Many of us view work as an unfortunate reality of life. Work is a necessity upon reaching adulthood in order for us to sustain ourselves and our loved ones. Our goal is to arrive at a point when we have worked enough so that we will no longer have to work, a point otherwise known as retirement. Throughout our working lives, we look forward to the breaks we get from work, such as weekends and vacations. The good life, available only to the super-wealthy or those who have won the lottery, is to live without needing to work. Christians can sometimes have a more ‘spiritual’ attitude towards work. We may claim that we need to work not only for ourselves but for the sake of supporting the ministries of our church or missions. The underlying reality behind this outlook is that we view work as a means to an end, and if we could achieve this end by some other means, then we could be freed from the burden of work.
Genesis 1–11 offers a different perspective concerning human work: In the earliest chapters of the Bible, work is an integral part of God’s creation in that its purpose was to glorify God. This perspective first appears in Genesis 2:15 which states, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Adam’s role within God’s creation was to use the talents God had given him to cultivate the resources which God had created. In other words, Adam was supposed to work! If creation was intended to be a reflection of God’s glory (Ps 19:1; 50:6; Rom. 1:19–20), then humanity’s work within creation is surely intended to bring God glory as well.
After the fall (Genesis 3), we see that humanity continues working. Cain and his descendants build cities (Gen 4:17) and take up occupations related to farming, music, and metalworking (Gen 4:21). Noah’s descendants build a city and construct a large tower at its center (Gen 11:4). Since humanity was supposed to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28, cf. 9:1), it appears that sin has had little effect on the occupations that humanity engaged in. There is, however, a crucial difference between humanity’s work before the Fall and humanity’s work after the Fall: Rather than glorifying God, humanity’s work now often appears to be in direct defiance of God’s will (Gen 4:12; 11:4–7). Sin has negatively influenced every part of humanity’s being, including our ability to glorify God in our work.
Although the negative influence of sin pervades every area of our lives, including how we work, the reconciliation offered to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ is equally pervasive. Christ is reconciling all things to himself (Col 1:20), and that includes our ability to glorify God through our work. The apostle Paul commands us to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col 1:17). Thus, as followers of Christ, we should pursue our work as a testimony of what Jesus Christ has done in our lives and as a means to glorify God.
This brief look at work within Genesis 1–11 invites us to draw several conclusions. (1) Our work has intrinsic value in that it brings glory to God. Although we certainly must work in order to provide for ourselves and our families, this reality alone should never exhaust the meaning of our occupations, whatever they may be. (2) Sin has not necessarily changed humanity’s work quantifiably. That is, we should expect that many of the roles and occupations people fill today would have been the same if sin had never entered into the world. This is suggested by the fact that humanity’s work after the fall parallels to some degree what God intended from the beginning. Therefore, there is no reason why many of our occupations today could not be done for the glory of God and in fulfillment of what he created us to do. (3) Many of us need to reevaluate how we view our occupations. If our work glorifies God, then we should work with a diligence and enthusiasm that reflects the glory of God. God made us for work! This does not mean that we cannot look forward to weekends, vacations, and retirement, but we must recognize that these represent a shift in how we glorify God, not points at which we can begin glorifying God. (4) We have to account for the distorting effects of human sin within our work. Although sin has not necessarily altered our work quantifiably, there are certainly some jobs that have developed out of humanity’s fallen nature and cannot be done for the glory of God. Christians cannot engage in such occupations. Other occupations have developed due to our awareness of human sin and obligation to restrain it (law enforcement, social work, etc). Although it is hard to imagine that such occupations would have developed apart from the reality of human sin, Christians called to such vocations certainly glorify God with their work in these arenas. Christians must also be wary of business practices that pursue profit by means of dishonesty or through the exploitation of others. Complicity in such actions cannot glorify God.
God has created humanity to worship and glorify him. We must devote a significant portion of our lives to work. These two realities, however, are not exclusive of one another as is often assumed. There is a sacredness to our work that glorifies our Creator. The good life is not a diminishing need to work but a redemption of our ability to glorify God through our work.