Several years ago, I wrote a book on rest (The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, Thomas Nelson, 2004). Part way through the writing, I realized there was a massive hole in my thinking: I had neglected to reflect on or write about work. So I went back and, near the book’s beginning, inserted a chapter on the meaning and value of work.
A theology of work is as needed as it is scarce. Few people I know – even pastors and missionaries – reflect theologically on their work. We seldom see how bricklaying or selling shoes or studying spreadsheets – or even preparing a sermon – is a form of worship. This is a sore loss, and contributes to high levels of burnout, mediocrity, driven-ness, insubordination, sloth, dissatisfaction, and endless dreaming about greener pastures.
God is a worker. Six days he sets aside for vigorous, ambitious, creative work – making and naming and running things. And when he created man and woman in his image, the key point of resemblance is that we are workers, too. We steward what God has made, join him in naming it, and receive his authority to rule over it. Our identity is deeply rooted in these vocational acts.
The fallout of sin complicates all this. Now, we earn our keep by the sweat of our brows. Now, the soil we work – or words we craft, or computers we tinker with, or machines we repair, or children we raise – are riddled with thorns. The work of our hands raises blisters. And give headaches and backaches, and puts dark circles under our eyes.
But the work itself matters. Moses, after a lengthy prayer (Psalm 90) that both extols the eternal nature of God and bemoans the temporal and afflicted nature of man, ends with a hope and a plea:
May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17).
Moses is asking God to value, honor and further human work. He’s asking that what we do – tending, mending, naming, growing – would participate in God’s eternal purposes.
It’s a good prayer. And it’s the basis for a theology of work. I believe that having such a theology has several benefits:
- It helps us connect our everyday, ordinary tasks with God’s eternal, heavenly purposes.
- It helps us see our work in true perspective – to neither obsess over trivial matters nor miss what’s important.
- It prevents us from making either an idol or an enemy of our work.
- It helps us find balance in our work between fostering relationships and doing tasks.
- It scales back the poor motives we sometimes bring to our work – greed, acquisitiveness, laziness, entitlement, jealousy, the lust for power or control, selfish ambition, etc.
- It turns our work into a form of worship: it motivates us to do all for the glory of God.
- It helps us see ourselves as stewards, not paupers or owners.
- It keeps us dependent on God for fresh energy, insight, endurance, motivation, creativity.
- It awakens and sustains thankfulness.
- It deepens our trust in God during seasons of vocational transition.
Indeed, O Lord, establish the work of our hands.