This post stems from the Kern reading group on Faith, Work and Economics at Talbot, a small group comprised of Talbot and Crowell faculty that discusses the intersection of the Christian faith with issues like poverty, work, economics and justice.
A large portion of life is spent working. It has been suggested that the average person spends approximately 90,000 hours, or ⅓ their life at work. “How we spend our days” as Annie Dillard famously pointed out “is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” To a certain extent our work and our attitude towards it, define our lives. Business Insider reports that 87% of Americans have no passion for their jobs and 80% are outright dissatisfied. People attribute weight gain, insomnia, stress, and marital problems to their jobs. How, as Christians, should we see our work? Even the mundane tasks that take up a good portion of our lives? What is the ultimate significance of it?
Is work merely toil?
A consequence of the Fall?
Is work what we were originally created for?
To be vice-regents in stewarding God's creation?
Is work about eschatological transformation?
Cooperating with God to help usher in the glorified world?
For many, it seems like the first, toil; and it often is. Scripture points to this in Genesis 3:17 when God says to Adam “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.” Is that all work is? Toil? Scripture suggests otherwise, proclaiming “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)
So how are we to view work, especially menial work? Scripture upholds the inherent value of work. God cares even about the seemingly mundane tasks such as changing diapers or taking out the garbage, when they are done in faith, as his vice-regents. Martin Luther helpfully points this out writing:
Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone . . . God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.
Scripture testifies that work is valuable, in part, because we are created in God's image as his creative agents (Gen. 1:26). As vice-regents, we are appointed by God to serve God by caring for His creation (Gen. 2:15). Is that the full picture of the significance of work? Does our work just have temporary value? How can our view of the promise of a future glorified world inform our perspective of work?
In his chapter entitled “Work as Cooperation with God” in the recently published volume "Work: Theological Foundations and Practical Implications" (SCM Press, 2018), Miroslav Volf describes how we are called to not only care for creation as vice-regents, but also to work diligently with God with the future earthly kingdom in mind. Even though our participation is limited, imperfect, and in desperate need of divine purification, Scripture exhorts us to see our daily work as a cooperation with God in His kingdom work (Rom. 8:18-25). Volf writes we are “co-workers in God's kingdom which completes creation and renews heaven and hearth.” He continues, "God is already working in history, using human actions to create provisional states of affairs that anticipate the new creation in a real way. Even when our work seems temporary, we are able to participate in God's renewal plan."
What impact does our view of the Fall, call to be stewards, and our hope for a future earthly Kingdom have on our 90,000 hours of labor? It should help us to see our work in a new light. While certainly some of our work is toil, reminding us that things are not the way they are supposed to be, our work can also have present and eternal significance. As vice-regents, our work has present value in stewarding creation. As kingdom workers, our work has eternal value in helping renew creation, a significance that moth and rust cannot destroy (Mt 6:19-21). With this view in mind, even some of our apparently mundane work, when done by the power of the Holy Spirit, can be seen as part of God's plan.