First posted on Labor Day 2011
A few months ago I was having a conversation with a Christian friend about a new business enterprise he was starting. When I suggested a way that his business might contribute to the common good, he said that I was too idealistic in my view of work and that all that mattered to him was providing for his family and making enough money of the next few years to retire at a young age. Each us believing that the other’s view of work was off base, we committed to a follow-up conversation.
My critique of his view began with the simple observation that in the Bible work was part of mankind’s pre-fall existence. Before sin, Adam worked: he did physical work, gardening, and intellectual work, naming the animals, which one might argue was the first scientific endeavor since Adam was doing the work of taxonomy. This simple observation has profound implications on our view of work. First, it shows us that work is something we were created to do, as a fulfillment of the Genesis 1 mandate to “rule and have dominion.” Second, it shows that work is part of Paradise – an ideal state of existence. In Greek mythology, work was one of the evils unleashed by the opening of Pandora’s Box. Thus, in the ancient world the Greeks and Romans viewed manual labor of any kind as a curse, something fit for only slaves and the lowest class. But though our work is frustrating as a consequence of sin, work itself is not a result of sin. Before man sinned, he worked. Third, the purpose of work is not merely to survive. Even if our survival was guaranteed, as it was for Adam, we should still work since it is essential to our purpose as human beings.
From this line of thinking I asked my friend, “Why are you so eager to retire and cease working when work is something God created you to do?”
The second part of my critique stemmed from the idea of labor as a means of fulfilling God’s covenant promise to bless his people in order that they might be a blessing to the world. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord gives his people, exiled in a foreign land, an exhortation for how they should relate to this foreign society as strangers there (Jer. 29:4-8):
4″Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, andpray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Pastor Tim Keller interprets this call to mean that God’s people should avoid both assimilation – conformity to the majority culture – and tribalism – exploiting the majority culture for the narrow interest of my family and people. Rather we are to bless the culture by serving the city, working for the sake of the city, and identifying our welfare with the common good.
Thus, a second question I asked my friend was, “Are you just looking to exploit the city or is your work helping your fellow human beings to flourish in some way?”
Have you ever thought about why gardening was the first kind of labor described in the Bible? Perhaps it is because gardening is a paradigm for all work, for in gardening the worker produces what human beings need by rearranging the raw materials of nature into a different form. Indeed all true labor should do the same: whether you are a doctor, lawyer, manager, engineering, teacher, artist, etc. you are engaged in the task of transforming matter and energy into forms that meet human needs and thus contribute to human flourishing. You and I will love our labor more as we learn how to fulfill God’s purposes in it and understand how our work contributes to the “welfare of the city.”