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.
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.