How to Live the Bible — Work: Sustaining Life
This is the one-hundred-seventeenth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
“Excuse me, sir, my wife and I are looking for work. Do you have any positions available?”
“Oh, good. And how many people to fill that position?”
“Could you give me a job description?”
“Work the garden and take care of it.”
“Landscaping work? Wonderful. Anything else to it?”
“Yes, be fruitful and increase in number. Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. “
Work, in its original form, was not tortuous toil. Adam and Eve began working before the words of the curse that spoke of the arduous, onerous task of living in a world of thorns and eating by the sweat of the brow. Work in its basic form is not an affliction, but wholesome productivity.
We could define work as doing what needs to be done to sustain life. Adam and Eve were to work the garden and take care of it, thus taking care of themselves, sustaining the lives God had given them.
Sometimes sustaining life means simply bringing home a paycheck. Many people have a hard time seeing the value of the job they perform. They know they will never get a Nobel prize for what they do, they’ll never have their pictures in the paper, they’re not likely to save someone’s life, they’re accustomed to people yawning when they tell them what they do for a living. Yet earning a living is inherently valuable—it’s a basic way we sustain life. Even if all I know is that today’s work will put food on the table and a roof over my head, I will have done something good and right, because my work sustains life. I tended the garden.
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need (Eph. 4:28). Self-sufficiency is a good thing, better yet to be able to go beyond self-sufficiency and help those who cannot be. Paul told the Thessalonian church “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your own hands… so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody (1 Thes. 4:11-12).
Do we believe in the value of work? If we don’t, we’re only robbing ourselves of the satisfaction that comes from being like God and carrying our most basic mission in this life.
In the Bible’s teachings about work, it addresses both the problem of when we work too little, and when we work too much.
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest–and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man (Prov. 6:6-11).
Strong words. There’s no indulgence in the Scriptures for those who are capable of working, are meant to work, but who are unwilling. God gives good gifts, but he never intended human beings to be mere passive recipients. Paul said in reference to people who in their idleness were busybodies: “if a man will not work, he shall not eat.” The best of life is not to sit around getting fat with his blessings, but to be actively engaged with creation—tilling it, working it, planting and reaping.
When one works, one is taking the raw materials of God’s ongoing creative work and caring for it by putting it into a shape that is good in some way. It may be building a house, a company, or a family; cleaning a street, an office, or a city’s water supply; teaching math, word processing, or spiritual truth. Only God is able to bring things into existence. His work produced the elements, the vast array of biological species, and every baby ever born. Then he allows us to work it all, to rearrange it, to cooperate with his plan to sustain life—and thus glorify him.
If someone is able to work, but does not, he is like the man in the parable who buried the talents given to him. The great crime in it is that he misses out on this opportunity to work for and with God the laborer. He wastes one way to have fellowship with God. Augustine said, “To work is to pray.” Work is an expression of praise to God because it is one of the most fundamental ways we can cooperate with God’s plan for the world.
Yet the Scriptures are not insensitive to those who would like to work, but cannot. There are many for whom these words cut deeply because they do value work, they enjoy exerting their energies and gifts, but due to some physical or mental limitation, they cannot. Some are trying hard to work, but circumstances just aren’t working out. At such times it’s important to remember that any one person has both supply and need, strength and weakness. They may have to adjust to the reality of a fallen world where there are limitations and disappointments. They may need to do what they can, volunteer to help where possible, and know that they have worked to the glory of God.[to be continued… when we work too much] [See previous – Our Work, God’s Work] ___________
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s teaching pastor. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel’s many books include Spiritual Leadership Today: Having Deep Influence in Every Walk of Life (Zondervan, 2016). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.
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