I was leafing
through a newspaper shortly before Thanksgiving and came across a great
political cartoon. It depicted two
Indians carrying a dead turkey on a pole towards a table at which several New
England Puritans were sitting, apparently waiting to eat their Thanksgiving
dinner with the Natives. The Indians
were far enough out of earshot not to be heard when one said to the other “I
don’t care if they have a good work ethic, they are illegal aliens. They should
go back to where they came from and enter the country legally and with our
permission.” I laughed for a good while
about that reversal of the common perspective we hear in America today
about so many illegal aliens. But the
cartoon also alluded to something that it was assumed a broad audience would
readily know all about— the so call Puritan work ethic.
There is something
about Christianity, and particularly Protestant Christianity that seems to
raise to a peculiar degree the issue of how we as a Christians should view work. Is it a blessing or a bane, is it a duty or a
privilege, do we work to live, or live to work? Inquiring minds want to know. One thing is for sure— modern Americans,
including many Christians have little or no understanding of what the Bible
actually says about work, and it hardly informs their views on work vs. play,
or career vs. retirement or other related subjects, subjects we intend to explore
in this little study. And in one sense,
they can hardly be blamed– Christian theologians have seldom addressed the
topic of work!
ON DEFINING WORK
David Jensen in
his recent study on work puts it this way— “[The] topic–human labor–is rather
foreign to most systematic theologies. Not
often have the codifiers of Christian
doctrine explored the topic of work as an explicitly theological theme.” If you survey the topical indexes in works of
Biblical and Systematic theology you will find the topic ‘work’ rarely in the
index, because it is rarely discussed in the text! How odd especially when the Bible has so much
to say about work, past, present and future. For
example consider David Jensen’s helpful summary: “Biblical narratives overflow
with work. Between the opening lines of
Genesis, which portray God as a worker, and the closing chapter of Revelation,
with a vision of new creation, God labors. One of the distinguishing
characteristics of biblical faith is that God does not sit enthroned in heaven
removed from work, willing things into existence by divine fiat. Unlike the
gods of the Greco-Roman mythologies, who absolve themselves of work– [or make
work a punishment for troublesome persons, e.g. Sisyphus]–dining on nectar and
ambrosia in heavenly rest and contemplation–the Biblical God works.” But the Bible is by no means just about God
working, it is also about God’s people working and their participation in work
that God sees as good, endorses, and indeed participates in.
Perhaps part of
the problem is, we have never bothered to ask and answer the question “what is
work?’ from a Biblical point of
view. This is passing strange when we
have so many workaholics in our culture, those who live to work, rather than
work to live. Many economists would
reduce the definition of work to the lowest common denominator–whatever we do to live or survive. The problem with this definition is not
merely that it is too minimalist (after all, running from an oncoming attacker,
or swerving to avoid a car accident is something you do to survive, but that is
hardly what one would call work), but that it has no theological component. Furthermore, eating and sleeping are not
‘work’ though we do them to survive and thrive.
I like Fredrick Buechner’s definition of work–“the
place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need”. The problem with this definition is that one
may take delight in making something that the world hardly needs, like the man
who made the world’s largest ball of tinfoil, collecting, combining and toiling
over many years on his pet project. But
to be fair, Buechner stresses that work comes at the intersection of delight
It is always rewarding to know you are doing
something that helps others, and very rewarding if you know you are doing
something that is so purposeful it saves lives.
But whether you take delight in it or not, if it meets genuine and crucial
needs in the world, it is good work and should be done. Buechner
is suggesting however that deep inside we are made for work, and when we find
our calling, purpose, vocation, ministry it will bring deep satisfaction when
we do it. I can attest to this truth
myself. I love preaching, teaching, and
writing. It’s hard for me to imagine my
adult life without doing one or more of these things. These tasks bring me great joy and hopefully
bring others some considerable benefit.
But at the end of the day Buechner’s definition is not fully adequate.
David Jensen settles for a definition of work that
has a theological component–any activity undertaken with a sense of obligation
to self, others, one’s community or to one’s God. The problem I have with this definition is
that all activities that a Christian
undertakes should fall under that last rubric, as well as others. By this I mean all work should be done as
part of one’s obligations placed on us by God, whatever else may also be the
case, and all work must be doable as something that glorifies God and edifies
others. This is precisely why I would
say it is entirely debatable whether war can be called ‘legitimate work’ from a
Christian point of view– not if the
Sermon on the Mount is supposed to describe how the disciple of Jesus is to
live, work, and behave.
A second attempt at defining work is made by Miroslav
Wolf. He suggests: “Work is honest, purposeful, and
methodologically specified social activity whose primary goal is the creation
of products or states of affairs that can satisfy the needs of working
individuals or their co-creatures, or (if primarily an end in itself) activity
that is necessary in order for acting individuals to satisfy their needs apart
from the need for the activity itself.” In this definition, leisure is contrasted
with work, but of course that still leaves a host of activities that do not
seem to naturally fall into either the category of leisure or work— eating
and sleeping for example, or even just breathing. Notice however the close connection between
work and its purpose–to satisfy human needs (what sort is not specified).
What I find especially unsatisfactory about this
definition is its basic a-theological character. Volf’s real stress is on work as a means to an
end, namely meeting human needs. In this
way he can distinguish work from a hobby.
But in fact the activity undertaken as work can also be undertaken as
hobby, and in both cases be a means to an end of meeting an end which is extrinsic
to the workers need to do it. If I love
building computers and I make one for my son as a birthday present, knowing that
he needs a computer for work, I have made it as a gift for his birthday. I
could have gone out and bought one with the same result. My labor was not compulsory to meet the
need. And yet, just because I exercise
my skills in something I love to do, (and do not do as part of my ‘job’), this
does not prevent what I am doing from being classified as either a hobby
activity or work, or both!
It will perhaps surprise you to discover how little
theologians have actually discussed work, and in fact the first modern full
dress theology of work does not seem to have been written until the 1950s,
which I find astounding considering how much of our waking hours are consumed
by work. But Volf is absolutely on the right track
when he stresses that coming up with a theology of work as vocation based
almost entirely on the creation theology of the OT will not do, if we are
looking to have a Christian theology of work.
The coming of Christ has changed the eschatological
situation. Volf puts it this way: “Christian life is life in the Spirit of the
new creation or it is not Christian life at all. And the Spirit of God should
determine the whole life, spiritual as well as secular, of a Christian. Christian work must, therefore, be done under
the inspiration of the Spirit and in the light of the coming new creation.” Now we
are getting somewhere! And right away
there seems to be a clear implication–work that the Holy Spirit would never
inspire, should never be done by a Christian, say for example, creating pornography,
to take an easy example.
The Holy Spirit’s inspiration of work comes
automatically with an ethical component.
The works of the flesh are not the works of the Spirit. We will say more
on this. But it is not just that
Christian work is Spirit inspired and enabled, it is that Christian work looks
forward to the coming Kingdom on earth, the new creation, it does not merely
live out of the old creation and its applicable rules. Thus one could offer as a Christian
definition of work any necessary and
meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be
undertaken to the glory of God and for the edification and aid of human beings,
being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of the new
creation. To this we may add that
any such work is worthy of fair remuneration for “a workman is worthy of his
A great deal of the problem we have in America
in discussing our work is that our approach and attitudes about work are
grounded in unbiblical myths of various kinds. Take for example the myth that
our lives should involve a period of work, which if done well then entitles us
to retirement, maybe even early retirement!
Where exactly is the notion of retirement found in the Bible? Nowhere! Not even in the eschaton envisioned by the
prophets do we have images of a workless paradise.
Work was part of the original creation design, and it
appears to be in the works for the new creation as well. Work should be neither demonized nor
divinized. If we
were to contrast for a moment however, the creation vs. the eschatological
vision of work in the Bible we could say that in the creation accounts work is
what the human was fitted and commanded to do, whereas in the eschatological
accounts it is what the Spirit inspires and gifts them to do, and in which they
find joy. Work is inherent to being in
God’s image for Gen. 1.26 says that we were created in God’s image ‘in order
that’ we might have dominion over creation.
Consider for a moment a famous, and famously
misused and misquoted passage from Isaiah’s vision of the final future: “In the
last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest
of mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream
to it. Many peoples will come and say
‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of
Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The Law shall go out from Zion,
the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against
nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, house of Jacob, let us walk
in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2.2-5).
Our concern is
particularly with the end of that quote.
When Isaiah envisions the eschatological age, or the last days, he does
not envision a massive work stoppage. What he envisions is a massive war
stoppage, if we may put it that way.
The point of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning
hooks is so that the weapons of war may be turned into the tools of work. When Isaiah envisages the final or
eschatological state of affairs his vision of shalom, well being, peace, is not
of a workless paradise, but of a world at peace worshipping the one true God
and working together rather than warring with each other. We see this very same sort of vision of the
final future in Isaiah 65.20-25:
No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of
23 They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.
We could compare
these two Isaianic passages to Zech. 8.10-12 where again paradise involves a
war stoppage not a work stoppage, so the crops can be sown, and their fruit
enjoyed in peace. Work apparently isn’t the human dilemma, war and other
sorts of fallen human behavior is.
It is no accident
that Jesus in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth
(Lk. 4) quotes the prophetic vision of Jubilee and suggests that his bringing
of such prophecies to pass, his bringing in of the Kingdom involves
work–including the work of healing people. I quite agree with Miroslav Volf when he says
that a Christian definition of work must take into account where history is
going in God’s hands and thus “a theological interpretation of work is only
valid if it facilitates transformation of work toward ever-greater
correspondence with the coming new creation.”
Thus we must be
constantly asking, is this work that foreshadows the Kingdom and its ends and
aims and character? The goal of human
history, or at least its end, according to Rev. 21-22 is that God, humankind
and creation will finally be brought back into harmony, shalom, positive
ongoing relationship. Our eschatology
must shape our vision of our tasks. These same passages envisage work continuing
in the Kingdom. Thus we must not over-emphasize the discontinuity between this
age and the age to come, when it comes to work.
whatever is true, and good, and beautiful in life and human culture will be
cleansed of sin’s taint and remain in the new creation. Nothing good will be wasted, we will not be
laboring in vain. The inherent value and
goodness of work will be upheld in the Kingdom, just as the inherent goodness
and value of all creation will be upheld—“Creation itself…will be set free
from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of
God” (Rom. 8.21).
commentators have noticed the vision of our final future in such prophetic passages
as the ones we have cited or alluded to,
seems to be largely a reprise of the vision found in Genesis 2–once a gardener
always a gardener. The Endzeit is like
the intended the original Urzeit in that there is no fallenness any more, no
shadow over the land, no laboring in vain, no winter without Christmas, as C.S.
Lewis once put it. But there is laboring even in Paradise that came, and is to come! 
This raises some
very serious questions about the whole notion of retirement either in this life
or the life to come. Is it even a
Biblical idea, or does it even comport with Biblical ideas about our future
whether individually or collectively when the Kingdom comes in full measure on
earth? These are the sort of things we need to
explore in this little book in some depth.
But one more story first.
It was January
2009 and I was on sabbatical from Asbury Seminary, up in Vermont writing. I decided to take a morning and go to Weston
Priory and spend some time in prayer.
Most people’s vision of monasteries is that it is a place where there is
a lot of prayer and worship and singing but otherwise not much goes on and not
much gets accomplished. This could
hardly be more false of most monasteries.
The monks at
Weston priory followed the Benedictine rule of ‘Ora et Labora”, prayer and
labor, or prayer and work, which includes making some wonderful maple syrup and
cheese and engaging in all sorts of charitable activities. These monks are hardly resting on their
laurels late in life nor are they so heavenly minded that they have become no
earthly good. Indeed, I would say they have the right
perspective on things for they knew that the ‘work’ of worship is the most
important activity that transpires on earth, the activity which most
foreshadows both the nature of heaven and the future of the Kingdom on earth.
As I was leaving
the monastery I noticed a banner hanging just outside the little chapel. It
quoted that great sage and prophet Jimi Hendrix who once said “when the power
of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Well, the monks were working on the basis of
that belief and so was Jesus. Notice I
used the word ‘working’. It’s high time
for us to begin contemplating the meaning of work from a more Biblical, a more
Kingdom point of view. Let this preface serve as our call to wake up,
and get to work on rethinking work.
Jensen, Responsive Labor. A Theology of Work, (Louisville:
Westminster/J. Knox, 2006), p. X.
 Jensen ,
Buechner, Wishful Thinking. A Seeker’s ABC, (San Francisco: Harper,
1993), p. 119.
Jensen, Responsive Labor. A Theology of Work, (Louisville:
Westminster/J. Knox, 2006), p. 3.
 M. Wolf,
Work in the Spirit. Toward a Theology of Work, (Eugene:
Wipf and Stock, 2001 rpr. of the 1991 Oxford edition), pp. 10-11.
Wolf, Work in the Spirit, p. 71.
 Volf, p.
 On the
latter, compare Thomas Carlyle who once claimed that work is “the latest Gospel
in this world” a Gospel which elevates
humankind “from the low places of this Earth, very literally into divine
Heavens.” T. Carlyle, Past and Present, (Boston:
The Riverside Press, 1965), p. 294.
In a remarkable transformation of the monastic phrase ‘ora et labora’ Carlyle said “labora est ora”–work is
praying!! (p. 196).
 Volf, p.
 One of
the major problems with the extant exercises in Biblical theology on the
subject of work is that they work forward through the Bible, rather than
backward, and the end result of that is that in most case they never get to an
eschatological or Kingdom perspective on work, work in light of the inbreaking
Kingdom, which is the contribution of this particular study.
which see the immediately prior book in this series Doxa: A Vision of