Theology of Work
I grew up working for my dad. He owns a commercial cabinet shop. We build display fixtures and do interior packages for retail stores. So if you’re in need of a store package for your new retail store, check out Silver Star Industries.
Working for family creates a strange dynamic. You have a job available anytime. So you feel obligated to work during summer, winter, and spring breaks, since you are privileged to have such a flexible job.
Work therefore became a begrudging task I did while my other friends were enjoying their breaks. I would start work at 7am, press through the day sanding, staining, cleaning, assembling, bending acrylic, and the like, and then at 330pm my real life would get going, and I would go into town and spend time with my friends. I lived for the evenings and the weekends.
Genesis 3:19 made sense to me: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”
The ground is cursed. This means that work sucks, and we await Jesus’ return when we no longer have to labor. That was my perspective. Work was a post-fall reality. Work is the result of sin, so we must bear with it in the same way that we have to bear with war or disease or any other kind of brokenness. So I pressed through work to get to my real life. And as far as living for Jesus went, that happened at church and worship services, and spending time with friends, and reading Scripture – really anything but work. Work was a post-fall reality. Just the result of sin.
And there is a lot of truth to this, actually. Work is a broken reality. Something happened after humanity sinned which transformed our work experience.
But I overlooked one a detail in Genesis 2:15: “Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.”
Here work “abad” is a pre-fall reality. Work is included in God’s ideal world; it is part of his good purpose for human beings in his good creation. Further, commentators point out that “shamar,” the Hebrew word translated “to keep,” is a worship word. In other words, humanity was placed in the garden to work as an act of worship and obedience to Yahweh.
So work is not only part of God’s perfect purpose for humanity in creation; it is central to living in a vibrant and obedient relationship of worship and service with Yahweh. This is a pre-fall reality, before sin happened.
So what is work? Why is it so significant? Why has God ordained a world in which human beings must work?
Here’s a few reasons:
1) Work reflects Yahweh. This is the source of all the other reasons, actually. Human beings are created in the image of the God who works (Gen 1:27; 2:3).
2) Work reflects the creativity of Yahweh. As Yahweh created the world (Gen 1:1), so human beings explore their own creativity as they build, assemble, organize, and bring order and meaning and purpose and usefulness out of chaos.
3) Work reflects the community of Yahweh. Human beings are created in community, in relationship with one another. This is a reflection of the plurality of the one God (Gen 1:27; 2:24; Deut 6:4). Human civilization has created massive buildings, bridges, and has sent space ships to the moon. This is only possible when communities of human beings work together. The power of community at work reflects the Triune God.
4) Work reflects the service of Yahweh. Working is essentially serving others, whether direct customer service or not. This reflects the serving, giving God who is ultimately and perfectly revealed in his Christ (John 1:18; Heb 1:1-4).
5) Work reflects the communication of Yahweh. One noticeable aspect of work is the constant need to communicate with others and to use our words. We must continually stretch ourselves with the different personalities in our offices and workspaces. Our words can either build up and empower or tear down and destroy. This reflects the communicative God, both in his trinitarian nature and in the way he creates the world with his Word.
6) Work reflects the independence of Yahweh. The doctrine of aseity says that God has no need anything outside of himself to be who he is (Acts 17:25). He is truly independent. When we pursue responsibility and work hard and support ourselves and don’t mooch off our friends and family (2 Thess 3:6-12), we create a finite, limited picture of this aspect of God’s character.
Of course, all of these example are finite, limited reflections of the Triune God. But nonetheless, they are massively significant aspects of our humanity; they are at the core of how we reflect the creative energy of Yahweh to the world around us. Dramatizing the character of God as his image-bearers is at the heart of holiness.
I hope that this is an encouragement to those of you who might not study the Torah or teach systematic theology or preach for your work. Whether you are a lawyer, operations manager, starbucks barista, cabinet maker, jazz musician, occupational therapist, or whatever, you are significantly displaying the life of Jesus to your world when you work.
So work hard. Live in your world and work in it and keep it. This is right at the heart of Godliness and holiness.