What is Work?

You know the picture. A businessman works his 9-5 cubicle job, living to make a paycheck to take care of the wife and kids he barely has energy for after doing something he finds meaningless all day. Meanwhile, the project he really loves—the garden, or novel, or house expansion, or service to his community—lies neglected because he doesn’t have time after his “real job.”

Obviously, this is an exaggeration to make a point. But the modern West does tend to have an overly narrow view of work. “Work,” to our minds, is a consistent set of tasks, usually accomplished under someone else’s authority, that produces monetary income. (The authority part is shifting as entrepreneurship becomes more and more viable again.) It’s something we do because we have to do it to survive, but not (usually) something we enjoy or find purpose in.

But here’s the thing. “Work” is actually a lot broader than that.

In the Beginning…

When God created Adam, Scripture says that He “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15) This stated purpose pairs with His command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” From the beginning, man has had work. The most basic work that we are called to is that of taking godly dominion and stewarding (or “tending”) the earth. We are called to “fill the earth and subdue it,” shaping it in a way that honors its Creator.

This sort of work is discussed throughout the Old Testament, as we read instructions for the Israelites to build homes and plant gardens and vineyards; as we see Proverbs praising diligent building and planting; and as we see that biblical figures such as Joseph, Boaz, and Solomon stewarded and built up the properties entrusted to them. The sort of self-sufficiency that we see in the Old Testament is echoed in the New with verses like 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10 and 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. Here we see that we are meant to continue working diligently, working “with [our] own hands” and rewarding from our labor.

New Testament Work

From the first command to “fill the earth and subdue it,” our task has been to expand God’s dominion on earth and build up His Kingdom. With the New Testament, the way we accomplish that has expanded as we are now charged to “go[…]and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all things [Jesus has] commanded.” (Matt. 28:19) God equips each of us to fulfill this work in unique ways, through His Spirit. Each of us is given gifts and talents to be used to the glory of God and the expansion of His Kingdom. These might be those gifts we think of as “spiritual gifts,” like those described in Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12; they might be skills or talents that we think of as ordinary, like writing or engineering or landscaping; or, perhaps more often, a combination of both. We ought to steward everything we are given in such a way that it builds up the Kingdom and points the world to Him.

The Catch

Of course, there’s a reason our initial view of work is often so dismal. There’s a reason that we associate “work” with “drudgery.” When Adam and Eve first sinned, God punished their disobedience. Adam’s curse is set forth in Genesis 3:17-19.

“Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

Because of this, work has become “toil” and gaining provision from our work takes much more effort. Sometimes we’re stuck with a less-than-ideal job to pay the bills for a while. But even there, we can aim to further the Kingdom through that situation. It may not be work that utilizes all of our gifts—though one can hope to find a job that at least uses one or two—but it can still bring glory to God as we steward what we’ve been given.

(Almost) Any Work Can be Biblical Work

Whether you’re an engineer or a writer or a landscaper or a plumber or an architect, your work can contribute to the Kingdom. The integrity with which you work, the content of your work, the attitude you have toward others as you work… all of these areas can point others to Christ and further the Kingdom. Obviously, there’s some work that is highly unlikely to be biblical no matter how you slice it, but such jobs are relatively few. The point is, whatever you do, you can do it to the glory of God.

The Fruit of Our Labor

Adam’s work in the garden was intended not only to expand God’s tangible domain, but also to provide for Adam’s needs. God told Adam and Eve: “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.” Their work was not given to them only to serve the Kingdom, but also to serve them through provision, and through them to serve others (first of all, their children).

Still today, our work ought to be part glorification of Christ and part provision for our needs and the needs of those around us. In Ephesians 4:28, the reformation of a thief involves his finding work so that he might be able to provide for himself and have enough left to give without stealing. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says that the reason we are to work for ourselves is that we might set an example to unbelievers and that we “may lack nothing.” There is both service and provision involved. It is out of thanks for that provision that we give back to God through tithes and offerings, as we see in 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, for example, which also tells us that our giving will lead to further provision.

We see that work should provide for our needs and the needs of others, but the more important fruit of our labor ought to be the furtherance of the gospel and expansion of the Kingdom. We ought to delight in the growth of the Kingdom, because it’s our kingdom, too! We’ve been adopted into it as heirs. Why wouldn’t we want to share that gift with others and add more members to the family? Or why wouldn’t we wish to steward it in the measure we are able and strengthen those already in the body? Galatians 6:8-10 talks about the spiritual reward for our Kingdom-building work:

“For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows of the Spirit will of the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

The fruit of our labor is not temporary, but eternal, and it not only blesses us but also those that we impact for the Kingdom.

In my next post I want to talk about a few more specific categories of work, but for now I want to hear your thoughts. What do you consider to be “work”? How do you seek to build the Kingdom through the work you do?


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