It's October 1991 and I've just started working at Hewlett Packard. I was talking to my boss about a lecture we'd just heard on work and life. She asked me what I thought, and I found myself saying, 'it made me think, do we live to work or work to live?'
live to work - 'creation'
The idea that work is fundamental to our lives takes God's creation of work (Genesis 1 & 2) seriously. We read that God created humankind in his image and commanded them to 'fill the earth and subdue it' and to rule over all the earth, (Genesis 1:26, 28). As God rules the world, he makes us his vice-regents to represent him; to rule, govern and manage his world under him.
And that leads to work. 'The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.' (Genesis 2:15). As God's designated ruler, Adam is to oversee the garden, tend it and bring it to its potential. And that doesn't just go for gardening. Whenever we manage the world and its resources, whenever we control or create using the materials of creation we are playing a part of the role of ruling and subduing the earth. (1) That might happen in finance, education, construction, healthcare, transport, through to childcare, caring for a neighbour or cleaning a house.
So 'living to work' contains a fundamental truth: working is an intrinsic part of what it means to be made in the image of God.(2)
working to live — 'fall'
You may well be thinking: 'But I don't find work fulfilling and fundamental to my identity. It's a pain. I only do it to pay the bills and to enjoy myself at the weekends. I work to live!'
Now while that clashes with Genesis 1 & 2, we have to say that this idea takes in the fall of work in Genesis 3 when the ground is cursed because of sin. The ground 'will produce thorns and thistles' (Genesis 3:18) and 'by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food' (Genesis 3:19). Subduing creation and working the garden was meant to be enjoyable and fulfilling, but now our work is frustrated, and our rule is incomplete. We will never bring the world under complete control — we can grow roses, but there will be thorns and thistles. (3)
Few of us are professional gardeners, but we can think of equivalents in our own spheres: failures and mistakes, boredom, miscommunication and accidents, mean our work is tiring, frustrating and often defeating. Work is created, yet fallen. It's a good thing gone wrong. It's fundamental to our humanity, yet it twists us unnaturally out of shape.
In healthcare, we can experience the fulfilment and satisfaction of understanding how our bodies work, helping someone get better from illness or cope with their disease. But at the same time, we will find the sheer sweat of study, our inability to cure illness or our annoyance at patients not listening to our instructions emotionally draining.
working right — 'redemption'
We've mentioned creation and fall. Next is redemption. God has stepped into his world to put things right. That has happened in promise and picture in the Old Testament and in fulfilment and reality in Jesus, in the New Testament.
Redeeming something means it is restored to what it was intended to be. Its original purpose and intention is recovered. Christians are being redeemed in that we are becoming what we were made to be — truly human — as we become more like Jesus. And doing that includes working as God intended us to.
redeeming how we work
The most common question we ask of work is 'what job shall I do?' However, apart from ruling out jobs that involve immorality, the New Testament says little about what we do. But it says a lot more on how we do it.
The instructions to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; 1 Peter 2:18-21 help us know God's view on work today. However we understand slavery in the Bible (a topic too broad to cover here), a common thread is the inequality of master-slave or employer-employee relationship, and so we can draw principles from these verses.
The basic instruction to slaves or workers is to respect and obey your masters, and to do so with integrity not just performing well because you are watched. The more penetrating instruction is to obey just as you would obey Christ, to work 'like slaves of Christ' and to 'serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord' (Ephesians 6:7). In other words, we are to teach, build, clean or heal, as though we are doing it for Christ.
I remember being struck by what a radical thought this is and how it would transform my attitude and actions at work. My workplace was a place to serve Jesus. Doing my job honestly, diligently and with integrity was one of the ways I served Jesus himself!
That should give us great dignity in our work. No matter what society thinks of our job status, no matter how fed up we feel about the latest round of cuts in our department, nor what we are or aren't paid, the truth is we work (doctoring, nursing, caring) knowing this is all part of worship.
redeeming the content of our work?
Now we come to the fourth step in the biblical narrative: consummation, or as many people would now think of it, 'heaven'. Jesus promises to return to the world and bring in his new creation. (4) A perfect new world where his promises and plans for his people are completely fulfilled. Our question is — how does the content of our work relate to that consummated kingdom?
Some Bible teachers today say what we do doesn't last. So while our work has some inherent value in that it's part of managing this world and serving others, the bridge, the music and the road are going to be burnt up and destroyed. The manner of your work matters and lasts, but the content only matters in this world, it won't last beyond that.
Other Bible teachers suggest the content of our work will, in some sense, be in the new creation. That the bridge, music etc are taken up in some way and contribute to God's new world. And so we can work in our field knowing that what is done for Jesus now, will be redeemed in some way and contribute to his kingdom.
We don't have the space for a full analysis of these issues even if I were capable of that. Instead I'll finish with the following three reflections:
There is no doubt the emphasis of the New Testament falls on the manner in which we work. Whether the content continues and contributes
to God's kingdom or not, we should work hard, honestly and should do so for Jesus. That means our work, in medicine or elsewhere, is highly esteemed by Jesus.
There is also little doubt that the New Testament gives priority to 'evangelism and edification'. That is the building of, and the building up of God's church. That means I build the bridge well and do so for Jesus, but more than that I long to witness to my fellow builder and point them to Jesus. I know that has a higher priority.
However, we shouldn't see those two things in conflict. This isn't an 'either/or' choice. That would be like saying: 'Shall I be faithful to my spouse, or shall I share the gospel with my neighbour?' The answer is obvious — do both. One is how I live in response to Christ redeeming my life. The other is offering that redemption to those around me. Similarly, how we work is part of living the Christian life, and that goes alongside pointing others to Jesus.
Our work is fulfilled in the new creation in the sense that, what we were aiming at in our management and rule of the world will then be completed and perfected.
In Revelation 22, in God's new creation we are told that his servants 'will reign for ever and ever', (Revelation 22:3,5). The original vision of God's people ruling under him will be realised. Far from heaven or the new creation being some sort of celestial retirement home, we will be active in reigning over God's world as we were made to. And this will be satisfying, fulfilling, joyful work in a creation where there is no curse, (5) but where we can rule perfectly. That is work, heaven style.
Your role now is restoring bodies in some way, or training to do so. Well, in the new creation those bodies will be raised to be perfect and imperishable (6) (those that trust Jesus). Others, sweep streets now. Well in the new creation, streets will be so clean they will shine.(7)We could say the same about education, the arts, commerce or construction. The aim and intention of those endeavours, to bring beauty and truth and glorify God, will be brought to fulfilment as God brings his creation to its true end and goal.
We were made to rule and manage the world; one day that will be fulfilled as we reign in God's perfected world. In terms of our working lives, that means I work today struggling to rule this fallen creation as God wants me to, but I do so knowing that one day I'll have the satisfaction and fulfilment of seeing the perfection of what I'm trying to achieve now.
So maybe I work with the disabled, trying to get muscles to work and joints to flex. I'll do so with mixed success now. Some days feeling the satisfaction that comes from living to work. Other days I'll feel the frustration and futility of merely working to live. But I can do so knowing that one day, 'Then will the lame leap like a deer' (Isaiah 35:6). On that day, work and life will be one, when 'his servants will serve him.' (Revelation 22:3)
- How can a student learn with honesty, integrity and diligence?
- What roles, if any, will medicine have in the new heaven and new earth?
- How can 'evangelism and edification' become part of our daily life?
- In what ways can we give God space to redeem our work and study?
Nigel Beynon is director of Word Alive