Bloody knuckles were common for him. Calloused hands and a tattered shirt shielded his skin from further damage, even as hats and sunscreen protected his already often burnt face. My grandfather was one of those stubborn types; the type who could be told to sit and would next stand simply to do something hard. He only rested on Sundays, or in late afternoons after collapsing on the couch. My mother, too, was inured to hard labor. She catered and she cleaned, coloring and cutting hair for years, all while she planned weddings. When she set her mind to a task, it was as good as done. Even my father learned to labor; never to wait. As a child, I seldom recollect seeing him before seven or eight at night; even then, many of the most memorable moments happened while he was typing on his computer, working, providing for the little family he had nourished.
Hard work like this is almost universally acknowledged as some kind of good. In all my few days, I have never heard anyone truly defend laziness in general, though I along with many others have frequently determined to defend the silly thing when guilty of it. These stories, though, are not just a bulwark against laziness – a sort of narrative exhortation to hard work. Instead, they also serve as a warning, a reminder. The three relatives I have listed are among the most diligent laborers on God’s green earth; each can bear great difficulty with ease. I have seen all of them through suffering; I can attest to their courage, their grit, even, at times, their joy. But I can also tell the truth: their efforts have proven their humanity. Striving against wind and rain, follicles and financiers, and so many other challenges has wearied them. They fight still, but they are no longer the flawless heroes of my childhood. Instead, they are decent people who did their job.
Work serves a serious purpose, according to the Christian perception. It reveals our insufficiency, and God’s grandeur – after all, He never wearies, nor does He grow faint, and we do. It is both rewarding and frustrating. It poses immense difficulties simply due to our weakness – a human trait. Sometimes, it can wound or kill – even if it is a morally good or neutral task. We do not always like it, for its difficulty, or the boredom it induces.
Is work, then a bad thing? No, at least according to the Christian conception. While some utilitarian types would suggest that work is good only because it serves as a source of provision, the Christian notion is greater. Work is itself a good gift given to humanity by God Himself. In Genesis 2 (ESV, throughout), God provides Adam with a clear, simple task: that of naming the animals and cultivating the Garden of Eden. Immediately after creating the world, God provides people with a purpose, a task, while declaring them made in His image. As the medieval monk Bede comments on this text, reflecting Augustine’s own understanding, work in paradise had “no distress of labor, but a delight of the will… [that] the Creator should be praised more abundantly” . Interesting, too, is that among the tasks Adam is given is the naming of the creatures; God creates by His word and man names things. He was given dominion over creation – a tremendous task no doubt – all to the praise of his Creator. In fact, as the great twentieth century Reformed thinker Herman Bavinck would suggest, the “emphasis on… dominion and its close relationship with the creation according to the image of God indicate[s] conclusively that the image comes to expression in the dominion…. All this teaches very plainly that man was not created for idleness but for work” . He proceeds to tie the Seventh Day of Creation – in which God rests from His creative work – and the concept of the Sabbath, or day of rest, as “but an example and foretaste of [heavenly rest] and at the same time also a prophecy and a guarantee of that rest” .
So, work is created, and like all things made in the account of creation, it is called “good.” But that is not the end of the story; in chapter 3, the picture is muddied. Adam and Eve sin – they disobey God. Whether one takes the story literally or not (a matter irrelevant to the current discussion) the point stands that people do not obey God and thus suffer the consequences in the forms of difficulty, disease, and death. God goes as far as to curse all of man’s labor, saying “by the sweat of your face you will eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). What was once good and manageable has become difficult – a necessary challenge. Still, as Baptist scholar B.H. Carroll writes, “labor preceded sin and has in it a natural dignity not to be denied” . Labor, then, is a good gift which, like this life which is itself called ‘good’ remains tainted and challenging.
In having specific, delineated tasks, which include building, cultivation, and even speaking thoughtfully, mankind reflects God. It is God who has created all things “by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Work, whether productive or deductive, is theological; if God made the world, and governs it, we do nothing outside of His power. To be made in His image and likeness is to follow in the work which He has given: the task of dominion over the created earth. This is clear in Genesis 1, where Adam and Eve are told to “be fruitful, and multiply, and subdue the earth.” The one commandment, which they are given in chapter 2, reflects this imagery, too, because, in commanding Adam to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God also bids him to eat from any other tree in the garden. By providing this simple rule, God reminds Adam of two facts: first, that he has been given a wide range of rule over the earth, and second, that God is still supreme over him. We may be made in the image of God, and we may strive after God, but we are not God; when we decide to become like Him without Him, we become evil, usurping His authority. “[Man] is not his own lawgiver. Rather, God is his only Lawgiver and Judge” . Consequently, all of our actions become tainted with sin – since we have determined to take control of our own lives, abandoning God individually and as a race, we reap broad consequences. Among these, labor is made hard – both in the sense of work and in the sense of birth. Both are still naturally good, but, as Augustine himself would suggest, both have been corrupted, fallen from the heights of their nature with immense flaws .
Work, then, is a created good, and this is true despite its present challenges. Additionally, it is, according to Christianity, a gift. Why? “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Tasks are said to be ‘given’ or ‘provided’ and this is no accident of language. Rather, labor is a good gift – the normative means of provision for our human needs. There are certainly circumstances where work need not be expected or required – think of children or the disabled. Still, the Scriptures themselves are clear: “He who does not work shall not eat,” and of the Christian who does not provide for his family “he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (2 Thess. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:8). What does that mean? They are simple texts; if someone shirks their dutiful obligation to the provision of their needs and the needs of those for whom they are responsible, they are sinning. Instead of fulfilling the divine mandate to subdue the earth, they are being passive. For those with ability, work is required.
If the Christian conception of work is true, rooted in both the dignity and tasks given at creation by divine mandate, what may its impact be? It may provide some economic benefit to the worker, and maybe some psychological benefit. Beyond this, though, it is radical in the fullest sense – that is, affecting someone’s efforts from the radix, the root. Instead of doing tasks for their own sake, one does them to honor God. Even now, Christians are told to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, pleasing and acceptable to God.” A Christian’s ‘spiritual worship’ is the presentation of his body for divine service, the consecration of all his actions to God. “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ… does not shout ‘Mine!’ . So, the Christian is to slog through his days, even when “sorrowful… always rejoicing,” working “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (2 Cor. 6:10; Col. 3:23).
By changing the radix – the worshipful root of our work – the Christian conception should change its fruit. Ultimately, it changes the end to which a Christian works – the purpose of the exercise. As the Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon noted centuries ago, to work as a Christian is to “consider yourself the manager of another’s property [i.e., God’s] and not your own” . Martin Luther himself, in one of his more interesting treatises entitled “Trade and Usury,” highlights several useful principles for the Christian in secular employment. The world, especially in modern free markets, suggests that traders of any type must sell their goods as dear as they can – such was the case in the German reformer’s time as now . In a day when we are encouraged to ‘bet on ourselves,’ to demand as much as we are worth and more, this sentiment is pervasive and destructive. To become self-consumed is to cease to produce. Luther mirrors this principle, suggesting that prices ought to be determined by “law and conscience,” being directed more to doing “no injury to [one’s neighbor – the consumer] than toward gaining profit for yourself” . He even implores listeners and readers to “Make up your mind to seek only an adequate living” . This ideal of work as humble service to God by which He will provide for our own needs and those around us is distinctly religious; the idea that man’s dominion over the earth in conjunction with God’s unique action of love requires it to be done worshipfully and honestly is distinctly Christian. Just as God’s reign over the earth is ultimately benevolent, so the Christian must consider subduing the earth by loving it and its people. Christians are enjoined not to love riches, but at the same time to provide for those in their care. Neither Scripture nor Luther suggest that laziness is appropriate – instead, both provide better reasons for work than mere monetary gain.
My grandfather’s knuckles and calluses were not in vain; nor were my mother’s chemically dried hands or are my father’s strained eyes. They worked to provide for me, my sister, and the rest of my family, but they had higher goals; they would have given in to despair far more had they not. What they did was valuable – it demonstrated to me in my youth both the joys of magnanimous labor and the difficulties of earthly provision. The revelation from it and from the weariness that it caused also points me to something far greater – to God. God alone works and can truly call it “done.” God alone speaks and calls it “good.” To humans, all that is left is the trying; the effort is worth its ends. He alone “does not grow faint or weary” (Is. 40:28). For work to matter much, it must have an end beyond wealth. According to the Christian conception, it does – to worship God by reflecting His own unique work in creation, and to serve the people whom He has created.
1. Bede, On Genesis, p.117
2. Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, p. 197
3. Ibid. p. 198
4. Carroll, An Interpretation of the English Bible: Genesis, pp. 81-82
5. Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, p. 199
6. See the early anti-Manichean treatise, “On the Nature of Good” (De Natura Boni), as found in Augustine’s Earlier Writings, John H.S. Burleigh on pages 326-348.
7. As quoted by Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. p. 16
8. Melanchthon, Commonplaces: Loci Communes. p. 74
9. Luther, On Trade and Usury. p. 246
10. Ibid. p. 24811. Ibid. p. 250