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31 March 2014

What is Work?

Sarah Jane Marshall Sarah-Jane Marshall LICC Work Forum
Whole Life Discipleship LICC Blog

We see work on the very first page of the Bible as God creates the heavens and the earth and then steps back to admire his handiwork declaring it to be ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31). And God’s work doesn’t stop there. Throughout the Bible we see a God who is active in the world sustaining and providing for his creation. As Jesus said, “My Father is always at this work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). Our understanding of our own work therefore springs from our identity as human beings made in the image of a God who works. 

In the creation accounts, we see God taking the ‘formless and empty’ (Gen 1:2) and ‘working’ to give it form (separating light from darkness, sea from sky, land from sea, day from night) and fullness (vegetation, stars, fish, birds, livestock and human beings). It’s hardly surprising, then, that the commission given to God’s ‘image-bearers’ mirrors this pattern of forming and filling. Mankind is instructed to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1:28). We fill the earth by having families and building human civilisation and we ‘subdue’ the earth, or form it, as we cultivate, order and deploy its vast resources and potentialities for the good and enrichment of humankind.

It’s sometimes tempting to see work as a necessary evil, or worse, a curse. But despite the frustrations of work in a fallen world (more on that next week), human work is designed by God to be a blessing. Adam is put in the Garden of Eden with the instruction that he should ‘work it and take care of it’ (Gen 2:15) not as a chore, but as an invitation to co-work with God by cultivating his creation and maximising its potential. And so a biblical understanding shows us that work is an essential part of our God-given human dignity and identity. It is there in the Bible before the Fall and is fundamentally a good thing.

Work isn’t restricted to jobs we get paid for, but instead encompasses the whole range of human activities which build and enrich society and which employ the resources of creation in the cause of human flourishing.  Work as God intended it includes both physical work (Adam ‘worked the ground’) and intellectual work (he identified and named the animals) and he attaches equal value to both.

David* is retired and once a month volunteers for the National Trust at a nearby stately home. Occasionally he gets the opportunity to explain to tourists the meaning behind some of the paintings of biblical scenes and he thanks God for these special moments. But on the days that David is simply a welcoming presence providing helpful directions to guests he is also working profoundly in the image of God. By facilitating an enjoyable trip to a stately home, he helps the guests flourish.

Similarly, Trevor took early retirement from his job as an electronics engineer nine years ago in order to care for his wife Vanessa whose chronic back problem had worsened. Trevor’s days look quite different now – there’s a lot more housework and much fewer circuit boards – but in both vocations he has been able to obey the call to steward the talents and resources he has been given. As he cares for his wife as a loving husband he helps her to flourish.

Phil runs a business and in doing so earns money, some of which he chooses to give away to the church. But the main reason Phil works is not to give money to the church (as if the only ‘real work’ goes on there), but to do good work himself through his town planning consultancy. As he writes reports that advise on the development of new roads and railways and ports he helps those living in that city to flourish.

Work is a gift given to us by God as children who bear his image. Work takes many forms, but provided it makes a positive contribution to human flourishing within God’s world, it is deeply dignified and significant. 

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