What should Christians think about work? It’s a complex topic for many reasons. The Bible has so much to say, and it speaks into a world where everyone has a different story – young, old, kids or no kids, paid work or not – and we live in a world that is constantly seeking to shape our agenda.
Last October, Anthony Albanese announced the Labor Government’s intention to increase paid parental leave to 26 weeks, saying that helping women in the workforce was “low-hanging fruit” in lifting economic growth.
Why should women work? For the national bottom line! Whether we like it or not, the great God of economics lies beneath so much of what we are told about work. And the messages about the significance of work come thick and fast.
A Sydney University professor from the Gender Equality in Working Life Research Institute, Elizabeth Hill, said in the Herald last year that “once people have children, there’s all the data on cutting back days, cutting back hours, staying in positions that are less well remunerated. Lack of flexibility in good jobs with high levels of responsibility means women don’t go for these. It’s such a crazy waste of resources”.
The conversation about women and work is littered with views about value, identity and purpose.
Our daughter, who is a qualified teacher, did very well academically during her schooling. In her final year, when she told people she wanted to be a primary school teacher, many (Christians and non-Christians) wondered whether she could have aimed a little higher.
She also shared conversations with us, including from a PDHPE class where the non-Christian young women ended up in a discussion with their teacher, saying they felt the message they constantly received was that if they took “time out of work” to have a baby they would somehow be failing – letting down women and abandoning feminism.
I’ve lost count of the number of school assemblies and speech days in which hundreds of young women were told to chase their dreams, and you can be anything that you want to be, and you can change the world. The truly successful woman was held up to be the woman who had achieved excellence in her career. As Christians, is this how we should measure success for women – or for men?
Our aim is not to adjudicate on any particular person’s situation, but rather to think deeply about what God reveals about work.
Work and rest
The Bible begins with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. One chapter later, we’re told that when God created the world he was “at work”. That the very first thing we learn about God is that he is a worker is very significant.
The nations around Israel believed that humans were created because the gods didn’t want to work – work was beneath them. But the Scriptures show us a God who works. Work is not an evil necessity but something associated with God’s character and so, when he creates humans and tells them to go and work in his garden, this is not a jail sentence but a privilege.
Genesis 2 also tells us that God rested. He worked and he rested, and in so doing established a pattern for us. Humans aren’t made for work alone but for work and rest. And as Hebrews tells us, rest is ultimately about our eternal relationship with God. We are made for the heavenly rest where we enjoy the presence of the living God and life full of joy and relationship in a renewed heavens and earth.
Against this backdrop we read that God created us. And there are two really important truths here. First, we are created in the image of God. And second, as those created in God’s image we are created specifically for work.
When God made men and women – to fill the earth and to rule over it – he gave us the privilege of working as his agents in his creation. It’s easy for us to miss the significance of this. Work is very, very good. Work is not the thing that you do to get to the good bits. There is something good about work, even when it’s very “worky”! Even when it’s tiring and difficult.
Of course, as good as work is, we live in a world where sin has scarred everything. And in response to human rebellion, the created order turns from a place of joy and service to a place of toil and servitude. Work turns from the gracious service of God into an opportunity for personal glory. Work becomes an opportunity for idolatry (literally, in Isaiah 44:13-20).
And in this broken world, in order to train us to understand that we need him and not just our own labour, God frustrates our work (Ecc 7:13-14). We are in a frustrated creation where work is sometimes great, often mundane and occasionally even terrible, but never ultimate. And God does this to remind us not to live for our work, and that our work doesn’t make us acceptable to him. In fact, what we need more than anything is God’s work for us.
Jesus came into the world to do the works of his Father. In John 4, when the disciples are worried about how much work Jesus has been doing, they encourage him to eat. Jesus replies: “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (John 4:32). The disciples are bewildered, but Jesus follows up: “My food... is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (4:34).
Jesus came to do the work of God – to die on our behalf. And what is our work in response? First and foremost, it is to trust in Christ (John 6:27-29).
As with nearly everything in life, we need to remember that we start with God’s movement towards us, not ours towards him. Christ has worked for us by going to the cross. And whatever else the Christian life involves, it involves faithful submission to that work. What a privilege to trust in Christ’s work and find that we are called children and given his Spirit.
Christians writing in this are often wildly optimistic about human work – usually on the basis of the commission in Genesis to fill the earth and subdue it. We take the great truth that God made us to work and turn that into our reason to change the world. But biblically, the story of work is fundamentally the story of the failure of our work and the goodness of God’s.
But how kind is God?! In Christ, he invites fallen people like us into the joy of faithful, God-honouring work as our lives are renewed. We are remade in Christ to do good works – the New Testament says something like this 22 times!
Why? So that others “may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). This means that, in God’s economy, our work is about so much more than our jobs. We often use the word “work” to talk about our paid job, and often more significantly what we call our career. But that’s just not a concept that the Bible is very concerned about.
When God calls us to live for him, he wants us to live our lives in his service and the service of others. That may or may not involve a job that we get paid for. But even for those of us in paid employment, it involves so much more. God is concerned with how you live your life. What you do out of love for him and love for your neighbour. And so, God calls his people to good works. That is the foundation for all our other decisions.
The Bible also sets some other priorities: providing for yourself and those in need (Eph 4:28) and not being lazy, idle or a busybody (2 Thess 3:6-13).
We have heard these verses disparaged. We have heard people say, isn’t there anything else? Feed yourself and give something away – is that all work is good for? But that is to totally miss the point. Yes, there may be more to say, but at the same time it means these things are vitally important to God. He doesn’t care about your reputation or how important your job is. He cares that we work to feed ourselves, serve our families, and love those around us. That is his concern.
Our work is good when it grows out of love for God and our neighbours. Our work is good when we take responsibility for ourselves and seek to be generous to others. It is good whether it is paid or unpaid. God sees what we do and how we do it, and he either rejoices or mourns.
And so, Scripture encourages us with words like these:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col 3:23-24).
The work of the Lord
There is one final element to consider as we think about Christians and work. When the Apostle Paul encourages the Corinthians to give themselves fully to “the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58), he doesn’t mean all the work we do. Rather, he means specifically the work that we do to advance the cause of the gospel among believers and unbelievers (for some deeper thinking on this, see Peter Orr’s article for The Gospel Coalition).
If Jesus is the Lord of all, and Jesus will one day return to judge the living and the dead, and if the only hope for a dying world is faith in him, then whatever else we say about work we must say that being concerned to share the gospel is vital.
Whether that involves working to help others share the gospel, praying for God to advance his gospel in the world, teaching Scripture, giving generously to support mission work, helping out at Sunday school, encouraging others at Bible study, giving away a Bible to someone, teaching your kids about Jesus or evangelising your friend at work, this is work that should be close to our hearts; work we will make sacrifices in order to do.
We get this wrong when we spend every minute that we’re not doing “gospel work” wringing our hands and piling on the guilt because we are doing work that is useless! What a terrible way to undo what we have seen God has done in Christ. All work, performed from faith in Christ for God and neighbour. is good and pleasing in God’s sight.
In summary, as we work – and much work will be mundane and unseen, and we do it because it is right to love others in this way in God’s world – we must pray and work for the salvation of people who very desperately need to know Jesus.
Our prayer is that, as we make choices about our work, we will do so with God’s priorities front and centre. May we be humble enough to hear and respond where God rebukes us and helps us see where our heart is heading away from him, and may he strengthen us so that we do not grow weary in doing good.
How we should work
1. Live in humble submission to the work of Christ
2. Provide for yourself, your family and those in need
3. Take time to rest because we are living for the life to come
4. Take joy in the good works God has given us
5. Remember good works are all of life and not just paid employment
6. Make the work of the Lord a priority
At the Mothers’ Union conference last month, PAUL and CATHY GRIMMOND spoke on the Bible’s story of work and rest. This is an edited version of that talk.