Work is a significant aspect of our adult lives, and occupies a large part of our attention every single day. A survey by the Ministry of Manpower says that Singaporeans spent an average of 45.6 hours working in 2016, which is nearly 20% of our waking hours. It would make sense, then, for us to understand the biblical meaning of work.
Work before the Fall
Some of us might think that work is a punishment from God as a result of the Fall of humans. However, the Bible tells us that God established work from the very beginning. The nature of work is exemplified by Creation: work is creative, productive and good (Genesis 1:1-31). God has ordained work as a gift to humans, and He gave Adam the specific assignment of tending the Garden of Eden in the beginning (Genesis 2:15). Just as God Himself is a worker who creates, forms, builds, and plants (Genesis 1:1; 2:7, 19; Psalm 127:1; Amos 9:15), so we take after God as beings who are created in His image. All these things tell us that work has inherent dignity because through work, we humans fulfill God’s ordained destiny for us.
How the Fall Affected Work
However, the Fall of humans through sin corrupted the nature of work. As a result of the curse, work becomes arduous, stressful and less productive, requiring much more effort to produce fruit (Genesis 3:17-19). Humans were to toil “by the sweat of [his] brow” until the day he dies. We can see the effect of this in how work has become burdensome for many of us, especially in the stress, pressures, boredom, frustrations, competitions, and even deceptive practices at our workplace.
At a motivational level, work has lost its intrinsic value for many people, and has become a means to an end – to increase wealth, to gain the capacity for leisure, and to achieve a higher standard of living. Many people see work as a phase in life to accumulate savings, so that they can retire to enjoy life later.
The Redemption of Work
Although work has been corrupted by sin, it has not lost its intrinsic value. We can still enjoy work and gain satisfaction despite our toil (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 3:13). Jesus said that God continues to work to this day (John 5:17).
Furthermore, we are urged to respect those who work diligently (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), and warned against being idle (1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 11). We should earn our own living (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and not resort to dishonest means of gain (Ephesians 4:28).
Believers are exhorted to keep working while they wait for Christ to return (1 Thessalonians 5:1-14). In view of the God-ordained nature of work, there is intrinsic dignity in our work, and our diligence and integrity at work honors God.
The Bible does not indicate a hierarchy of work, and intellectual as well as skill-based occupations are no better than manual labor. Regardless of vocation, all honest work is to be commended, as written in Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”
As Christians, our work is a means to use our gifts to serve God and others. Furthermore, there is no separation between “secular” and “sacred” work as long as all are done in service to God. While ministers and missionaries certainly have special roles in meeting the spiritual needs of people, they are not the only ones doing God’s work. Those of us working in our secular jobs can also contribute to the fulfillment of God’s will in our various capacities.
Christians participate in the redemption of work when they work for God rather than their human supervisors or bosses. The positive attitude that stems from this motivation is a healthy antidote to the drudgery and frequent negativity associated with work. The high regard we have for the God-ordained nature of work counters the boredom of work routine, and our trust in God to strengthen us and act in a godly manner at our workplace alleviates the stress we face regarding factors and situations we have no control over.
While we often do not understand how God works at our workplace, just like in every other aspect of our lives, we can wait upon Him patiently. We can wait upon Him even as we continue to labor diligently and remain faithful to the responsibilities we have been given. Through the Christian attitudes we exhibit at our workplace, we bear witness to the transforming power of Christ and play a part in redeeming our workplace for God.
As much as God has ordained work, He has also ordained rest for all humans engaged in work (Exodus 20:8-11). Together with His work of Creation on the first six days, God rested on the seventh day, blessed it and made it holy. Rest was ordained for us so that we may be refreshed (Exodus 31:17). And we are to devote the day to God (Isaiah 58:13-14). Jesus himself took time to rest in spite of the unceasing needs of ministry (Mark 6:31). Therefore, work is not more holy than rest, and an appropriate balance of both is necessary for our lives. In the workaholic and driven culture in many of our workplaces, taking the time to rest from our busyness brings refreshment to our lives.
Work after Glorification
In the vision of the prophet Isaiah, nations “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks” after the second coming of Christ (Isaiah 2:4). When God establishes universal peace through His Kingdom, the weapons of war will be transformed into tools for productive work. As work was established by God in the beginning, so work will continue after Christ’s return.
Therefore, as we appreciate the intrinsic value of work God intended at the beginning of Creation, we should participate in redeeming our workplace by putting our hearts into our work for the Lord.
About Isaac Wong
Isaac Wong is currently a faculty at ACTS College, and is also teaching on an adjunct basis at both Republic Polytechnic and BCA Academy. He had been involved in pastoral ministry both during his tertiary days as well as with the adult congregation. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Physics) from NUS and has been working in the education sector since 2003. Having completed his Master of Divinity at ACTS College in 2016, he is currently studying for his Master of Theology at Asia Graduate School of Theology.