When we think about work, all too many seem to believe that it is a necessary evil. They would rather be somewhere else, enjoying some other activity they find much more pleasurable. Others, instead, actually find their identity in what they do. To them, work is a necessity, a distraction, and it gives them meaning and satisfaction. These views, however, ignore one of the most important things Scripture teaches us about work: its purpose. According to Scripture, in fact, the purpose of work is much more than making money or feeling useful.
From the Beginning
Since the beginning of humanity, work has always played a major role in our life. When God created the first humans, He stated,
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.1
In the next chapter, then, we read
The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. […] Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.2
First of all, we find that God created us in His image and likeness. In essence, this means that everything that distinguishes us from the other creatures is in function of our ability to enter into a relationship with God Himself. For example, God is the Creator of all things, but in order for us to relate to that, He shared with us the attribute of creativity. God is not physical, so He gave us the ability to understand abstract concepts. He is a personal God, so He made us to be aware of ourselves so we can enter meaningful and personal relationships. The list goes on.
From the very first mention of humans, God also speaks of work. He immediately stated, “let them rule….” This is an activity, a role, a work. But why? After all, isn’t God the One who is the sovereign ruler of all things? Exactly.
The Purpose of Work
God is the supreme ruler, but from the very beginning He calls us to rule over some of His creation. That is, He asks us to participate in what He does, only in a much smaller scale. Having created the first humans, He placed them in a special garden that He had prepared for them. It was a perfect environment for them. Yet, God asked them to cultivate it and upkeep it. Again, why? Well, God is the Creator of all things, including the garden of Eden. By instructing our progenitors to cultivate it and upkeep it, in essence He asked them to take part in what He was doing. He gave them the opportunity to use their labor and creativity to join Him in His work of creation.
From the very beginning, then, the purpose of work has always been to participate in what God does. It is our opportunity to join Him in His labor of love, in the expression of His loving and creative nature. In fact, He reveals Himself as a working God. He creates, forms, shapes, plants and then rests. Notice,
By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.3
God works, and the purpose of work is to join Him. This makes work relational as well. God does not call us to replace Him. He calls us to join Him in a relational bond, collaborating with one another to accomplish what individually we could not do. In so doing, we are called to participate in His love as well. Yes, the purpose of work is also to express and manifest the love of God toward those we work with as well as those we serve. Ephesians 4:28, in fact, tells us that we should work not only to meet our own needs, but also to be able to help others in their needs.
So, Why So Many Problems at Work?
All this may sound quite idealistic, and perhaps it would be if we were to stop here. In our daily reality, in fact, we see things to be quite different. A negative and chaotic environment, unreasonable managers, difficult co-workers, demanding clients, they all remind us that things are not quite the way they could have been.
We can see what happened in chapter three of Genesis. Instead of joining God in His labor of love, humans have bought into a deception and started wanting to gain more for less. Selfishness, self-centeredness, lust and greed entered into our lives and radically changed things. Instead of giving, we attempt to take as much as possible from each other. Rather than helping, we want to make life easy for us, with others serving us. Instead of encouraging others, we climb over each other to rise above our competitors and acquire more prestige and more wealth for ourselves.
Imagine what it would be like, instead, to go to work and find that everyone is bent on giving to one another, helping, encouraging, supporting one another in a positive, peaceful and productive environment. What makes work so hard is the result of sin, of our lusts, greed and selfishness. But there is hope.
Redeeming the Purpose of Work
In regards to work, sin causes two extremes. One is the greed that moves us to get as much as we can with the least amount of effort. This is what moves us to want the highest possible pay for the least amount of work. Work, then, becomes just a necessary means to get what we want, often at the expense of others. The other extreme is the dependence on work some of us experience, which makes it an idol to distract us from the problems of life. Our employment then becomes an escape, almost like a drug that makes us feel worthwhile, useful, important. When we lose it, then it is like losing a part of ourselves, and we often enter into a profound crisis.
Sin, however, does not have to continue to reign in our life. There is a solution, and it is quite worthwhile. God has not abandoned us in sin. Instead, in the person of the Son, He has entered into His creation to redeem it, including work. In the incarnation, God the Son took our human form. He made Himself not only fully God, but also fully human. It is in Him that creation, otherwise quite separate from God, is redeemed and connected to Him. In Jesus Christ we have the only possible access to God. This is because in Him only we can find the connection between humanity and divinity. As our relationship with God is redeemed in Christ, so is our participation in His nature and work.
His Nature in Us
Scripture makes it quite clear:
Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.4
There are several interesting and important things to notice in this passage. First of all, God has granted us everything we need to redeem our whole life, including our work life. This occurs through the knowledge of Christ. He has made us partakers (or participants in) His divine nature. Again, stressing the fact that God calls us to participate in the way He is as well as in what He does. Finally, the passage tells us that this occurs as we escape the corruption caused by lust. Implied in that is that God’s nature in us enables us to participate in His love as well. In that regard, notice what the apostle Paul wrote:
Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.5
John, in his first letter, reminds us that God is love. It makes perfect sense, then, that as we are made partakers of His nature, being a nature of love, we are also given His love. In fact, we are told that the Holy Spirit pours out God’s love in our hearts. That love — His love — then becomes our new motivation in life, including in our work.
Turning Challenges Into Opportunities
This truth gives us a unique chance to turn common challenges in our places of work into opportunities to model the love of God. No, this does not mean that we flaunt the fact that we are Christians at every opportunity. It does not mean that we keep making unwelcome references to the Bible. All that would accomplish is to make us look and sound quite annoying, and perhaps worse. Rather, what this means it that we have the opportunity to participate in God’s nature, allowing His love to flow through us even in the most challenging situations. Let’s notice a few principles from Scripture that illustrate this.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.6
Notice that what makes this commandment “new” is that it calls us to love one another even as Christ has loved us. This requires more than we can work out on our own. However, as stated earlier, God has provided for this as well. He makes us partakers of His love nature, pouring out His love in us, so we can express it toward one another, including at work. In other words, it is His work in us, in which we participate willingly and voluntarily.
You have heard that it was said, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.7
Some would immediately say that this instruction seems to be quite applicable to some work environments. If we are called to love even our enemy, then it certainly includes those around us who may be challenging to deal with. But notice again the intent: “that you may be sons of your Father,” and “you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This means that once again He calls us to participate in the nature and work of God. We are to be like Him, and in order to make it possible, the Lord has given us the Holy Spirit, God Himself living and loving in us.
Working for the Lord
Finally, Scripture teaches us that in all that we do (and that certainly includes our work) we should do it heartily, as for the Lord rather than people.8 The purpose of work here is made even more meaningful. We are not told to only please our employers, but the Lord Himself. How? By working for Him first and foremost. This means that in Him we have the opportunity to redeem our work life as well, using that time to honor Him, to worship Him and to participate in His nature in all we do. That means that our motive and ethics will be quite different.
The purpose of our work, then, is to honor God and bring glory to Him. We accomplish this by participating in His nature and expressing His love in all that we do. To Him be the glory now and forever.