Why does God want us to work?

What was the most frustrating thing about being a lawyer? It was what we in the profession call a ‘document dump’: a lawyer from the opposing side sends you an email with multiple attachments at 4pm on a Friday afternoon asking for comments by close of play Monday – putting a torpedo through your weekend plans.

When it comes to work, many of us feel frustration, resentment and exasperation, irrespective of the role. If work is like this, can it really be what God wants for his people? Or to put it another way, why does God want us to work?

Let’s explore that question by taking a brief look at how the Bible sees the workplace and draw out some practical implications. This is not an exhaustive systematic theology of work, and it will not address every work situation (such as paid ministry, carer roles, unemployment or underemployment). We also need to be clear from the outset that the work we do in our workplace forms part of our Christian life. Pouring our energies into our workplace is by no means a better alternative to living for Jesus in our day-to-day lives. Indeed, more often than not, when the Bible speaks about work, its application is to our daily Christian life rather than our workplace. Nevertheless, by looking at the biblical framework of work, we can see that God’s plan for the fullness of time in Christ very much includes our time spent in our workplaces.

In the beginning… was work

It is worth noting that the world started with work. Not just the work involved in God’s creation of the world, but also the work God gave Adam and Eve to do:

And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:28)

God appointed Adam and Eve as senior executives in his organisation – so to speak – and gave them an explicit mandate: to exercise rule and dominion over his creation and establish a line of succession. Notably, this mandate was not restricted to the garden of Eden; the command to them was to fill and subdue the earth. The garden alone was never meant to be humanity’s eternal home. Instead, they had a job to do – a job whose scope reached to the ends of the earth.

Further, as they ruled and subdued the earth, their work was intended to glorify God. As David in Psalm 8 reflects on the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28, he can’t help but marvel that Adam and Eve were “crowned with glory and honour” (Psa 8:5) and that they were given “dominion over the works of [the LORD’s] hands” (Psa 8:6).  Furthermore, at the beginning and end of the Psalm, David connects the majesty of the LORD’s name in all the earth with this mandate (c.f. Psa 8:1,9). Thus, David rightly understood the privilege and gravity of what Adam and Eve had been tasked to do: to mediate God’s glory and presence to the whole earth. The work Adam and Eve had been commissioned to do would be instrumental in God receiving the glory due to him.

It’s worth noting two things. First, as part of God’s good creation order (that is, before sin came into the world), God intended for his people to work. God sees work as a fundamentally good thing, just as he sees the environment and the institution of marriage as fundamentally good. 

Second, Adam and Eve’s work was intended to bring glory to God. Likewise, we too are to work for his glory in all that we do and thus we are to work diligently, honestly and skilfully, and to see his glory extend to our workplaces by telling our colleagues about our CEO, our Master, our Lord and our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Our time at our workplaces should simply be an extension of how we spend our time elsewhere: working to his praise and glory.

So in our workplaces we have a job to do that goes far beyond our regular nine-to-five work hours, pay grade or title. Every day we go into the office and, for example, patiently listen to our colleague Belinda about her never-ending workload and her gripes with Kevin, every day we quietly go about our work without seeking to people-please or self-aggrandise and every day we pray for our colleagues to one day know the Lord is another day where we can look to achieve this goal.

After the fall… was work

But any of us who have reached page three of the Bible know that Adam gets called up before the CEO to explain his brazen and shocking misconduct. The entry of sin into the world as a result of Adam’s disobedience led to catastrophic judgement in so many different ways, which we still see and experience in the world today. But at the fall God singles out the workplace for painful frustration: “Cursed is the ground because of you: in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17c).

In the space of a few verses, Adam has gone from being second-in-command to facing disciplinary action. The thing to note though is that despite Adam’s disgraceful employee conduct, he does not get fired from the role. Even in judgement and exile from the garden, God gives Adam work to do:“Therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen 3:23).

Even after the fall, Adam is commanded to work. But why? Why would God tell Adam to work knowing that he himself frustrated work in judgement in the first place?

Well, with respect to Adam, we get a bit of an idea from Adam’s origin story:

“When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground …” (Gen 2:5)

Adam and Eve were crucial to ensuring that the land was fit for purpose for its inhabitants, whether their own progeny or the beasts of the field, by ensuring that the garden was tended. Their role in the garden was not passive; they were integral to the upholding and sustaining of God’s creation. This was the case both inside the garden as they walked together alongside the Lord God and outside the garden as they were sent away from his presence into exile.

But there is a wider principle at play that goes beyond Adam and applies to us. Even in a post-fall world – a world under the weight of sin and curse – there is still a place for work. Yes, because of Adam’s sin and our sin, work is subjected to judgement. Our workplaces are all situated upon the cursed ground of this world. Work will never be a place of rest because the whole earth is not at rest. Our sin has put paid to that. But in God’s eyes, we still have a job to do.

Thus, there are two implications for life after the garden. First, work is fallen. Work is subject to the curse of sin. Work will therefore be painful sometimes. Work at times will be a cause for bitter strife at all personal levels. Work will at times leave us feeling low and demoralised. If we feel frustrated in our jobs, it is worth remembering that the workplace is not outside God’s field of vision. He knows our frustration. He knows that it is frustrating. In his righteous judgement, he has frustrated work.

But second, work is inevitably going to be hard. The times that our work is painful, taxing and … hard work… may be signs that we are working hard and thus working as God intended. The Bible frequently talks about not being lazy or slothful in our workplaces; working hard is a sign that we have understood what we have been commanded by God to do.

Jesus has fulfilled work

Fast-forward to the Lord Jesus and we have a resume like no other. Not insofar as his carpentry skills (although I’m sure his woodworking was impressive) but with success where Adam failed:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Jesus takes up Adam’s mandate to bear fruit and produces fruit in immeasurable quantities. Through Jesus’ death, Jesus bears fruit. Through abiding in Jesus, we bear fruit. Without abiding in Jesus, we cannot bear fruit. The entry of Jesus onto the scene changes everything. Where Adam failed, the Lord Jesus has conquered.

But it goes without saying that Jesus has done far more than simply one-up Adam. He has come to give us rest, as we find out in these much-loved verses: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden [burdened], and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

Jesus invites those of us who are wearied and fatigued to find rest in him. His invitation is to those who ‘labour’, thus casting our minds to before the Exodus when the Israelites were toiling away for Pharaoh and his taskmasters in the scorching Egyptian sun. Because of Jesus and the eternal rest he offers, our labour for our taskmasters in our workplaces is not in vain, no matter how burdensome. Because Jesus gives us rest, we can now rest assured.

Jesus’ success in fulfilling Adam’s mandate together with his offer of eternal rest means for us that he has fulfilled work. Not that he has done your job of filling in Excel spreadsheets and changing that tire but that his work of glorifying the Father in his earthly career has been completed. He received a perfect appraisal from his Father for his accomplishments. He has finished the work, which means we can relax.

No matter what our efforts might be in the office or at the worksite, no matter whether we get berated by our boss, or we fail to meet a deadline, or a deal falls over, our work is neither meaningless nor the be-all and end-all. If we feel overburdened and overwhelmed in the workplace (or outside the workplace for that matter), or if we feel that work is the most important thing we need to achieve in this world, then we need to look afresh at Jesus’ atoning and redemptive work and see it as the quintessential panacea. We live and thus work as those who can look back at the finished work of Jesus with confidence, assurance and hope. Jesus’s labour means that our labour is not in vain.

We will work in glory

It’s easy to think that the new creation will be like one of those commercials from the 90s where we play harps and consume easily spreadable cheese on lightly toasted bagels all day long. However, what we see in the parable of the minas is that there is even a role for work in the new creation:

“And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas’. And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities’.” (Luke 19:17-19)

While we need to be careful to read parables as exactly that – parabolic narratives designed to evince a theological principle – it is notable in this parable that Jesus emphasises that the good and faithful servants are to be given authority over cities when the kingdom of God appears. Those servants are given work to do while the nobleman is away, but they are also given work to do when he returns. While we are not given exact details as to what this work encompasses, it should not be surprising that the new creation continues to contemplate work. If work is part of God’s good creation order before the fall, then work will be part of God’s new creation order, albeit on an unimaginable scale and scope.

For those of us engaged in work now, it is worth us then thinking what work will last to this new creation. Unsurprisingly, given the discontinuity between this world and the world to come, all those things we hold close in the workplace will not come with us: those bandaged limbs, those immaculate and incomparable databases, those painstakingly prepared cups of coffee. What will last, though, are the people on those databases and patient lists who ultimately come to know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Our lives, whether in the workplace or outside the workplace, should be devoted to longing to be told on that final day: “Well done, good servant”.

So, back to work?

Having traced through some of the highlight reel of the Bible’s storyline, we have pondered why God wants us to work. We have seen the privilege of work: that work is indeed a good thing in God’s world. We have seen the folly of work: that work, despite being good, is fallen and stained by sin’s curse on this world. We have also seen the fulfilment and future of work: that Jesus has fulfilled work and that there will even be a place for work when we leave this earth to be with him.

Work has its challenges. There will be horrible bosses, document dumps and, alas, timesheets. However, work is a wonderful thing and very much part of God’s good design. Each day we go into work is another day we can see God’s plan in Christ work itself out in our lives to his praise and glory.