When we meet someone new for the first time, what’s the first question we ask after learning his/her name? Some people will inquire about family, others will ask about a possession or distinguishing feature, but the overwhelming majority of us simply say, “And what do you do?” We seem to default to asking about work, particularly in Western cultures. It’s not something a lot of us even think about; it’s something we just do. And we’re used to answering it immediately, too: “Oh, I’m a(n) _____” (with your blank being “engineer,” or “graphic design artist,” or “plumber,” or “missionary to penguins”). It doesn’t even give us pause to ask or answer the “what do you do” question.
But it’s based upon a fundamental assumption: the person asked works. He or she has a job, a career, a place of employment, and a set of duties and responsibilities designed to earned income. Work is so important to our senses of identity that persons undergoing sustained periods of unemployment (and those who lose a position they’ve held for a significant period of time) frequently have full-blown existential/identity crises. “Who am I now that I’m not an accountant?” “Do I really have a purpose now that I’m not at the factory anymore?” “It seems like everyone runs a shop around here; why couldn’t I do it?” Work and vocation are hardwired into our very sense of self, no matter how much someone might complain about the toil and labor of, well, labor.
Every Christian knows our true identity and sense of self rests in our relationship with the Triune God. We’re first and foremost children of God, and then we’re children of God gifted and graced in various ways: musical talent, passions for building and tinkering, loves for words and numbers and people. Our vocations seem to focus those identities into something more tangible, and work is a way to showcase those passions and giftings to both ourselves and to the larger world around us. For this reason, if no other, a large portion of someone’s self-conception resides in the world of work (for better or for worse).
[Sidebar: Churches and pastors should therefore have resources for the unemployed, whether it’s counseling specifically geared toward the grieving process accompanying unemployment or career resource/readiness centers to train people or otherwise help them find work.]
Is our attitude toward work healthy? Compared to the rest of the world, Americans work longer hours with fewer fringe benefits. Parts of Europe probably consider us barbaric for not having government-mandated paid sick days, vacation time, maternity leave, and other such compensation for the amount of time we devote to our jobs. I myself am horribly prone to workaholism; I’ve been known to simply forget to eat (and/or miss a date or other appointment) just because I was so focused on the task at hand. My case is by no means far from average; Americans are heavily invested in their work, and it occasionally gets in the way of other areas of life. It’s an unhealthy attitude, and, frankly, unbiblical.
But before we get that far, let’s start with developing a basic theology of work. Popular belief maintains work is a result of the Fall in Genesis 3 and arises from God’s curses upon Adam — but that’s not so. If we begin at the very beginning (which is a very good place to start), we come to what’s known as the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed [the man and woman]. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'” Humanity was tasked with overseeing the rest of creation as stewards, exercising authority to help it thrive and prosper. This is expanded a few verses later in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Here we can clearly see that work was assigned to Adam (standing in, in this instance, for all of humanity) long before any curse or sin marred the perfection of our world. Work is God’s plan for each of us to enjoy life and use the gracious gifts with which He has so richly blessed us. Adam is then tasked with the naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). If that’s not a long-term project, I don’t know what is.
The point is this: God established work and assigned it to our first parents to be done in perpetuity. Work is not inherently evil or onerous, but a beautiful gift of God. But it didn’t stay that way. Those same first parents rebelled against their Creator, and then the curse hits hard: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:17b-19a). Because of Adam’s sin, his work would become forevermore a burden, a labor. The ground itself would fight him every step of the way, and only through the drudgery and toil of hard work would he be able to survive. The curse still lingers, unfortunately. Brilliant minds work tedious, mindless jobs. Gifted builders and artists are forced to use skilled hands in backbreaking hard labor.
So it seems natural that most people hate their jobs — no matter what their job may be. Even those who love their work, when asked at precisely the right (or wrong) instant, will be quick to say they would give it up in a heartbeat if a better offer came along. God’s gift to us in work has become a heavy burden to so very many, all because of the effects of sin. But what sin cannot do is totally erase the inherent value of work. It can’t destroy the sense of purpose and fulfillment a career brings to us; it can’t wipe out the feeling that we were designed and gifted to do something, to be something. And that longing, that desire is what draws us to seek the plan of our Creator in our lives and vocations.
We’re all called to a vocation. Even the word “vocation” comes from the Latin verb vocare, meaning “to call,” and the noun vocatio, “call.” Sometimes we try to limit vocations to a strictly religious sense: nuns, monks, priests, evangelists, pastor, missionaries, etc. We say “we’re called” to the ministry. Rarely do we say “we’re called” to be electricians and drivers and dentists and teachers. But we are. Everyone is called of God to work, and everyone is called into a vocation, a calling which uses the very best of the gifts and loves which make us who we are. This is why we find such fulfillment in our work: we are called to it. When we make it an idol (workaholism), we again stray into the area marked by the curse and sin. While work gives us happiness and fulfillment, it can never replace the inexpressible joy granted by a right relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
This week, as you go about your job (whether that’s selling cars or studying Greek), remember God has blessed you with a calling and the opportunity to work. The thought might even make you whistle at your desk.