The Redemption of Work as Worship
Written by: Rob Pacienza, Board Member
When I was a young boy, our extended family always celebrated Labor Day together. We would go to my aunt’s house for a traditional backyard barbeque. It was the unofficial end of summer and the last day before I went back to school. The only thing that seemed strange was that everyone had the day off. No one actually labored on Labor Day! It was not until I was older that I understood its origin and significance in American history.
In 1894, the country was in the midst of an economic depression. Hundreds of thousands of workers nationwide went on strike. To appease the labor unions and honor the American workforce, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. It would be celebrated across the country with a long weekend and a break from all labor.
While all Americans have been granted the freedom to honor work this Labor Day, it is the Christian who has the unique opportunity to honor work every single day.
Unfortunately we live in a country where people, Christians included, have a negative view of work. Two-thirds of the American workforce are disengaged and dissatisfied with their jobs. Is this a new problem? No, actually it is rather an ancient one.
If you were to study the Babylonian, Egyptian or Greek ancient civilizations you would find many similarities in their understanding of work. They all believed that humanity worked while the gods rested. To become like the gods they had to eventually be freed from their enslavement to work. Therefore work had no value and could certainly never be celebrated.
However, the creation narratives found in Genesis 1 and 2 stand in stark contrast to the ancient narratives mentioned above. In the Hebrew Scriptures we are told that God does, in fact, work. He created the heavens and the earth and filled them. His masterpiece was the creation of humanity that bears His image. God commissioned these image bearers to be fruitful and multiply, to have dominion over the earth and subdue it. He set them in a garden and put them to work as His co-laborers. Humanity’s work is of the highest value as it brings glory to the Creator God. In fact, the word for work in Genesis 2 is the same word used for worship later in the Scriptures. God intended for our work to be one of the ways we worship. That is an amazing reality!
As we know, the joy of work did not last long. The Fall in Genesis 3 corrupted everything! God exiled humanity from the garden and declared that work would be cursed. As a result work has become our master as we live under its burden.
The good news is that the Bible doesn’t end in Genesis 3. We were promised that One would come who would reverse the curse and bring redemption to creation. This promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He redeemed our broken image and the work for which we were created. Christians can now find their ultimate rest in Jesus. Therefore, work no longer has to be a burden, but a joy.
It was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that helped the Church recover the honor and value of work. They called it the “Priesthood of All Believers.” Since Christ is Lord of All, there is not a divide between the sacred and the secular. Martin Luther wrote,
“It has been devised that the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate; princes, lords, artificers, and peasants are the temporal estate. This is an artful lie and hypocritical device, but let no one be made afraid by it, and that for this reason: that all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As Paul says (1 Cor. 12), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, Gospel, and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people.”
Not only were the professional clergy called into “ministry,” but so were all believers everywhere, regardless of profession. The mom, the dad, the educator, the attorney, the doctor, the artist, the business professional, the politician, and civic volunteer all perform work that is holy, valued, and worthy of honor. This is why we should not see our work as merely a job. In fact the word vocation literally means calling.
This redeemed understanding of work is what has motivated Christians from every profession throughout Church history. Seeking to bring honor to God, they have used their skills to open hospitals, establish universities, cure diseases, fight injustices, and write laws that would promote liberty and human flourishing.
A major part of American history involved the migration of the Puritans from England in the 17th century. They not only brought with them a desire for religious freedom, but a disciplined rule of life known as the Protestant work ethic. They believed that every aspect of life belonged to God. All work, regardless of vocation, was redemptive. Puritan Pastor Richard Baxter called his congregants to “redeem the time.” This doctrine of calling and God-centered work ethic would greatly influence the following generation as they sought to form a new nation where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Let us be mindful this Labor Day to celebrate and honor the American worker, remembering how God has abundantly blessed us with incredible opportunities and resources. But let us also be mindful of the Christian calling to rest in Christ’s finished work so that we can fulfill our vocations with excellence and joy – all for the Glory of God.