When you hear the word “work,” what initial thoughts come to mind? If you’re thinking, “hard, difficult, tiring, 9-5, drudgery, rat race, trying to get ahead, trading time for money, labor, productivity, climbing the corporate ladder, etc.” then you’re not alone. Most of America defines work in this way.
But why is it that our ideas of work are primarily negative? Is it because we don’t enjoy what we do or the people the work with? Is it because we view work as a necessary evil, something we must do in order to eventually attain the “good life?” Or perhaps work gets in the way of pleasure and relaxation? Perhaps work keeps us from doing the things that we most want to do?
I believe that most of us commonly define work in a negative manner because we think of it as “employment, a means of earning one's livelihood.” However, the most basic definition for “work” simply means “productive or operative activity.” Work can be paid on non-paid, at home or in the office, with or without a title, recognized or unrecognized. It’s what your hand finds to do. Work is simply activity with a purpose.
It’s interesting to note that our love-hate relationship with work began in the garden. God created the day, night, sun, moon, stars, ocean, land, plants, animals, and then on the sixth day God created mankind. And the first recorded words God spoke to Adam and Eve appear in Genesis 1:28. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Notice the words, “subdue” and “have dominion over.” This verse conveys the idea of taming the wild places and of exercising authority and control over all the living things of the earth. That is work.
In Genesis 2:15 we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” To “work” the garden, Adam would have to cultivate it. He would have to sow and plant and prune and harvest. He would work the soil. And he would also need to “keep” or care for the garden. He would need to tend to its needs and maintain the good gift that God had already given him. In essence, Adam and Eve were tasked with work: the very important work of cultivating, creating, and caring for the earth and all the living things on the earth.
The command to work “was given before the fall —before sin and before anything was wrong with the world. Work, therefore, is [not just good. It is] something we were designed to do” (Tim Keller, Gospel in Life).
So in Genesis 2 we are called to work and cultivate. We are still called to work and cultivate in Genesis 3, but our work now looks different. We read in Genesis 3 that the ground is now cursed because of the fall. We are told that the struggle to bring forth food from the ground will be accomplished by sweat, pain, thorns, and thistles. And we all have thorns and thistles in our work, no matter our profession. Whether you’re an accountant or a mom, a baker or an engineer, a lawyer or a teacher, you face these challenges and problems. But just because you experience thorns and thistles in your work, that doesn’t mean that work is bad or evil. It’s just broken, and in need of the redemptive work of Christ.
In Gospel in Life, Tim Keller explains that knowing and understanding the gospel changes our motivation for work, the ethics of our work, and our conception of work. As Christ-followers, we ask ourselves three questions that cut straight to the heart, “What is my motivation for working? Where do I find my ultimate value?” and “How can I do my work in such a way that it allows people to flourish?”
I love Keller’s definition of work because it highlights the primacy and beauty of the gospel. He defines work as “taking raw materials and rearranging it for the purpose of human flourishing.” In other words, we are called to work for the well-being of others. We are called to participate in God’s redemptive plan to make all things new and beautiful.
In John 20:21 Jesus commissions the disciples for service and proclaims, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” This is where we find ourselves today. We, as believers, are the sent people of God. We are called and equipped for the purpose of being on mission for God.
Wherever you spend the majority of your waking hours—be it the office, your home, or school—that is your mission field. That is where you have been specifically called for the purpose of living out the gospel and working for the well-being of others.
Join me in challenging yourself this next week to find one tangible way each day to contribute to the flourishing of others.