represent him to the rest of his creation. A part of the way they would do this would be to do something he had done, and continues to do – to work.
When God created human beings in his image, to be his sons and daughters, he assigned them a task, the task of working.
What was humanity’s job description? This passage, often called the Cultural Mandate, lays it out. When God created human beings in his image, to be his sons and daughters, he assigned them a task, the task of working, specifically by exercising "dominion" over his creation, serving as his vice-regents, his representative rulers – kings and queens – who would deal with his creation justly, and do so for the purpose that the earth might bring forth food, advancing and enriching the life of its creatures.
A few verses later, the narrative rewinds and replays the drama of creation, this time zooming in on God’s creation of human beings, emphasizing the uniqueness and dignity of their place in creation, including the role they would play through their work. The earth was at this point yet unworked and even unnamed (2:5, 2:20). The word "work" here means to till, to tend, to cultivate. Creation was just raw, disordered, nameless material. The reason the earth remained this way – unnamed, unworked, uncultivated – was that "there was no man" to do this work.
The remedy God chooses to address this situation becomes clear: he creates human beings. He creates a race of earth-cultivators whose work would make the difference between a creation that was good, but remained uncultivated, raw, and unuseful – having latent but untapped power – and a creation that was fully cultivated, yielding a bounty of usefulness, beauty, and life-advancing culture. In a word, civilization.
God’s plan for human beings was for them to fulfill a unique role in his creation, a unique work....
So we find a few verses later that God placed Adam in the garden with this very purpose, that he would "work it" (same word as 2:5) and "keep it" (2:15). The word "keep" means to guard, to protect; it’s used later to describe the task of Israel’s priests to guard the temple and keep it holy. So then, God’s plan for human beings was for them to fulfill a unique role in his creation, a unique work: work that would image and represent him, and in so doing, glorify him, work that would rule over his creation, cultivating it, creating culture out of it, keeping it holy, and all for the sake of human flourishing. Without human beings, none of this would happen. God the Great First Worker created a race of workers – creation-cultivators, royal children – who would resemble him, working as he does, representing him as his rulers over his world. By the work of these who would bear his Image, God's renown, glory, beauty, order, and splendor would fill the cosmos.
From all this we can develop what we might call a... working definition of work. Work is God’s calling to humanity to image him by cultivating creation to advance human life in all of its dimensions. As Tim Keller puts it,
"All work is rearranging the raw material of God’s creation for the purpose of human flourishing."
What does this mean for your work? Let’s draw out some points for reflection and application.
Our work was meant to glorify God.
All work was meant to help fill the earth with his glory. It was meant to make a big deal of him. To point to him and to his great worth.
How does your work glorify God? (If you can't answer this, it's OK; read on for ideas.)
How have you struggled to glorify God in your work?
Who or what are you tempted to glorify (make a big deal of) through your work? What competes with God for glory in your work? Which idols loom largest in your line of work? How can you fight against them?
Work glorifies God in part because it images him.
Our work is meant to imitate God, to represent him. According to his self-portrayal in Scripture’s images, God is a creative type, an artist, a gardener, an architect, a construction worker, a janitor, a banker, a writer, a teacher, a physician, an entrepreneur, a homemaker, a counselor, a herder of sheep, a fashion designer, a garment worker, a freedom fighter, a judge, a lawyer, a soldier, a singer, a parent, a student, a servant, a King.
Take some time to think about this question: how does your work image God? How does what you do imitate, and represent, who God is and how he has worked or is working? Does God, in other words, do the work you do?
How does the idea that God is the true worker you’re created to imitate affect how you do your work?
Who else do you imitate in your work, rather than God? Compared to God, how are they as models to follow?
Work is cultivating creation.
It’s managing, ruling over, developing, stewarding, rearranging some aspect of creation for the sake of human flourishing. Work takes raw material – whatever is marked by chaos and only latent usefulness or beauty – and refashions it to create order, actual usefulness, and beauty. It’s culture-creation.
What aspect or realm of his creation has God given you to steward, manage, rearrange, or cultivate through your work? What raw material of creation do you work with? Try to be specific. (It might be “the beauty of sound” if you’re a musician, “words as symbols of reality” if you’re a writer, “the minds of children” if you’re a teacher, “the lives and hearts of children” if you’re a parent, etc.)
How does your work try to develop and cultivate that raw material into something more beautiful, more orderly, more useful? What processes are involved?
What "tools" – skills and talents, whether natural, learned or supernatural (spiritual gifts) – has God given you that uniquely equip you to work with these raw materials? What raw materials do you feel could be better cultivated to serve people? This may help you think about your calling.
All work has dignity because all work images God, and because all work is a calling from God.
The idea that all work is a calling, a vocation, from God was one of the truths of Scripture Martin Luther rediscovered during the Protestant Reformation, a truth that had been veiled by the Roman Catholic Church, who exalted the work of the clergy over that of laymen. Upon rediscovering the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, Luther insisted that all kinds of work could be a calling from God. It was through the everyday worker – the farmer, the milkman – that God answered humanity’s prayers for its daily bread.
So all work is important. All work has meaning, and value, because God is the real boss of every Christian at work (Col 3:23-24). Because all work deals with God’s good creation. Because all work images God. Contrary to how we may think, God views both “white collar” and “blue collar” jobs, both well-paying and modestly-paying work, both creative and “conventional” work, both professional and parental work, as a calling from him, and as having dignity, value and meaning (Js 2). When God became a man in Jesus Christ, he became a working man – a shepherd, a carpenter/contractor, a servant.
Do you struggle to see the value of your work? How are you tempted – whether by yourself, friends, family, ethnic background, or present milieu – to have a deflated view of the value of your work? How do you feel as though your work isn't important or valuable, at least not as much as others'? Why do you feel this way?
In contrast, how are you tempted to have an inflated view of the value of your work? How are you tempted to feel as though the work of others does not have as much value as the work you do? What is it about your work compared to theirs that makes you feel this way?
Simply the act of working itself, regardless of the kind of work, has dignity, because God created us to work. Not working for extended periods of time, when we're able to, thus misaligns us from our created purpose; this is why unemployment can feel dehumanizing. How can you give God thanks for the work you have? If you’re looking for more work, what work can you do now as you look for and wait for a job? How is God teaching you to grow in faith as you ask him to provide a job?
To sum up, our work is a part of the very way God created us – in his Image – and it plays a crucial role in his world. Join us for the future posts, in which we’ll look at work from the vantage points of each of the remaining three acts of the Bible’s story: the Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. For now, feel free to share your thoughts, or even your responses to the reflection questions, in the comments section below.