Towards a Theological Definition of Work: Lesson 1

Once Upon A Time:

Allow me to tell a story of two brothers.  (I’ve completely fabricated while preparing for a sermon so if they bear any resemblance to you or anyone you know that is just the conviction of the Holy Spirit.  The similarities are unintentional on my part.)  The first brother is John.  John works in stocks for a huge financial company in New York City.  He and his family live in Bucks County near me.  Every morning John wakes up at 4:30 AM and drives into the other city (NY) so that he can beat traffic.  If everything goes right he can be at his desk by 7 AM.  John works long hours.  He never gets home before dark.  Dinner is usually very cold by the time he eats it.  John seems to be always working.  He has to.  That is the only way to succeed in stocks.  He loves to work because his job is extremely fulfilling.  John connects what he is doing directly to his clients.  Every time he makes a good investment he feels satisfaction knowing that his client’s future/retirement/college plans/families are little bit more secure.  Every time he makes a mistake he personally feels the loss.  John works this way and this hard because he is a Christian.  Yet, he feels like many Christians judge him because he never has time or energy for church or Bible Study or small groups or family picnics.  John frequently whispers to himself, “God must understand because doesn’t the Bible say something about working diligently.”  Why can’t these other Christians understand that God is okay with John’s schedule?  They don’t seem to mind when John’s tithe check comes in.

Then there is John’s brother Jim.  Jim is probably a genius.  He can do anything and everything.  Yet he really does nothing.  Jim is working his third mediocre job in the last three years.  He keeps looking for the job that doesn’t interfere with what is really important to him.  He is looking for that job that doesn’t get in the way with his real life.  Jim’s real life is at church.  Jim is the youth leader at a small rural church in Bucks County as well.  He works just hard enough to keep his job.  He makes just enough to pay his bills and give to the church.  But when Jim is working his mind is not there, his heart is not there and you can tell.  He has so much talent but it never comes through at his job.  He doesn’t want to waste his energy on something as trivial as working.  The youth at his church are so much more important.  Sunday nights, Wednesday nights he’s with them.  Saturdays he usually tries to organize something fun.  He has even been thinking about taking a longer lunch break and seeing if he can eat in the local school cafeteria.  Jim feels like this is exactly what God has called him to do.  His brother doesn’t understand.  Jim is tired of his brother’s lectures on diligence and responsibility.  He just doesn’t get it.  If John was committed to God a little bit more he would understand why work is just not satisfying.

How would you summarize John’s attitude about work?  Is it right or is it wrong?  What are some things from his story do you find convincing?  What parts of his attitude toward work would you try to adjust?

How would you summarize Jim’s attitude about work?  Is it right or is it wrong?  What are some things from his story do you find convincing?  What parts of his attitude toward work would you try to adjust?

Which brother do you most identify with and why?  Which brother would be most accepted by your church?  Which brother would be most accepted by your parents?  Which brother would be most accepted by your friends?

Presupposition # 1:  There is no theological understanding about work.

Corollary Statement:  I do not have a theological understanding about work.

John’s and Jim’s theologies effected how they work.  What we believe about God, creation, humanity, sin, right and wrong, etc. will deeply affect the way we think about work.  Although, you may not have a well developed theological understanding about work, you do have one.  Although, you may have never completely thought through how your beliefs affect how you work, they do.  Allow me to further illustrate this point by taking us out of our Christian context.

So when we step outside of the Christian world view and examine examples from other philosophical frames it becomes quite clear that what we believe deeply affects how we work.  However, many of us have never thoughtfully developed a consistent and coherent way to intimately connect what we believe directly to our work.  This series of lessons aspires to be the initial step in the direction of a practical theology of work.  Our goal will be to Biblically study what we believe as a Christian and directly apply it to our work.

The Beginning:

It is good to start an extensive project at the beginning.  You start a race at the starting line.  You start a class on the first day.  You start a song with the first note.  You start a book with the first chapter.  Since, we will be using the Christian Bible as the text for this study; we should start at the beginning.  In the first book, the book titles in Hebrew “Beginnings.”  Genesis is the starting point for work.  In Genesis work begins.

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

The Bible starts with a God who is active, a God who creates, a God who does and a God who works.  It is interesting to use the phrase God works.  Does God really work?  It might seem that work is beneath God.  God wouldn’t dirty his hands by working would He?

Presupposition # 2:  God’s perfection prevents Him from working.

Corollary Statement:  Work must include difficulty, toil, frustration, etc.

Sometimes our theological thoughts and ideas about God are so grand that we have trouble thinking about God actually doing anything.  Sometimes God’s transcendence, other-worldliness and holiness are so stressed that we cannot imagine God working.  We think that real work would in some way diminish God’s perfection.  However; throughout Christian Scripture God is illustrated as an extremely active worker.  This apparent contradiction does not come from a faulty definition of God but from a misconstrued idea about work.

Often when work is easy we do not consider it work.  Our concept of work includes descriptors such as hard, toilsome, tiring, time-consuming, exhausting, frustrating, boring, necessary and required.  With a concept of that necessarily includes those ideas it is not only hard to imagine God as working but it would be wrong.  Nothing is hard for God.  God never gets tired.  God is never frustrated or bored.  Nothing outside of God ever imposes requirements upon Him.  God has unlimited amounts of time and energy so nothing can ever truly consume them.  Work and God seem like mutually exclusive ideas.

But then the Christian Scriptures engage us as we examine God and work.  We hear about a God who creates, makes, shapes and forms.  We read about a God who rests.  We see a God who reveals himself as a shepherd, a gardener, a metal smith.  We listen to God describe himself as a worker.

Examine some of these passages:

Psalm 104: 10 – 14

Deuteronomy 11:1 – 7

Proverbs 8:27 – 30

Psalm 139:13

Isaiah 1:24, 25

Is God describing Himself as a worker in this passage?

If yes, how?

Identify some of the work that God is doing in these passages.

Is the work being described metaphorical?

This produces an unnecessary tension in our minds.  Is our theology about God wrong?  Has God misrepresented himself in Scripture?  But the key questions are neither of these.  Are our ideas about work Biblically correct?  What is a theologically sound definition of work?

Conclusion: God works and our definition of work must be based on God’s work, although there are some aspects of human work that is distinctly different from God’s.

We have many colloquial sayings that involve work.

“That was a breeze.”

“I have a light workload.”

“No pain, no gain.”

“He is consumed by his work.”

“As busy as a beaver (or bee).”

We even have some religiously inspired work related sayings.

“Only what is done for the Lord will last.”

“He that doesn’t work doesn’t eat.”

Some of these sayings are quite useful.  Some are confusing.  Some of these saying contradict others.  Some of them are completely wrong.  However, they completely illustrate the fact that when we use the word work many underlying assumptions come with it.  So to get past our assumptions I will propose a basic definition of work.

Work is the intentional use of a person’s energy (mental, physical, emotional and/or spiritual) to accomplish a specific change.

There are four key ideas within that definition:

1) Personal – By my definition, work is only done by persons.  This does not mean that only humans can do work.  The word person is broader than a synonym for the word human.  God for example is a person.  Angels would qualify as persons.

2) Intentional – Work is done based on a previous decision of the will.  Work cannot happen by accident or at random.  This is why work must be done by a person.  Only persons have the ability to use their will to intentionally decide to do work.

3) Energy – Work requires that a person intentionally spend energy.  We have to use some of the resources available to us.  This energy may come in several different forms: mental, physical, emotional and/or spiritual energy.

4) Change – The person has to intend to make a change and the person has to accomplish a change.  However, the accomplished and the intended changes do not necessarily have to be the same.

Based on this definition do you think God can work?  Why or why not?


About Brian Musser

Rev. Brian Musser is the Baptist Campus Minister at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. View all posts by Brian Musser

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