Recently, in our young adults ministry at Bethany Bible Church, we’ve been studying the intersection of faith and work, based on Every Good Endeavor by renowned pastor, author, and theologian Timothy Keller.
In his book, Keller explains Jesus Christ came into the world when the Hellenistic culture permeated the ancient near east, and Greek thought influenced and shaped how millions of people viewed work, which was to view work as a “necessary evil.”
I bet many of us can relate to this mentality for a variety of reasons: our boss is a jerk, our work is boring, our co-workers are mean, or we’re constantly stressed out from all of the demands. The weekends can’t come soon enough, because that’s when we really come alive. Keller argues this mentality has us view work as a barrier to a good or fulfilling life, not part of the good life.
Christianity is counter-cultural to this thinking, and instead elevates work to a place of importance and dignity. Let’s explore three reasons why God doesn’t want us to approach work as a necessary evil.
Reason 1: God himself works
In Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we see God, as Creator, works! In six days, God creates galaxies, ecosystems, animals, and humans. On the seventh day, he rests.
From the New Testament gospels, we know Jesus worked. Apart from logging many travel miles, teaching people, and constant ministering, he lived most of his life as a carpenter.
In the Old and New Testaments, we see a God who doesn’t approach work as a necessary evil, but as an opportunity to infuse the world with goodness, truth, and beauty.
In Genesis 1:27, when humankind is described as being created in the image of God, it is in the context of the “creation narrative,” where God is working. So what that means is that if God is a God-Who-Works, and we’re created in his image, then part of what it means to be human is to work.
Reason 2: Work came before Adam and Eve sinned—it’s not a punishment.
If we think of work as a necessary evil, then we might think work is a curse or an effect of Adam and Eve’s sin of disobeying God. Actually, work was part of God’s good design for humans. In Genesis 2:15, God’s Word tells us, “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it.” Sin and evil came into the world later, as recorded in Genesis 3. So we can be assured work isn’t something we just have to do as eternal payback for Adam and Eve’s sin, but it’s something we are made to do. Therefore, Keller writes:
“Work is as much a basic human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not simply medicine but food for our soul. Without significant work we sense significant inner loss and emptiness.”
Far from a necessary evil, Christianity sees work as something we were made to do. It resonates with our soul as something good.
Reason 3: If we see it as a necessary evil, we will pursue work in unhealthy ways.
When we view work as a necessary evil, it negatively affects the way we approach and even carry out our work. Keller notes negative ways we will approach work.
We will pursue high paying or prestigious careers we aren’t suited for.
If we see work as a necessary evil, then we typically approach it only as a means to a material end. That is, we will see the most valuable and meaningful work as that which gives us the money to support our family and pursue our desires. We’ll be motivated to chase after jobs and careers that pay the most money and stay away from jobs that don’t pay.
The problem, Keller notes, “…is that many people take jobs that they are not suited for at all, choosing to aim for careers that do not fit their gifts but promise higher wages and prestiges.”
Unfortunately, this often leads to disillusion, depression, or burn-out.
We will avoid work we think is beneath us.
The inverse of the previous approach is that we will avoid at all costs work that doesn’t give us lots of money or prestige. Furthermore, Keller notes that we will “…believe that lower-status or lower-paying work is an assault on our dignity.”
As a young adults pastor, I’ve noticed this affect some students who graduated with impressive degrees. After they graduate, they anticipate that they’re going to make big money and have their dream job immediately. When that doesn’t happen, they have a hard time getting a job that doesn’t seem up to their monetary expectations or match the value of their degree. This can also happen when someone loses or quits a high-paying, high-status job and doesn’t want to start over.
The awesome truth is that God sees all work (that is not inherently sinful), as valuable and upholding our dignity as his image-bearers. It levels the playing field, so to speak.
Keller writes, “…in Genesis we see God as a gardener, and in the New Testament we see him as a carpenter.”
If we think certain work is beneath us, then we are unconsciously elevating ourselves over God, who in Christ, humbled himself so much that he not only had calloused hands and saw dust in his hair, but he also embraced the foot odor of his disciples as he knelt and washed their feet. Status and money are not important to God, but working hard to serve others and reflect his character is.
How can we become counter-cultural, and look at “work” through God’s eyes?
First, pray and ask God to see our work as an opportunity to display God’s glory in different ways. Colossians 3 tells us “…whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Second, if you live for your days off, take a few moments and ask God to search your heart and reveal why you approach work as a necessary evil. Ask him to show you how to see it the way he does.
Third, thank God for your work. Even if it isn’t an ideal situation, praise him for giving you an opportunity to work. You were made to work, and with a thankful attitude, you just may see that work as a “necessary good.”