You see the signs nearly everywhere: “Help Wanted” and “Now Hiring.” Meanwhile, the wait time at checkout counters and drive-thru windows seems to be growing longer as the economy remains in danger of a recession, and supply-chain shortages mount.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s December jobs report showed the country’s labor force participation rate at only 61.9%—down from 63.4% in February 2020 before the COVID lockdowns shuttered businesses, resulting in 18 million layoffs by April 2020. In December, the number of people not working—who when surveyed said they wanted a job but weren’t looking—was 5.7 million.
Has something happened to America’s work ethic?
The Bible has much to say about the value of work—from creation, through the rise and fall of civilizations, to the fulfillment of Christ’s Great Commission. As God’s image bearers, Christ-followers are called to glorify their Lord and Savior in their work and service to others.
Author Wayne Grudem expounds on this topic in the following article, which is an excerpt from his book “Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning.” —The Editors
Although many people seek to avoid work, or work as little as possible, the Bible presents, in general, a positive view of work. It views work in itself as a good thing and as pleasing to God.
We see this first in the fact that before there was any sin in the world, God gave Adam and Eve work to do: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion …” (Genesis 1:28). Furthermore, before there was sin in the world, “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Work is not simply a painful part of the fallen human condition, it is part of what God intended for us in His “very good” creation. In fact, the first thing God does in the Bible is work. The entirety of Genesis 1 describes God’s work of creation, suggesting to us that our work is a faint imitation of God’s own activity of creative work (see John 5:17).
Other passages in the Old Testament also view work in a positive way. The fourth commandment not only says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” but also adds, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work” (Exodus 20:8-9). With this statement, God placed a requirement for productive work into the Ten Commandments, and He explained it by telling how our work was to imitate His own work: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11).
The New Testament reaffirms this emphasis on the goodness of work in several places. Paul’s practice of working as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3) as he went from city to city on his missionary journeys gave an example to believers that they should work hard and support themselves.
Paul writes in Ephesians 4:28: “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.”
And in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, Paul writes: “… and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”
It can also be helpful to remember that when we do productive work, we are producing something that brings benefit to others (whether it’s making a physical product that they can buy or providing a service such as teaching a class or repairing an automobile). But if our work actually results in a benefit to other people, then we should understand our work as one way of showing love to others. Doing productive work is one way to obey the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
Paul presented a wonderful perspective on work to the Christians in Colossae, many of whom were working for secular employers in secular jobs. Yet he encouraged them that they could work for the Lord in whatever occupation they had: “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality” (Colossians 3:22-25; see also Ephesians 6:5-8).
Here are five reasons why God gives us productive work to do:
1. The Satisfaction That Comes From Productive Work and “Earned Success”
God created human beings in such a way that we gain deep joy and satisfaction from doing meaningful, productive work. Economist Arthur Brooks summarizes academic research showing that surprisingly, the most satisfying economic activity for human beings is not earning great amounts of money but rather what he calls “earned success”—that is, having a specific responsibility and then doing good work to fulfill that responsibility, in whatever career or field of life one chooses.
It seems to me that this idea of “earned success” echoes the Biblical theme that we experience deep satisfaction from God’s recognition that we have been faithful servants and have accomplished the work that He gave us to do. This ultimately will be affirmed when God says to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21; see also 2 Timothy 4:7; 1 Peter 1:7).
2. The Privilege of Creating Something New
When we work to make things (whether we are building a house or a car, or simply making a loaf of bread), we create something that did not exist in the world before we made it. This is a faint imitation of God’s own creative activity. It also reflects other attributes of God, such as His wisdom, knowledge, strength and patience. God gives us the privilege of imitating Him in various ways, for Scripture tells us, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).
The creativity exhibited by human beings is of a different kind altogether from anything displayed by animals. Only human beings create, invent and innovate. No animal has ever used intelligent thought to create a new product that others would value and buy for their use. Our ability to do creative work therefore shows an important aspect of the excellence of human nature as created by God in His image.
3. The Privilege of Creating Value
It’s not just that we create products. It is that these products have value to ourselves and others. Whether we bake a loaf of bread or assemble a new computer, these things have greater value than the raw materials they possessed. Therefore, in doing productive work, we add to the total value of the useful things that exist in the world for the benefit of mankind.
4. The Privilege of Supporting Ourselves
Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to “work with your hands … so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
Our natural sense of human dignity is reinforced when we are able to support ourselves and no longer depend on our parents or others. In other words, productive work gives people a new sense of self-respect, and it glorifies God by giving a faint imitation of God’s own attribute of independence.
This is why involuntary unemployment (in the case of people who are laid off and can’t find another job, or who can’t work because of illness or injury) is such a great challenge and difficulty. Not having productive work soon brings frustration due to not being able to do what God made human beings to do; that is, to be engaged in useful, productive work and thereby support themselves.
God created human beings with vast differences in skills, preferences and inclinations for the types of work we enjoy and want to focus on. This diversity among human beings is a gift that leads us to specialize in different kinds of work (it leads to a division of labor), and it makes the human race thousands of times more productive than if we all had to produce everything we needed for ourselves (as do animals when they all have to find their own food). Therefore, because of specialization, we are able to fulfill God’s commands to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28) and make useful products from it in a much more extensive way than we otherwise could. Individual specialization in work is vastly more important than most people recognize. It is the key to greater economic productivity in any society or nation. ©2018 Wayne Grudem
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Wayne Grudem is distinguished research professor of theology and Biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Taken from Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning by Wayne Grudem, ©2018, pp. 921-932. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
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