A Short (and Personal) Theology of Work

Nicholas Beasley

I work up at 5:50 this morning, when my older son’s alarm went off. He was rising early to pick up another kid and go to the gym, to lift weights before school. I wanted to see him a bit before school and knew there was some cornbread leftover from last night, that I wanted to toast up and butter for him. I hate to waste food, and his mornings at home are soon to run out. I also wanted to run before the younger child got up, partly because the dog deserves a run, and I knew I would be at his football game late into the evening, so I fixed Elizabeth’s work tea, slipped out into the darkness, and pounded out 3.5 slow miles. I made French toast for Andrew, since he had that football game, tied his game day necktie, cleaned up the dishes, fed the dog, and left him at school on my way to the office. I found it all very satisfying; doing needful things, with care, for people I love. I like to work; I do not enjoy idle time; I require my vacations to be active. I think this is one reason I like golf, especially walking golf. It is fun, but it almost feels like work. I think people are meant mostly to work.

Genesis 1 is out first Biblical insight into the nature of God, and it shows us that God is a creator, a giver of life, and a worker. Work takes its initial dignity from the fact that it is a way of creating, of our sharing in the creative power of God. Throughout the chapter, God calls things into being, takes a seeming metaphorical step back for perspective and sees that what he had made is good.And “God saw the light, that it was good” (1:4), the dry land was also “good” (1:10), a repeated refrain, right through to 1:31, “and God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” That verse uses, twice, the ordinary Hebrew word for work, the same verb that would be used for any human doing work, for ploughing or sweeping or carving. God is pictured in Genesis 1 as a worker, a craftsman, perhaps a methodical artist, but as one who works.

In the second chapter of Genesis, God acts more like a farmer. “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” And something of an orchard keeper: “Out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.” And maybe a sculptor, “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” This is very tactile, workman-like creating; there is dirt under God’s metaphorical fingernails. And (2:15) “the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.” The working God set man, immediately, to work. That is what we are doing in the garden of this wonderful creation, tilling and keeping the garden God has entrusted to our care. Work is good, a holy calling, a privilege. Ask anyone who cannot work, because of illness or injury, and they will tell you how they yearn to work, to feel useful, to accomplish.

Thus God charges those made in his image, who share a small measure of his dignity, with work. The capacity to work is among the chief things that distinguishes us from the rest of God’s creatures and speaks to our particular relationship with God. We are made in God’s image, according to God’s likeness, with dominion over the rest of the creation and are told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion. Pope Paul VI said “the Bible, from the first page on, teaches us that the whole creation is for man, that it is his responsibility to develop it by intelligent effort, and by means of this labor to perfect it, so to speak, for his use.” God said to work and made us in his image to work. Six days are to be devoted to work, a necessary foundation to the idea of Sabbath. Six days of cultivation, of creativity, of promoting the flourishing of God’s creation, and then a day of blessed rest in the abundance that God and we have made together.

The idea that work is inherent to the God-image in us and our dignity was not necessarily widespread in the ancient world. The Greeks generally thought work was a curse, and that achieving leisure and the unencumbered life would make one more truly human. To be most human was to be least involved in the material world; Plato thought bodies and physicality generally gross. Aristotle thought some people were born to be slaves, and the great life of philosophy and politics depended on the work of those not worthy of it. There was dignity only in thinking, none in labor, and thus none in the laborer. The Mesopotamian creation myths all explain work as one of the reasons that people were made, as slaves to the gods, cursed to serve them. The author Philip Jensen puts it this way “If God came into the world, what would he be like? For the ancient Greeks, he might have been a philosopher king. The ancient Romans might have looked for a just and noble statesman. But how does the God of the Hebrews come into the world? As a carpenter” (Keller, Every Good Endeavor, 37). The Hebrews believed God worked and invited them to share in that creative, life-giving enterprise.

Now, I must admit, it doesn’t always feel that way. We’ve had terrible bosses, been asked to do impossible things, experienced a painful lack of reward for our work. Some more than others; I’ve known little injustice in my working years. I think the Bible admits that this is true as well, that work, in a world broken by sin, can be broken as well. We call that “toil,” work that lacks a sense of fulfillment and reward. When Adam and Eve were disobedient to God, they were sent from the garden, the man told that (Genesis 3:17) the ground was now cursed and would require great toil to produce food amidst thorns and thistles. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground” (3:19). Women received a parallel sentence, the pain of labor in childbirth increased. Toil and labor can bear marks of our fallen nature, our injustice to each other, our lack of care for the creation. Sometimes work is caught up in the general fallen-ness of the world.

In such a situation, technology arises. Toiling people look for a means to ease their toil, to be more effective with their effort. Sticks become shovels, shovels become ploughs, fields can be planted, civilization happens. A shorthand for all of that is technology, by which we might think of computers but could also think of levers and wheels and hoes and other more basic things. And that can be troubling to the goodness of work, in a fallen world. In Genesis 4, we read of the brothers Cain (a farmer) and Able (a herder) and a sharp dispute that arose between them. Cain took his brother out into the field and killed him. The Bible doesn’t say how, but there in the field, and with reference to his farming, I have always pictured a tool. Later, in Genesis 11, we hear of the building of the Tower of Babel. “And they said one to another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” They had learned some proper construction, not using irregular stones, taking a step away from depending on God’s creation. And they built the city “to make a name for” themselves. A story of technology, ego, a very modern story, working not for the care of family, not for the common good, but for self or corporate aggrandizement. Technology makes this kind of broken work more likely; its consequences need always to be considered. Too often technology is unleashed on us without enough moral reflection, and is one of the reasons we find Sabbath practice so difficult.

I just finished Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, a single day in the life of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. His day of rest is utterly full of activity, preparing for a family dinner party with multiple shops to visit, playing a highly competitive squash game with his anesthesiologist, visiting his demented mother, calling the hospital to check on yesterday’s cases. “Passing the door to his library, Perowne imagines what it might be like to stretch out for an afternoon and read a ‘world-rank masterpiece,’ then quickly banishes the thought. He doesn’t want to spend his days off lying, or even sitting, down,” and he appreciates that “the city’s appetite for Saturday work is robust.” When Henry finishes saving a man’s life through surgery late that evening, he notes that there are only really two activities in his life that claim and reward his full attention. One is making love with his wife; the other is his work of surgery. In surgery, he “feels calm, spacious, and fully qualified to exist…a clarified emptiness, [a] deep muted joy” (266). He thinks, there must be something wrong with me.

But I am not sure that there is. A surgeon with exquisite gifts for healing must use them, for the welfare of others and for his own fulfillment. In that work, God is glorified. If the surgeon feels joy, can’t we credit the Holy Spirit? If your Sabbath isn’t wonderfully aimless, but involves caring for those you love, bringing order and beauty to your home and yard, or preparing to serve others on Monday morning, I am not sure you are far from the mark. Let me leave you with a word from Jesus on the Sabbath, in Matthew 12. As Jesus and the disciples went through the grain fields on the Sabbath, the disciples plucked heads of grain to eat and were criticized by the Pharisees. Jesus did some Bible teaching and then asserted that “the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”  Later, challenged about healing on the Sabbath, he taught that “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”

I am certainly not Lord of the Sabbath, but Jesus Christ is. If there is mode of work that nourishes you, gives God glory, and is good for your neighbor, that might be a proper Sabbath undertaking in the era of Christ’s grace in which we live. Henry Perowne and I both seem to need an active Sabbath, and you might as well. We must not work as though the world depends on us, or desperately for personal enrichment, or in bitter competition for professional dominance. But God, a loving worker, has given us work to do. I’m left wondering if God invites some of us to work with Sabbath values and to rest in ways that draw on the best of work.

Much of my thinking and some of the references in this piece are drawn from the excellent book by the late Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. The Ian McEwan novel Saturday was published in 2005.

Learn more about other important updates in the latest church newsletter: The Epistle – January 25, 2024

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