While my childhood friends spent their Christmas breaks relaxing or watching television or spending time with my other friends, I was forced to wake up at an obscenely early hour, put on several layers of warm clothing, and will myself out into the world.
My father, for reasons that were mysterious to me in my teenage years, thought it important for me to work with him in his plumbing business. I worked with Dad on almost every school break and most summers, installing copper water lines, plastic drainage piping, and steel gas lines in new homes. Though I knew early on that, unlike Dad, I wasn’t especially gifted to work in construction, I got pretty good at plumbing houses. But more important than the opportunity to earn money were the lessons I learned about hard work and Christian calling. These lessons didn’t occur to me until well after I stopped working for my father and began finding my way in my own career.
Dad isn’t a trained theologian. He doesn’t have a college degree. But he spoke into my life powerful lessons about the dignity of working hard and working well. Dad, a quiet man, is known as a Christian by the quality of his work and the integrity of his character. I stopped counting the days when he insisted we stay on the job longer than I thought we needed to, simply so he could perfect his work. “But Dad,” I learned not to bother to argue, “nobody will see those pipes in the wall. Why do you care about them being so straight and uniform?”
“Son,” Dad would say, “I see it. And more importantly, God sees it.”
What I learned at my father’s side is a vital part of what it means to be human. Work is good. This shouldn’t surprise us, since we are made in the image of a working God: “On the seventh day God finished his work” (Gen. 2:2). Jesus told the Pharisees, “My father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17).
Work, then, is a God-imaging gift that the Creator gives to his image-bearers: “When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground” (Gen. 2:5).
Work is woven into our humanity. We were made to master the earth: to innovate and to explore.
God’s creative project is, in a real sense, incomplete without people, made in his image, working, cultivating, and stewarding his creation. It’s almost as if Moses is making sure his readers understand that the cosmos won’t work—can’t work—without humans cultivating it.
We are made neither to worship the earth nor to exploit it. Image-bearers should be environmentalists in the best sense. We care about the earth because God created it for us to cultivate. And our work isn’t merely a byproduct of life—a necessary means to an end. Work is woven into our humanity. We were made to master the earth: to innovate and to explore.
We image God by working hard in the world and by taking care of the world.
But of course, as with all of God’s good gifts, our work is corrupted by the fall. Listen to the words of God as he speaks to Adam after his and Eve’s sin:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Gen. 3:17–19)
The planet, once created in perfect harmony to be worked and tilled for God’s glory, now groans in corruption (Rom. 8:22), feeling the aches of the curse. The ground fights back. Work becomes hard and exhausting and, at times, a cycle of fruitless drudgery. Work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep. Then die.
We’re right to want our work to be fulfilling. We’re wrong to think our work will never be free of frustration. In a good-yet-fallen world, we’ll experience both fulfillment and frustration in our work.
Moreover, the gospel gives renewed purpose to our work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Christians are the best artists and craftsmen and administrators and stay-at-home moms and lawyers, but that the gospel helps us see the creative value of our work and points us toward the kingdom of God, where our labors will finally be free of the thistles and thorns that steal our dignity. In Christ, God restores us to our original, image-bearing purposes: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
We don’t work to be saved. But being saved, there is good work for us to do.
When Work Becomes an Altar
Tragically, we can make our work everything: an object of worship and devotion instead of the good gift God meant it to be.
Our careers, for example, are often seen as markers of identity and worth. Consider the way a conversation goes when you meet someone for the first time. Next time you greet a visitor at church or strike up conversation on the train or meet a new family in your neighborhood, you will likely, without even thinking, ask, “So, what do you do for a living?” Their answer will, to some extent, inform the way you think of them.
I spend much of my time in either Nashville or Washington, D.C.—two cities where this question takes on heightened significance. In Nashville, a city blessed with a vibrant artist community, people are often defined by their creative acts. I’m a songwriter. I’m working on a project with so-and-so. I’m working in marketing for this or that label/company/nonprofit. In D.C., it’s a power game; business cards are exchanged and contacts are stored to leverage influence. I work on the Hill on Ways and Means. I just started at this think tank. I work at this government agency.
Just think about the questions that work often provokes:
Is my job significant?
Does it give me influence?
Do people know what I do, and do they think it matters?
We don’t ask such questions aloud, of course, but we think them subconsciously.
Sometimes it’s important for us to step back and see what work, when worshiped as an idol, demands of us. We don’t just leave it at the office or the factory floor—we take it home. It’s in our pocket, always pulling us away from our family and friends with one more email glance, one more phone call, one more quick project. Work whispers in our ears that we are God-like, without a need for rest.
If we aren’t careful, we’ll load our vocations with the weight of a significance they weren’t meant to bear.
If we aren’t careful, we’ll load our vocations with the weight of a significance they weren’t meant to bear. We often don’t even realize we’ve worshiped this faceless god until we’ve looked up and seen all of the unnecessary sacrifices we’ve made to it.
Work matters to God, but it makes a poor God-substitute. We weren’t created in the image of our salaries or our positions or the organization for which we work. These good things will one day pass away—leaving us, if we aren’t careful, empty and unfulfilled.
This is why we must return, again and again, to the truth that our identity doesn’t depend on our utility or our influence or our paycheck, but is grounded in God’s love for his image-bearers. And in Christ, we know we aren’t merely laborers for corporations, but co-heirs with him forever.