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Why should a Christian ‘labour and toil’?

Work “while it is day”

Published: 20 February 2021 (GMT+10)

Patti F. from the UK took exception to several points made by Marc Amber in his article The work ethic: Forged in Genesis. Her comment appears first, in its entirety, followed by the author’s reply.

Dear Marc, I believe in work. However, I am disturbed by your article. The work ethic, in part, came about when some Christians in the Reformation came to the conclusion that they needed to work in order to show that they were saved. (this is, of course, simplistic, but, in essence, true).

The outworking of that concept led, in part, to the industrial revolution and the destructive technology of our crazy society that is doing its best to destroy the beautiful world that God made.

It seems to me that a look at what the Bible says leads to a different view of the nature of work. There are two types of work in Genesis. Before the fall there was creative work and after the fall toil. God did not intend toil but it was a consequence of mans desire for autonomy.

It is toil that the work ethic is about. God didn’t make 9 to 5, man did. It was not God who came up with time is money, the working week or time and motion study.

You mention Ecclesiastes. Surely if there was any writing that didn’t advocate the work ethic view of work, this is it. Relax, don’t strive, there’s no point.

Jesus, himself, spoke of not striving. There is a vast difference between doing enough work to feed yourself and your family and striving for gain. Our secular humanistic society is dedicated to accumulating wealth, which I don’t think is a Biblical principle. Consider the lilies.

Hi Patti

You need not be “disturbed” by my article. You are confusing the ‘work ethic’ as glorifying God and fulfilling an essential part of our make-up, with the goal or ‘end’ of our work, whether this means accumulating wealth, or working to feed yourself and your family. To take your argument to a logical—if extreme—conclusion, imagine you have a comfortable and large trust fund so that you need not toil in order to provide for yourself and family? Do you then do nothing? Or do you continue to be productive in order to fulfil this created need within us, whether conscious of it or not? Our work ethic motive may be sound as in Solomon’s building of the temple, or misguided as in his desire for the status of great buildings and gardens etc. Of course, in a fallen world, an employee’s work ethic could be taken advantage of and exploited, or else a conscientious, kind employer taken advantage of. The joke in the ‘worker’s paradise’ of the USSR was that, “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Ecclesiastes is not an example to follow

You also misunderstand Ecclesiastes (as do many sermons), this is all from the perspective of someone (Solomon) operating “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3), from a materialistic perspective, apart from the revelation of God. The end for him was the accumulation of stuff and he concludes that “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) from that perspective. Stuff never delivers the contentment we hoped for. When we labour and toil with another goal in mind—God’s glory—it always satisfies. And so a slave like Daniel or Joseph could serve their masters, unpaid, and give of their very best because they served a higher cause. They went beyond mere compulsion in their responsibilities. Someone in a secure position financially (as secure as this world has to offer anyway) could continue to toil for the glory of God and the benefit of others made in God’s image. In fact, your argument is exactly what Solomon is counselling against, working just to serve temporary ends of accumulation and self. Read the histories of great science and music coming out of the Reformation, many of these men and woman did not work to accumulate wealth (and with few exceptions did not); they served a far higher cause, writing music like J.S. Bach ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ [To the glory of God alone], or “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” like the brilliant scientist Johannes Kepler.

Working and striving are not synonymous

The word ‘striving’ comes from the same word as strife. In other words, battling and stressing anxiously with a self-serving agenda, whereas the Bible calls us to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and that Paul prayed “For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:9). It’s all about motive, building God’s kingdom and not our own.

Christianity and conservation

Finally, you write about “our crazy society that is doing its best to destroy the beautiful world that God made”. I don’t know of anyone doing their best to destroy the world. I do know of some totally materialistic societies, hell-bent on the accumulation of stuff, that are destroying the environment in the process. I also know of other societies, not perfect, that have grown very wealthy on the back of wonderful science and technology and have also used that technology to try and mitigate their impact on the creation. The former is usually pantheist, atheist, or both, and the latter usually is founded upon a Christian foundation that provides a basis for careful stewardship of creation.

In Christ
Marc Ambler

Helpful Resources

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Readers’ comments

Nichola W.
There is another aspect of this 'work ethic' that was briefly mentioned; idle hands are the devil's work. Before the fall, work would have been easy and pleasurable. That is still the case for people doing what they love. However after the fall, when man's inclinations are for evil continuously, toil plays another role. Ungodly people with too much time on their hands would be wreaking havoc. This already happens, but imagine if this number were multiplied.

God is all wise and used man's necessity to work to eat to keep the effects of sin in check.
Hi Marc, thanks for publishing my comments. I concur with your comment that only in a meritocratic capitalistic society are people free to pursue their God given talents to the fullest and enjoy the fruit of that effort. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 teaches that God's gifts vary in degree. Three slaves were given one, two and five talents to invest in the owners absence each according to his ability. Two of the slaves obtained results comparable to their abilities and though the increase in wealth for the owner was significantly different they both receive the same reward and were entrusted with even more.
This parable clearly does not anticipate an equal outcome for everyone which is the goal of socialism.
Alf F.
Patti F is labouring under a misconception, if you'll excuse the pun. Read John 5:17. Work is in the nature of God, and we His children are created in His image.
The 4th commandment given by God to Moses recorded in Exodus 20:8-9 states "Remember the sabbath day , to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work" I take this as a commandment that we are to work. The Bible teaches God has given each of us gifts through which we can benefit the world and ourselves. Our responsibility is to find what we are gifted for. When we develop our gifts we find joy in our work, we become very good at it and in many cases the money follows: It is when we say as some do "I am going to make a lot of money and retire early", that is pursue money regardless of our gifts, then work becomes striving rather than a source of fulfilled purpose.

I also like Paul's welfare program "he who does not work does not eat" of course intended towards able bodied men. Having too much free time turns us into busy bodies, as my parents generation use to say an idle mind is the devil's work shop. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves however with a lot of free time we are likely to tap onto some social program that in today's world will likely move us away from biblical teachings.
Marc Ambler
A minor response to your comment- "When we develop our gifts we find joy in our work, we become very good at it and in many cases the money follows:". The last part of your comment is of course true in a meritocratic, capitalistic society where people are free to pursue their talents, risk their time and capital, and enjoy the fruits (and suffer the failures) of their efforts. In socialist societies (which increasingly includes just about every country in the world) it is more about who you know, political connections, corruption etc. that determines your financial status. Socialism is incredibly corrupting to the character of a nation. One only has to look at the different outcomes between North and South Korea. Same people, same culture, artificially divided by ideology and war, one communist/socialist, one capitalist, the former a constant basket case, the latter, while by no means perfect, one of the wealthiest per capita countries in the world.
Chuck R.
Ecclesiastes is one book that it is best to read the end first, where we find the conclusion "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man's all."
Reading the end first gives the reader the proper perspective needed to understand the vanity of working for self-glory described in the rest of the book.
Michael B.
I know of no better description of what a Christian work ethic should look like than we see in Colossians 3:22-24
"Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ."
John C.
It’s not that hard people!

Work as if you’re working for God, care, appreciate and enjoy this wonderful planet God created, and praise Him for His Works!
Pratha S.
It all goes back to the Garden Of Eden.At one time,there was no sin in the world.God called His creation 'very good'.But man was given a free will,and although there was a 3rd party involved,it was still up to man to decide.Unfortunately,man chose to disobey God and the world is still struggling with that decision today.Some people want to blame God,but the blame is with man and the decision he made.Of course,this is why Christ came,to put us back in a right relationship with God.And someday,it will be like it was in the beginning -- a world with no sin!
David G.
I'm profoundly irritated by people who claim that the modern world is 'destroying' the environment. I've travelled through North America, Asia and Europe. Invariably it is the wealthy western countries that make reasonable and essential use of the environment to produce good for others (food, work, wealth to fund medical research and welfare) and non-western and poorer countries that have not the wealth to put effort into the stewardship of the created world.
We are clearly told in Genesis that our role is to 'tend' or look after the world, the creation is not intended by the Creator as a place without human work and human work is essential to its success.
Yvonne R.
Thank you to Marc - Praise to GOD for your HOLY SPIRIT led words. We have all experienced working to pay the bills and to pay for our food. That has not been easy but through my employment I have gained an understanding of the purpose of GOD for me in where I do belong which thirty years on I am still actively involved regarding research of history. Furthermore I was asked by a CMI geologist to research for papers by other geologists that equated or challenged the creation of GOD. I paid for the printing of the research with my money and I was not paid. I experienced the most wonderful exhilarating time in researching the titles he gave to me. I was successful. I am not an academic - this research was totally by the way GOD has created me. Give and do not count the cost is the word of our LORD JESUS. That research came to an end and I was sad but knew that GOD was the ONE who brought to a close that time in the 1990's. Doing by the HOLY SPIRIT is the only way we can gain satisfaction and fulfillment and contentment. I am fully convinced Waiting on GOD is my preference - I definitely cannot achieve glory for GOD by my perception. All is ordinary and less than satisfying without GOD.

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