From the Archives: The Dignity and Vanity of Labor

I’ve always preached that all honest work is God-glorifying and that the opportunity to engage in labor and reflect God’s character through it is a great privilege. Over the years, I’ve also emphasized that if you’re doing the work God wants you to do, however “secular” it may be, you shouldn’t stoop to do anything else. Even vocational ministry is a demotion if it’s not what God wants you to do.

As a pastor, these ideas were relatively easy to affirm. The logic is simple. The best thing any man can do at any time is to obey God. Therefore, if God wants him to sell soap, or make pizza, or drive truck, or mop floors, that activity is the best thing he can do. And if that work is best for him, all other work is inferior.

But when you’re post-pastoral, these principles can be a bit harder to hold with conviction—especially if you loved your pastoral work, prepared thoroughly for it for almost a decade, and still believe it’s what you do best. But sometimes even guys with seminary training and clear evidence of giftedness for ministry can find themselves facing clear direction from God to “do something else until further notice.”

And when that happens, they struggle to see meaning and purpose in the work they find to do.

So on this labor day, I’m talking to myself and to any of the rest of you who sometimes feel that your work is a bit wanting on the scale of importance, meaning and enduring value.  (It’s also a holiday, so I’m not going to work too hard at this. Please enjoy the irony.)

1. All honest work is God-glorifying, and the opportunity to engage in labor, however humble, is truly a great privilege.

Since we’re uniquely fashioned in God’s image (Gen. 1:27, 9:6), our work is fundamentally more meaningful than all of the activities of God’s other creations. It’s no trivial or random thing that when we first encounter God in the Scriptures He is speaking, creating, and working. We might not recognize His activity as work at all if it weren’t for the fact that we’re told “God rested on the seventh day” (Gen. 2:2). We know that God’s “rest” is significant for how we view labor because the working life of every Israelite was coordinated to mirror God’s week of creation and rest (Exod. 20:11).

When we work, we strive to make people or things better than we found them. We aim to use our abilities to improve on the materials at hand, often employing imagination as well as skill in the process. When we do this, we are doing something God-like.

2. The feeling that work isn’t everything it ought to be is also well founded.

If you search your Bible for passages containing “labor” and “profit” you discover an interesting thing. Proverbs 14:23 assures that “in all labor [vs. just sitting around yakking] there is profit.” But Ecclesiastes tells another story. In chapter one (Eccles. 1:3) we’re challenged to join Qoheleth (“the preacher” in Eccles. 1:1) in wondering, “What profit has a man from all his labor?” Later the book is emphatic that years of hard work are “vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccles. 2:11). Qoheleth even concludes in the same verse that “there was no profit under the sun” (see also Eccles. 3:9, 5:16).

What are we to make of Proverbs’ sanguine evaluation and Ecclesiastes’ more Monday-morning attitude? I’m going to play my “beyond the scope” card here. A complete answer to that question is more involved than a single short post can provide (in addition to being too much work to do on a holiday). But clearly, the whole counsel of God on the subject of labor and meaning teaches us that work offers us both dignity and vanity. Exodus keeps us from thinking that the Fall utterly robbed us of the joy of working as image-bearers of God reflecting His glory. But Ecclesiastes—and abundant personal experience—tells us that work “under the sun” is not all it was originally meant to be. Something really is broken.

Among other things, what’s broken is our capacity to work as Adam did before Genesis 3:6 and 3:17-19, joyfully using our ability to the fullest in obvious fulfillment of clear instructions tailor made for us by the Creator Himself—and reporting directly to Him on the results. (Imagine reporting directly to a “supervisor” who is the self-existent One who has no superior or even equal! And no flow chart can even begin to express the distance between the One at the top and the next being down. Every day was judgment day, yet they faced it without reluctance, without rebellion, without resentment.)

Both work and worker are, for now, under sin, and vanity “under the sun” is the consequence.

3. God is sovereign in our work.

It’s a simple truth, but erupts implications. By “sovereign,” I mean that He is wise and good and orders our employment opportunities and accomplishments so that they serve the best of all possible goals: the exalting of His own perfections (just another way of saying “God’s glory”). There is no greater good in the universe, and it’s ultimately our greatest pleasure and joy to contribute to it in every small and great way.

In rubber-on-road terms, God’s sovereignty in my work means I have the job God wants me to have. Of course, He may also want me to be looking for another one, but as long as I have the one I have, I have the one He ordained. That means I should not only draw contentment from serving His purposes through this work, but I am also duty-bound to be truly and deeply thankful for the work (not just for the paycheck).

That doesn’t mean I can’t be thankful for a day off, though!

Qoheleth would say working is vain but time off is, too. And he’s right, of course. In both labor and pleasure we get just a little taste of experiences that will one day be replaced with their perfected equivalents. We’re reminded of what sin has ruined but also of what our God will graciously and abundantly restore.

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