Why We Work: What Is the Point?
You shuffle into work. Clock in on the outdated computer. Report to your boss. “Morning,” you mutter; she grunts in reply. File. Arrange. Rearrange. Click. Shooo. “Ahggh.” Despite caffeine and a full REM cycle, your blurred eyes couldn’t distinguish the trash folder from the file folder on the incandescent computer screen. “That’s going to take hours to rewrite—again.” Lunch hour is dull; second break, no break at all. Driving despondently home thinking about piles of dirty laundry, the meat you forgot to take out of the freezer for dinner, animals to be tended, and children with endless homework, you wonder,
“What is the point? There has to be some reason for this thorny work.”
What is the point? Why do we suffer through long hours, lack of sleep, discontented bosses (not to mention cranky kids, co-workers, burned meals, computers)? Wouldn’t life be grand without the pain of dirty, grimy work? Was it not enough that we are marked to suffer the pangs and agonies of childbirth and child rearing? Do we really have to add Adam’s thistly work?
The answer to these questions from many middle-class American women is to wish away work. The happy life is the work-free one. “Can I have five dollars on Powerball? Maybe this time I won’t have to go to work tomorrow.” “Only a few more years until I can retire and finally do what I want.” “Thank goodness it’s the weekend!” “Why do I always get stuck with laundry duty?” In this mentality, we work merely to earn money or rest, to buy what we need (and much of what we don’t), so we can finally not work anymore. At least that is that is what many think.
Other women don’t agree that life is best workless. Life for us, the unflagging success chaser, is work. In order to succeed, to make a mark, to be important, to leave a legacy, to be someone, we must work. Nights. Days. Weekends. Holidays. If the boss calls or texts, we report and report and report to duty. We work to be recognized and esteemed by those we deem influential and important. We work to prove that we are significant and have self-worth.
Many of the achievers and money mongers work out of a pursuit of self-love. One works to earn money or free time so she can do what she wants. The other works to earn fame and merit so she can feel good about herself. Then there is the less common worker who labors to provide for others. She is the tireless mother who walks bare-soled and with drooping eyes so her children can have the education, life, job, she couldn’t. Sacrificial, yes. Fulfilling, no. On the exterior, both the pursuit of self-love or other-love seems an admirable aim in itself. After all, isn’t the greatest command to love others, and doesn’t that involve loving ourselves first and others second?
There is a twofold problem with this view. First, sinful humans are vacuums. We have an endless capacity to suck life. The boat could always be bigger, the taxes smaller, the promotion more prestigious, our husband more grateful, the child for whom we dripped sweat could at least thank us. We can never love ourselves satisfactorily or find complete satisfaction in loving others simply to love them. Pursuit of either leaves us bitter and resigned. Proof is the vacillating culture of modern America—shifting endlessly from thing to thing, job to job. This is because we were created to live and work for something beyond ourselves, and money, and others, and fame.
To the Glory of God
The Westminster Shorter Confession, a summary of Christian teachings, asks: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ In other words, our primary purpose for existence is not to earn a paycheck, or favor, or our husband’s good graces; it is to glorify God. This reality peppers all of life, not least of all, work. What does it mean to glorify God through and in work? The answer is threefold (to carry on the laundry theme). First, and most obvious, God commands us to work.
While the earth was still quivering in its freshness, “then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:18; Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible). Notice, the reason God put Adam in the garden was to work. By obeying God’s command, Adam glorifies God and affirms his authority. But, you retort, what about the Fall? While God did promise thorns and thistles as a result of the Fall, he did not retract his command to work, just as he did not tell women to avoid having children because it would be painful. Rather, he reaffirms that we are to labor six days, resting on the seventh (Exod. 20:9; Deut. 5:13). Paul even writes: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). All good and well, you say. But I am a woman. Women are called to be helpers; men, providers. Thus, the work of providing is not my province. That begs the question: do we work only as a means of providing for our or our families’ physical needs, as posited by our culture? This ballyhoos the second point.
God himself worked. “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done” (Gen. 2:2). And again, in John 5:17, Jesus declares that both he and his father are working.
As women, we, along with men, are God’s image bearers (Gen. 1:27). Thus we too are designed to do as God does, just as a child naturally imitates his Father. God works.
What does this entail? Does he clock in and out of an office? Does he answer to surly bosses or the needs of teething toddlers?
Reflecting God in the World
God’s work is to create, restore, and renew, among other things. In Genesis, God worked creating that which once was not (Gen. 1:1). On the cross, Christ restored our relationship with God by obeying the law perfectly and bearing its penalty (Matt. 5:17; John 19:30). Throughout his ministry, Jesus renewed diseased people to health, demon-possessed to peace, dead to life (Luke 4:38–41). The Holy Spirit continues this work of renewal in us, God’s children (Tit. 3:4–7). As God’s image bearers, we are called to reflect his works in the created world. Work allows us to do that. Through work, we, mirroring our Creator, create, restore, and renew. When we compose a new piece of music or invent new computer software we are creating something new. Cleaning up your house or a disorganized web page restores order. And when you transform a dilapidated chair into a beautiful heirloom or help bring a sick patient back to health, you are renewing that which was worn and broken. In doing all of this, we glorify God by affirming that what he does is worthy of imitation, even as we glorify him when we obey his command to work. Additionally, the created world affirms work as a means to glorify God, as I will demonstrate in a final point.
Work is built into the mainframe of the world. God has designed the world such that it will not operate unless the humans in it work. The maxim, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” originated with observing life. Without mechanics, we can’t drive. Eliminate police and crime explodes. Doctors help keep us alive, as do farmers. Even in the most basic culture, there are still those who hunt and those who cook. After God created the world, planted the garden of Eden, and supplied water to it, he put Adam and Eve in that garden, charging them to cultivate it and to rule over the animals (Gen. 1:23; 2:15–22). He could have created the world such that it needed no tending. But it was his good pleasure to employ us to help him in the maintenance and subduing of his created world (Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work [New York: Penguin, 2014]). In short, by decorating our house or flipping burgers, changing diapers or designing houses, we glorify God by taking on a vital role of God’s continued work in creation.
Though the thorns and thistles of work often leave us feeling disillusioned and bitter, understanding the place and purpose of work can restore hope. Not only is our working a command, but also it is an imitation of the first and supreme Workman. By working we imitate him and reflect his image on earth. Yes, God can accomplish his labor without us, but what a privilege to join him. Some of you may be nodding along but thinking, “I am obeying God’s command to work and understand that it is a means of glorifying and imitating him, but my work is so thankless and no one seems to care or notice whether I do it excellently—or at all.” Take heart, dear sister, the Lord sees all your labor, including what others disregard, and declares it not for nothing. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58; see also Ps. 139:7–12).
Because of Christ’s work of redemption and renewal, this world and our work in it will also be redeemed and renewed (Keller, Every Good Endeavor). In Christ, no meal made for an ailing friend, no set of carefully arranged flowers, no well-crafted haircut will be wasted. He prepared these works for you before the foundation of the world (Eph. 2:10); he sees you complete them and is delighted to use them.
God’s eyes are always on the righteous (Ps. 34:15). He sees how you have served him in secret, and he promises that he will reward you (Matt. 6:1–4). Though you may never know the reward this side of heaven, as soon as you stand before the Maker of heaven and earth, you will find he is all and better than any reward imaginable. So, press on then into the work God has prepared for you, trusting that he sees, cares, and does not waste any of your labors in Christ.
Mrs. Elisabeth Bloechl House cleaner and aspiring writer and member of the OPC in Hammond, WI. firstname.lastname@example.org