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The Image of God and Work

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Why we work

In the last two articles,[1] we looked at creativity and reason as two aspects of the image of God that are essential tools for carrying out our mandate to create culture and to act as His stewards in this world. Before considering other aspects of human nature that reflect God’s image, this article and the next will look at ways that creativity and reason work together in fulfilling the work God gave us in Eden. We begin with a closer look at the command to tend the Garden.

In our culture, work is often seen as something we do because we have to. The Biblical attitude is that work is something we do because of who we are. Work is the fulfillment of our nature as beings made in God’s image. Genesis 2:2 tells us that God worked when He created the world. God’s command to Adam to tend the Garden thus reflects His own nature as one who works.

This same idea is seen in the fourth commandment. As Del Tackett points out in The Truth Project, we think of this as the Sabbath command, but it might be better to think of it as the labor command: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall do no work …. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20:9-11)

We take the Sabbath off because God did, but we also work the other six days because God did. And work is so important that God actually had to tell us to take time off!

There is another important respect in which our work is related to God’s: Adam’s responsibility to tend the Garden was actually a command to continue and complete the work that God began. Our labor, using the resources He has placed in our hands, is an act of sub-creation that is intended to bring out the potential He has placed in the world.

Work and culture
This can be seen in the overall trajectory of Biblical history. It is no accident that the Bible begins in a garden but ends in a city. God’s ultimate goal is not to return us to some sort of pristine state of nature. Rather, we are to develop culture, a word which comes from the Latin cultus, meaning labor or cultivation, and ultimately to build civilization, which comes from the Latin civitas, meaning city.

Put simply, the command to care for and tend the Garden does not mean merely to conserve what is there, but to develop it responsibly as stewards of God’s world toward the advancement of civilization and culture. The principle is articulated forcefully in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30): the only servant who is punished is the one who simply conserved what he was given and did not try to use it to bring profit to the master. Why should our stewardship of the world be any different?

What this means is that our work to develop culture and civilization is a sacred act to a Christian, to be carried out as part of our mandate as the image of God in this world. All professions that are not inherently sinful can be God-given vocations, callings on our life, to carry out God’s purposes in and for the world. We need to escape from the idea that some jobs are sacred and others merely secular: all work is and should be sacred to the Christian, done in full recognition that what we do in this world matters and can be done for the glory of God. This idea, known as the cultural mandate, is critical for understanding our role as God’s stewards and for fulfilling Jesus’ call to us to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-16, cf. Matt. 13:33).

The goodness and dignity of work also means that we should apply our reason to the task, so that as good stewards we make the best and most efficient use of the resources available to us. We must always remember that the earth is the Lord’s, not ours, and though we need to develop its resources, we need to do so with care. Our reason and ingenuity are thus to be used in the task of responsibly creating culture and making the best possible long term use of what we have been given.

Economic significance of work
So our work is important for advancing God’s purposes in the world, and is an essential part of what it means to be human. But it also has economic significance. Genesis tells us that the Garden was both a source of food and a place of visual delight (Gen. 2:9). Adam was told to take care of the Garden and to eat the fruit that grew on the trees (Gen. 2:15-16). This is the very beginning of economics: as we tend the Garden, whether for the cultivation of beauty or the production of food, we are to earn our livelihood from our work.

The connection between the call to work and the provision of food points to one of the most basic of our God-given rights: the right to enjoy the fruits of our labor. This concept made its way into our culture in the traditional norm that people should be given an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. It has also been used to support the idea of collectivization, worker ownership of the means of production, and Christian-influenced versions of communism. These and related ideas, however, do not do justice to the full biblical vision of labor, ownership, and rewards.

The right to the fruits of our labor leads directly to the idea of a right to property—in fact, it is hard to have the former without the latter. The Old Testament law presupposes a right to property, or the commandment against theft and the many property laws laid out in the Torah would make no sense at all.

This can be seen in the provisions for land ownership in Israel. A family’s allotment of land was sacrosanct, so much so that when hard times hit, it could only be leased out, never sold. This meant that even the destitute in Israel would never be without hope of a fresh start for the family because their land could never be taken away from them forever. The right to property was absolute.

This law also points to the idea that property rights extend to heirs, and thus that property can be inherited.

How seriously God took this law can be seen in the life of Ahab, arguably the worst king in Israel’s history. He sponsored Baal worship and idolatry, and persecuted those trying to remain faithful to God, even murdering prophets (1 Kings 18:4). For these things he was roundly condemned by Elijah and other prophets throughout his reign.

Significantly, however, the final, most severe judgment against him came after his wife arranged for Naboth to be framed for blasphemy and executed so that Ahab could claim his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-26).[2] God had already pronounced a death sentence against Ahab for disobeying his express commands (1 Kings 20:42), but the judgment for the crimes against Naboth and his property led to an even more severe and horrifying judgment against Ahab and everyone in his entire household. Ahab had taken not only Naboth’s life, but his family’s place in Israel, so Ahab’s family would itself be completely cut off from Israel.

The right to property continues in the New Testament. The consistent testimony of the Scriptures points in this direction, from the commands against theft to the examples of Peter’s continued ownership of his fishing boat (Jn. 21:3) or the wealthy Christians who opened their homes to the church. The one potential counter-example is Acts 2:44, which says that the believers in Jerusalem “had all things in common.” Many people argue that this means that the church operated as a community of goods without any private property.

But a careful reading of the text shows that this was not the case. The very next verse explains how “having all things in common” worked out in practice: people sold their possessions (not “all” their possessions, or they would then have themselves become among the destitute) to provide for those in need. The church continued to recognize property ownership, as is clear from Peter’s statements to Ananias in Acts 5:4, which treats the idea that Ananias had full rights to his property as obvious and beyond question. So even in a church that “had all things in common,” property rights were seen as inviolable.

In other words, people owned their own property but held it lightly, so that they freely parted with it to meet the needs of the poor in their community. Thus they simultaneously “had all things in common” and maintained private property.

A positive vision of work
Jews and Christians in the ancient world were unique in their perspective on the goodness and dignity of work, which other cultures saw only as drudgery fit for slaves and inferiors. At the same time, the recognition of property as an unalienable right, a right that preceded human government and thus as something that no king or government could arbitrarily revoke, created a stable environment for economic growth. We owe the positive vision of work, the incentives to be productive, and the security from arbitrary confiscation of our property—the hallmarks of traditional Western ideas of economics—to the long term impact of the biblical worldview on society.

secularwork

For additional insight to this topic, get the book,
Secular Work is Full-Time Service, by Larry Peabody. Or read the article, “Toward a Theology of Work,” by Glenn Sunshine.



[1] The articles may be found at http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/call-response/15602-the-image-of-god-and-creativity and http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/call-response/15653-the-image-of-god-and-reason.

[2] Since he was not directly responsible and humbled himself, God held off the judgment until the days of his son (1 Kings 21:27-28).

 

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