De-Romanticizing our Theology of Work


Read our other articles on “God’s Gift of Work” below!
Work: A Necessary Evil or a God-Given Good?
Work: A Pre-Fall Blessing in a Post-Fall World
Does God Intend for us to Find Satisfaction in Our Work?

In the last three articles in our series on work, I have sought to provide Christian readers with a biblical vision for their daily employment. Work is a good, pre-Fall gift that God has given his creatures for his glory and their earthly benefit. This positive vision follows the same course set by many evangelical authors who have recently written on the topic of work and vocation. Indeed, the doctrine of work has received renewed, concentrated focus among evangelical authors in the last twenty years.

Christian Books on a Theology of Work: 2002-2022
Gene Veith’s book, God at Work came out in 2002, followed by Wayne Grudem’s Business for the Glory of God in 2003. The Acton Institute published volume nine in their Christian Social Thought Series, The Good that Business Does in 2006. Tim Keller’s volume, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work with God’s Work and Ben Witherington III’s Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor both hit shelves in 2011. That same year, Christian Library Press republished Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life. Chad Brand’s Flourishing Faith: A Baptist Primer on Work, Economics, and Civil Stewardship arrived in 2012 with Sabastian Trager and Greg Gilbert’s book The Gospel at Work coming off the press in 2013.

Matt Perman released What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done in 2014 while Benjamin T. Quinn and Walter R. Strickland launched their co-authored volume, Every Waking Hour: An Introduction to Work and Vocation for Christians in 2016. Jim Hamilton published his Work and our Labor in the Lord in Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series in 2017. Gordon Fee penned Offer Yourselves to God: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Paul’s Epistles in 2019.

Daniel Doriani added to the growing list of evangelical resources on work that same year with this aptly titled volume: Work: It’s Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation, followed up with his Work that Makes a Difference in 2021. In 2020 Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Wilson’s published their book, Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and Liturgy. The following year, David Benson, Kara Martin, and Andrew Sloane released Transforming Vocation: Connecting Theology, Church, and the Workplace for the Flourishing World in the Australian College of Theology Monograph Series (2021). And I was just made aware of Bryan Chapell’s most recent contribution, Grace at Work: Redeeming the Grind and the Glory of Your Work (2022) and Tim Chester’s short piece, Gospel-Centered Work: Becoming the Worker God Wants You to Be (2013).

Each of these books provide readers with helpful, biblical insights into the origin and nature of work, God’s design for our work, and work’s inherent goodness. Because these books are rooted in Scripture, they provide a positive view of work while also helping Christians approach their work with the right attitude and in appropriate balance with other vital Christian priorities.

It has been necessary in recent decades to recapture this positive view of work because, as I noted in a previous article, Christians are susceptible to living and thinking in a sacred/secular divide when comes to their work. Much like the thinking that pervaded Middle Ages, some if not many Christians today can labor under the mistaken notion that only church work really matters, while other employments—doctor, teacher, garbage man—are necessary but not particularly pleasing to God. Sadly, even some well-meaning authors underwrite this sub-biblical outlook on work by how they frame their exhortations to Christian men. To recapture a positive outlook on regular, non-vocational work, then, is an essential task in Christian discipleship. Praise God for the recent uptick in evangelical contributions on this topic.

De-Romanticizing our Theology of Work
But just as necessary as casting work in a positive light is taking account of the Fall and the curse and the effect they have had on our daily endeavors to earn a living. Rightly, each of these books address the Fall and God’s subsequent curse on creation by supplying readers with this crucial principle: work, though still good, is now beset with difficulty and frustration (Gen 3:17).

It is important to keep the Fall squarely in place in our theology of work. When helping Christians appropriate this aspect of their discipleship, the Fall and curse guard us from romanticizing work and creating unrealistic and unhelpful expectations for believers. Yes, work is a gift from which God intends us to find joy and satisfaction. But there may be seasons where work may particularly difficult and satisfaction remains elusive.

One’s outlook and underlying worldview may be to blame, of course—hence the need to recapture work as a pre-Fall blessing from God. But there may be seasons when the effects of Fall and curse are particularly predominant. For example, a multi-month project over which you have given much creative time and energy may be discarded at the whim of a manager; a colleague may be uncooperative or even subversive to your effort at team building and cross-department collaboration; equipment failure leads to missed deadlines upstream and downstream from your location in the supply chain; personal fatigue makes it difficult to apply yourself to your assignments; poor leadership drains your team of morale and motivation; menial, repetitive tasks make you feel more like a machine than a human. Human sin and God’s curse on our physical environment pervade all that we do, even at work. There are plenty of reasons for groaning in this fallen creation (Rom 8:18-20).      

Lessons from the Dust Bowl
As I ponder the curse and its relation to our work, I am reminded of a section from Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. Egan’s book recounts the dust storms that overtook the American High Plains—Oklahoma panhandle, Southeastern Colorado, the western half of Kansas, a sliver of southern Nebraska and northwest Texas, and a small portion of eastern New Mexico—in the early twentieth century, causing significant economic, health, and social troubles for the townsfolk who lived and remained in the area. The dust storms were partly the result of a long drought, as one might expect. But lack of rain isn’t the whole story.

The condition for these dust storms was created by years and years of overusing and abusing the soil in the attempt to multiply one’s harvest. When the drought arrived, the soil, now exceedingly dry and no longer anchored to the ground by grasses and other growth, was easily gathered up by the perpetual crosswinds and spread in thick clouds across the plains. Coupled with this agricultural devastation was the broader economic dips in the price of wheat and the beginnings of the depression, and the people in the High Plains found themselves in desperate circumstances.

Egan shares the details of one man’s diary at the time. Starting his journal in 1936, Don Hartwell had already endured four years of no water, no crop, and increasing debt. As his prospects became more and more dismal, he conceded that his motivation for work had evaporated. “February 21: ‘I haven’t much ambition anymore. When one sees all he has slipping away, his ambition seems to gradually go along with the rest’ (244). We might quickly say, “Yes, but your daily work is a gift from God and God is pleased with your efforts if you trust in him. In Christ, God intends for you to find satisfaction in your work, even when it is difficult. Keep moving. A greater yield is on the horizon. Just don’t mind that dark dust cloud.” We might conclude that all this man needed was a better outlook on work and a change in worldview.

One is not able to tell from his journal entries if Hartwell was a Christian. But I don’t use him as an example because of his religious convictions. I am interested in Hartwell’s description of his situation because it highlights the way in which futility saps a person of motivation to keep working. Sometimes the grime from the curse is so thick, we simply can’t see past it.  

Egan also records an excerpt from an Atlantic Monthly feature entitled, “Letters form the Dust Bowl.” These letters were written by Caroline Henderson, a farmer’s wife who lived in the “northeast corner of No Man’s Land [Northwest Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle].” Her letter reveals how constant devastation of one’s progress and a lack of a reliable rhythm in daily routines not only kills motivation but leaves one in a state of mental bewilderment.

Since I wrote you we have had several bad days of wind and dust. On the worst one recently, old sheets stretched over door and window openings, and sprayed with kerosene, quickly became black and helped a little to keep down the irritating dust in our living rooms. Nothing that you see or hear or read will be likely to exaggerate the physical discomfort or material loss due to these storms. Less emphasis is usually given to the mental effect, the confusion of mind resulting from the overthrow of all our plans for improvement or normal farm work, and the difficulty of making other plans, even in a tentative way (257).

Hartwell and Henderson were bearing acutely the effects of the curse, just like every other High Plains resident did during these dry decades. A Christian worldview provides one with the resources to understand the curse in relation to our work and to persevere when its effects are felt most sharply. But it also provides us with a framework with which to recognize that there may be protracted seasons when work is particularly difficult.

The Realism and Promise of Scripture
There may be times in our individual lives and eras in our nation where the Fall and the curse and their effect on our work are felt more keenly than other times. Some work is exceedingly hard. Some work is just plain awful. Even the exalted role of priest in Israel required men to immerse themselves in the gore of animal slaughter (Ex 29:1ff). And not everyone these days gets to enjoy the perks of a high-powered corporate work environment, or the satisfaction of trackable and tangible productivity, or the predictability of a regular work schedule and routine. Can we still labor for the glory of Christ and taste the satisfaction of faithfulness to our Master, even in the most challenging of jobs? Absolutely. That’s precisely what the gospel and a robust biblical worldview enables us to do.

But Scripture is not glib. It doesn’t promise us an unbroken stream of pleasant work experiences or endless satisfaction in our labors. The Fall and the curse are real, and we must not flatten their effects and pretend they don’t exist. A Christian may want to change jobs or be struggling with lethargy toward his assignments, not because he lacks a hearty work-ethic or spiritual resilience, but because he is caught in a place where the effects of the curse are presently dominating. Will he need the biblical reminder that work is inherently good and a blessing from God and that God requires faithfulness in our daily labors? Of course. But he may also need the insight and compassion that comes with a clear-eyed view of what the curse hath wrought.

Nevertheless, we must always keep this last truth in view. We labor in a fallen world, and thorns and thistles will be found in greater abundance in certain places and at certain times. But our hope is not finally in how pleasant our jobs are, but in the knowledge that our Lord sees our faithfulness to him and will reward that faithfulness accordingly. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).

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