Why We Work

September 5, 2011

When I think of Labor Day, I think first of my father, a union plumber who has spent nearly every day of his adult life working with his hands. I’m a bit biased, but I happen to think he’s the best at what he does. Every job he does to near-perfection, not satisfied until he has done the best he can do. Over the years he’s developed a reputation as someone who want to hire if you need to do a major plumbing job at your home or business.

The older I get, the more I appreciate Dad’s faithfulness in working. As his son, I appreciate he worked and sweat to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. I appreciate that he taught me the importance and value of hard work. He was fond of quoting the verse 2 Thessalonians 3:10. “Lest a man work, neither shall he eat.” He said that over and over again, drilling it into my head. I’m grateful for this, because I never doubted what a man’s responsibility was to his family.

Christians have not always articulated a good theology of labor. I used to think that perhaps the work Dad does on Tuesday is good in that it helps him tithe to the Lord’s work and feeds his family and maybe gives him an opportunity to share Christ with the unconverted. But the work of “full-time” ministry workers had to be far more valuable to God. I envisioned in Heaven, when rewards were being passed out, that pastors and missionaries would be at the front of the line while the second-class Christians who worked “secular” jobs were at the back of the line.

But the more I studied the Scriptures, the more I realized the fallacy of this position. Work is not a product of the curse, a symptom of Adam’s Fall. Work was instituted by God well before Adam sinned. In fact, the Scriptures tells us that God worked in Creation and then rested. What is a product of the Fall is the degree of difficulty in work, that now the ground we till fights back with thorns. Our bodies decay and so work gives us a backache, carpal tunnel, and arthritis. Now we work with other fallen people whose vision for the workplace might conflict with ours.

But work itself matters to God. The things we create with our hands are, in a way, an act of worship. Even those who don’t claim Jesus as their Lord glorify God by producing and creating. Why? Because each part of their work reflects back on the Creator who created the hands and the minds that conceived the end product.

I believe, very strongly, in the idea of vocational calling. This is the idea that God calls people not only to lofty spiritual positions such as pastor and missionary and music director and woman’s ministry leader, but to the so-called “secular” vocations. I highlight the word secular, because in God’s economy, there is no division between secular and sacred. So the restaurant where you wait tables is God’s sanctuary when you seek to glorify God by producing your best work. So does the construction site and the bakery and the cubicle.

Perhaps Christians would get more fired up on Monday if they really saw their workplace as the mission field God called them to. This is where God is calling them to lay down their lives in sacrifice, to give their best work, not to please an earthly boss, but as an offering of worship to the Creator (Colossians 3:23).

And I’m convinced that God will weigh our lives not on exactly where we served him, but in how well we served him in the area where He called us. This means a plumber who does his best job every single time might have more rewards in Heaven than the preacher who gives half his best.

Because the work we do with our hands is not a curse. It’s a form of worship.