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How does work work?
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How does work work?

The implications of a biblical view of ‘work’

Dear friends

A few episodes ago we broached the subject of work, and put forward an alternative view (which I’ll summarise briefly below). And we suggested that there were various implications of this view that we needed to return to. 

Well, your numerous questions and comments on the topic have provided the perfect opportunity and framework to do just that. In today’s episode, we—or should I say ‘I’, because it’s just me this week—tease out a number of important implications and applications of the biblical view of work. 

I hope it ‘works’. 

Your brother

Tony

PS.

This is the last episode I’ll be part of for 2023—I’m off on some long-service leave and holidays. Thanks so much for your partnership and kindness this year! I’m looking forward to chatting with you again in January. 


Recap from the last ‘work’ episode

Before we get to the questions and implications, here’s a quick recap of what we said last time about the essential nature of ‘work’. 

We argued that under the historical, technological, economic and ideological pressure of the past 200 years, we now find it very hard not to think of ‘work’ exclusively as the job or career that you get paid for, and indeed as the activity that defines us and gives us satisfaction and meaning in life.

We suggested that this quite restricted definition gives us problems, because the Bible thinks about work in broader categories, with a different lens. It sees ‘work’ as those activities we do to live, survive and thrive—or in the definition I put forward: any instrumental activity (in other words, an activity that is not done for its own sake), the product or outcome of which provides for the needs of the worker and/or of others. 

This means that domestic or subsistence work—cooking, cleaning, caring for children, growing food, building your house, paying bills—is ‘work’, every bit as much as if we were to pay someone to do any of these things. 

Selling our labour for wages is also ‘work’—because that activity not only very often provides for someone else’s need (it bakes bread for them) but in doing so also provides income to supply our needs. 

Understanding work in this broader sense also helps us to connect our conception of work with two other key biblical themes—the idea of ‘good works’ (those activities we engage in that benefit others) and the ‘work of the Lord’, which is the instrumental activity we labour and toil at in order to meet the spiritual needs of others. 

The key conclusion was that by rethinking the categories or concepts of work in this way—by having a less restrictive definition—we can solve many of our issues with work, and in particular imbue our work (in all its variety) with profound theological significance. 

All the work we do—at the office, in the home, in ministering the gospel to other people, in caring for our next door neighbour who is having a hard time—all these forms of work are an expression of our most basic response to God and the gospel: to love and please and glorify him in faith, and to love and serve our neighbours. Work is of incredible theological and spiritual significance, because it is the evidence and outworking of the work God has done in our lives through Jesus. 

What are the implications of all this? As it turns out, your various questions and comments provide an excellent framework for teasing them out. 


Work and retirement

Firstly, Brian writes: 

I retired from my full time employment 15 years ago where I earned money to keep us both alive so we had a home to live in and food on the table, but that did not mean I stopped working, Since I retired I have been working every day in many various ways, some of them are assisting my wife with her work in the home (that she was working at for all of our married life [she may not have earned money doing it but she worked very hard caring for the home, looking after children as well as serving within our local Church community in many varied ways]), others are the continuation of work that I do in the garden and others are the work we do volunteering both within the Church as well as within the community. The way we see it is that we will not stop working until the day we leave this present world and go to be with our Lord either when he returns or when we pass through death to the new life.

Thinking about work as the activities we do in love for God and for others that meet our needs and those of others completely changes the way we think about ‘retirement’, as we call it. Who says that we should stop working to meet the needs of ourselves and others at age 60 or 65 or 70? The nature of our work may change as we age. We will have less capacity. We will be more suited to some forms of work than others. We will get to a point where working for wages is more difficult or beyond us—and in our society we’ve made provision for that through family support and superannuation and pensions. 

But the opportunity and obligation to work continues, because love of God and love of neighbour doesn’t stop at 65. 

Mike Raiter has spoken recently about this on The Pastor’s Heart, and it’s worth listening to. Mike asks where do we get the idea that once we attain a certain age, we qualify for permanent rest? He says: “How did ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me’ become ‘Indulge yourself, put down your cross and put your feet up for 5, 10, 15, 20 years?’ I can’t find that in the Bible.” 

Now as Brian demonstrates in his email—rejecting the idea of ‘retirement’ doesn’t mean that paid work goes on forever, but that in our later years the kind of work we do changes. There are opportunities to spend more of ‘working time’ providing for the needs of others. 

Working with difficult people

Jeanette writes:

Some of the harder parts of work are dealing with demanding bosses/ family (e.g. dealing with unreasonable demands and rudeness to others in work contexts). I would be interested in encouragement to responses that honour God, and are loving, yet also give feedback (what to say and do + how, when, and why).

Among the frustrations and difficulties of all work—whether in the home or in the office or in the church—is the fact that we have to work with other people (and they have to work with us). We are met with unreasonable demands or rudeness (as Jeanette says), not to mention pride, arrogance, corruption, dishonesty, greed and so on. 

How should we react?

Here are two quick thoughts: 

  1. The repeated message of the Bible is to respond to evil behaviour with good behaviour. Romans 12 says: 

    Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

    In fact, if we keep on doing what is right and good, and suffer for it, we are blessed, because we are walking in the footsteps of our Saviour who, when he was reviled did not revile in return but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Pet 2:23). 

  2. All the same, part of responding in righteousness is to speak the truth in love; to warn and admonish. 


    How and when should we do this? That’s a subject for a whole podcast, but briefly: if you have to speak to someone about their behaviour, be calm, be gracious, be completely honest (don’t sugar coat it), and be concrete and specific. Don’t throw out a vague or general complaint—“You’re always so unreasonable!” or “Why do have to be so rude all time?”—but talk about specific actions: “When you shouted at me this morning, it not only upset me but it shut down our conversation and made it very difficult for us to make any progress on the issue.”


    These attitudes and approaches are just as valid in the home or at church as in the office or on the building site. We work by talking with each other—by sharing information and coordinating, but also by encouraging and praising, by rebuking and admonishing, by repenting and forgiving. 

God’s work and our work in creation

Jesse writes in with three questions, all of which are worth saying something about.

First, how does the definition you propose fit with the work God does in Genesis 1? In this chapter, God was working, but he was not providing for any need of his own, since God lacked nothing before creation, and he was not providing for others, since there were no others to provide for. Perhaps this is in a different category as it is God’s work not a human work, but I thought it was worth raising. Do you think God’s work in creation would fit in your definition?

God’s work is certainly different in that only God creates the materials with which he works. He brings everything into existence and forms it—let there be light, let there be sky and land and sea.  And then he fills each sphere of his creation with the life appropriate to it (birds and fish and plants and animals and finally man himself). 

In love and for his own glory, God brings his creation into being, and then provides for its needs. 

Our work is derivative of this, or perhaps we should say it is commissioned by God as an extension of his own work. He calls on us to work in his creation, to work with the materials he has made, to work in love to provide for our needs and for others. 

Jesse continues:

Second, does the definition include the type of work Adam is made for in Genesis 2? Adam had to work in garden, not for his own need or that of Eve but so the garden itself would be cared for (v15). This seems to show a kind of activity that is, in a sense, for its own sake or perhaps for the purpose of order and beauty but not one that has the purpose of providing for oneself or others. I could be misunderstanding the definition, but it seems that ‘providing for the needs of the worker and/or others’ doesn’t include work for the sake of God’s creation or work for the purpose of order and beauty.

I’m not sure that the man’s work in the garden is so completely unrelated to his need for food. It says earlier in the passage that no ‘bush of the field’ or ‘small plant of the field’ had yet sprung up, because God hadn’t yet caused it to rain and because there was no man to work the ground. It seems very likely that Adam’s ‘working’ of the garden is productively related to the food he eats. Certainly, when the curse comes in chapter 3, it makes his work hard and frustrating so that now it will be difficult for him to gain his food from the ground. 

All the same, is Adam’s ‘keeping’ of the garden also for the sake of the garden? Does the garden itself deserve to be protected, maintained, cared for and developed? Does it have a ‘need’ that the man also supplies by his work? 

I think so. God’s creation is an integrated whole, and humanity is called on to rule it. Protecting and caring for trees and animals is a good thing in itself, because they are good things in themselves, even though they are also instrumentally ordered for human purposes (for food, for rest and enjoyment). This is presumably why we pay park rangers (and similar workers) to focus on the maintenance and care of creation; it’s also why the good farmer respects and maintains his land. 

Perhaps it’s also why our society supports (in various ways) the work of artists, painters, musicians and novelists. We need full stomachs and dry houses in order to rest, but we also need the enjoyable gifts of creation: music, art and even some wine to gladden the heart of man. Producing these things for the benefit of others is also ‘work’. 

My last question might fall into the same grey area as Phillip’s guitar example but I thought it might still be worth asking: does practice count as work? Let’s say a person spends 5000 hours practicing their instrument. Does the practice retroactively become work if they end up as an entertainer, or was it work all along? If that identical practice either is or isn’t work simply by the outcome, it seems like the definition doesn’t quite fit. To expand on the illustration, the person might be practicing intensely with the hope to someday be an entertainer, but dies before ever achieving it. That practice still seems like work even though it has not provided anything for the person or for others. Perhaps it is the goal that shapes the category that practice would fall into?

I think Jesse has probably answered the question in that final sentence. Context, circumstances and intention will shape the way we identify or understand different activities as ‘work’.

But there’s an important point lurking in this question: work is not always successful. Work is often frustrated. We will frequently labour and toil, but fail to meet anyone’s needs. The example Jesse gives is of someone toiling to become a professional musician but failing. The same could be said, in principle, of the farmer who labours to plant a crop which (for whatever reason) fails. It is still work because of its intention and context, even if it doesn’t actually provide for anyone’s need. 

The work of the Lord

And finally from Michael: 

You brought out the concept of us all being “full time Christian workers” doing what we do as Christians and helping, expressing love and, where able, to present the gospel. “Credible Christians” have an impact for the gospel, and in part overcome the awful things done over the years by the Church. 
I’ve always worried about Tim Keller who put forward this view of occupations in heaven. No doubt you’ve heard that [the well-known evangelist] John Chapman came many years to me as his dentist. Chappo would say, “There will be no need for dentists in heaven.” The reply was, “There will be no need for evangelists either!”

How true! 

Michael’s message raises an important implication. Hopefully this view of the value and importance of ‘work’ in all its forms will help us think more clearly about that frequently discussed issue of how ‘secular’ work relates to ‘gospel’ work. 

In one sense, they are species of the same thing—‘work’ done to meet the needs of others. And they are done in the same motive and spirit—in love for God and neighbour. 

The ‘work of the Lord’ is work aimed at a particular end or need, and it is a kind of work we should all seek to ‘abound in’, as Paul says to the Corinthians: 

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). 

We should seek to do as much of the ‘work of the Lord’ as we can, because unlike some of our earthly material work, the work of the Lord is never in vain. It builds for eternity. It provides for spiritual needs. 

So the question is not: ‘Should I work for a living or should I do the work of the Lord?’ 

The better question is simply: how can I abound and increase in the work of the Lord? 

For some of us with particular gifts and opportunities, that will mean spending a large majority of our time doing the work of the Lord, and being paid a wage by others to do that, so that we can eat. Sometimes, like the apostle Paul, we will work to earn our living and do lots of gospel work at the same time. For others, depending on circumstances and stage of life, we will have to spend a great deal of our time in providing for material needs and have less time and space for the work of the Lord—but we should still seek to abound in the work of the Lord as we are able. And for others, like Brian (whose letter kicked off this episode), our circumstances are such that we are freed up to spend as much time as we can in the work of the Lord because our needs are taken care of. 

We should work with all our hearts at whatever work God gives us to, loving and pleasing and glorifying him in it, and loving our neighbours. But regardless of our circumstances, let us each abound in the work of the Lord as the Lord himself gives us opportunity.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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