Religion & Liberty Online

What Genesis says about the nature of work

Is every aspect of Christian life valuable to God? Many, if not all Christians would confidently respond “Yes, of course! Everything we do should be done for the glory of God.” While this response is natural and completely true, its message seems to lose meaning when Christians enter the workplace. Scott Rae, professor of the philosophy of religion and ethics at Biola University, addressed this topic in his recent Acton University lecture, “Theology of Work.” He emphasized that Christians often make the mistake of separating work into “sacred” and “secular” vocations, often lauding the sacred vocations while demeaning the secular ones. They see the work being done by pastors and priests as nobler than that of the finance intern who spends his day filling out spreadsheets for an insurance company.

Rae argued that this false dichotomy represents a misunderstanding of the origins and nature of work. Portrayed in Genesis as a worker who fashioned the world according to his own design, God imparted this aspect of his image onto mankind. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it,” Genesis 2:15 explains. Although these words are important, the context in which they were spoken is far more crucial. For at this point in creation, sin had not yet entered the world. Nevertheless, our Creator, amidst a perfect state of nature, charged us with the task of tilling and keeping the land around us. From the beginning, it was clear that work had been a part of God’s plan for mankind, thus giving it intrinsic worth.

Unfortunately, many fail to view their work as intrinsically valuable to God. Rae explained that this attitude stems from a misunderstanding that the work mandate originated in Genesis 3, only after sin had entered the world. From this standpoint, labor is not something intrinsically valuable to God, but rather something we do as a punishment for our sinful nature. That is why it is so easy for Christians to forget about the true purpose behind day-to-day work. Unless they are receiving a paycheck from a religious institution, it is difficult for Christians to connect their faith to their daily jobs.

A work environment can certainly be a place to serve God and minister to others apart from our actual work, but it should be more than just a crucible for testing our faith. It should be a place where we strive to serve God and serve others. It is time to stop talking about “higher callings” and “sacred” vocations. This discussion diminishes the value inherent in work. It is just as noble to contribute to the provision of goods and services that promote the flourishing of God’s people as it is to minister to God’s people through religious institutions.

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