The Dignity of Work

 idlphoto under Creative Commons

The doctrine of Work (NB: not “works”!!!) is a somewhat forgotten doctrine. In his excellent Disciplines of a Godly Man, R. Kent Hughes notes the following: “[Work] was given to man before the Fall, before sin, before imperfection.”

This is a pivotal point, as it is sadly the case that in our day work is often viewed as undignified, evil, and demeaning. This is patently false! According to the Scriptures, work is inherently good. God actually withheld from growing the plants until he created Adam, for “there was no man to work the ground.” (). Once he did create Adam, the plants grew (). Implicit in this is the fact that God definitely wanted Adam to work, and that he wanted Adam to tend to his creation in his work. That would  be his primary vocation.

Indeed, it explicitly says, in , that God placed Adam in the garden for him to work there. God himself worked (see , and ), and Jesus worked for 30 years before he began his gospel ministry. Work is consistently praised as a positive activity in the Old Testament (e.g. , , , , , ). In the New Testament, this doesn’t change (, , ).

Indeed, it is important to remember that it is not that work itself is cursed; the “ground” which man is to work is cursed (). There is a big difference. If you drink curdled milk you don’t say that the act of drinking is curdled; there is a clear distinction between the action and the thing acted upon. What we do is cursed, and therefore it will be hard. Work is good, and remains so despite the curse. So, work hard! God wants you to.

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground,

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.

29 Do you see a man skillful in his work?
He will stand before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men.

Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.

14 From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good,
and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him.

25 The desire of the sluggard kills him,
for his hands refuse to labor.

18 And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.

You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.

11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you,

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,

28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

17 And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

3 thoughts on “The Dignity of Work”

  1. Excellent post Simon. This is a clear and important concept taught in Scripture and very few affirm it today. There is great dignity in working hard for the glory of God in our vocations!

  2. Simon, this is an important post. Too often I hear Christian speak of the drudgery of paid work.

    When I was a young man, my first paid employment was working in a furniture factory. It was a rather dead-end job with little or no prospects for advancement. I became bored and began to verbalise this to my fellow workers. They affirmed my discontent which made me even more unhappy.

    Then a fellow employee, a Christian friend, took me aside and told me I was displaying an attitude that was dishonouring to God. I was stunned. I had never really given much thought to work and my Christian duty.

    He turned my attention to and suggested the verses in could be applied to working for an employer. I wasn’t just working for my earthly boss, I was working for the Lord.

    This had a big impact on me, so I began changing my attitude immediately.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that the change in me was noticeable to my employer, it may have been, but remarkably it made me much happier. It also made me realise there was not point in complaining about my employer, he was paying me what he agreed to pay, I was doing the work I had agreed to do. So if I wanted to change my circumstances – that was something I had to do.

    And I did – I quite my job – enrolled in University. After graduation, I obtained employment in an industry with all the advancement opportunities I desired. I ended my working career as a Managing Director of a international corporate subsidiary.

    I always considered my success in business commenced with that conversation with my friend those many years ago.

    1. Thanks for your testimony regarding your work life, Don. The connection between our work and our Christian life should never be divorced, and you’ve given a good example of how to think through the issues.

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