At Work & Theology 101

A Biblical Perspective on Physical & Mental Labor

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So, there I was, breaking numerous dead branches into smaller ones so that they would fit into the leaf bag. I had collected them from the backyard where they had fallen from big trees over the past couple of weeks after winter storms. I gathered them into a pile and bagged them up.

It got me to thinking about my personal preferences for mental over physical labor. It is much more fun for me to write about doing yard work than to do it. For others, it would be the opposite.

It also got me thinking about people’s jobs. For some, it is mostly physical labor. For others, it is mainly doing cerebral tasks. For most of us, however, if we consider work in the broader sense of the things that we do during our waking hours to earn a paycheck, keep ourselves and our families alive, and take care of our homes, it is a mix of both physical and mental labor. Everyone, me included, would say they would much rather be doing one than the other. That is a challenge we all face.

What I will attempt to do here is to reflect briefly on each kind of work. I will highlight some of the pros and cons of each. I will share a few scriptures to help all of us to see these two categories of work through a biblical lens. Lastly, I will propose some practical suggestions to help us get the work done that we are not gifted to do. Perhaps there might be something here that we can learn.

Physical Labor

This is what we mostly see being done in the Bible. Adam and Eve worked in a garden. David was a shepherd. There were many Spirit-filled tabernacle construction workers whose work is described in Exodus 31:1-11. Their story illustrates God’s presence at work, which I call Immanuel labor. It is well known that Jesus built useful things with his hands as a carpenter or stone mason.

What are some of the upsides of physical work? This work is satisfying. You can usually see the results of what you just made, painted, cleaned, or repaired. Those who do this kind of work for a living at a construction site or factory usually do not have to take their work home with them.

What are some of the downsides? In general, manual labor does seem to have a negative connotation. It implies mindless, endless, physically exhausting work that is judged by many as less valuable than everything else. The pay for this kind of work is usually less than what others receive. Sometimes, we think (incorrectly, I might add) that this kind of work is beneath us. Someone else can do it.

Due to the negative effects on work that we refer to as the Fall, physical work is much harder than it was designed (see Gen. 3:17-19). It is often dirty, sweaty, painful, frustrating, time-consuming, repetitive, and monotonous. It makes us tired. Working outside comes with sunburn and bugs. Sometimes it is dangerous, unsafe, and can be deadly. It gets much harder to do as we get older. Let us not forget the painful labor that women go through to bring children into the world.

Mental Labor

In the Bible, we see many examples of people whose work would primarily fall into this category. This would include leaders, judges, kings, prophets, scribes, pastors, teachers, and others.

What are some of the upsides of mental work? I am not sweating as I am typing this sentence on my laptop. My muscles don’t hurt when I answer an email. I don’t injure myself while using a pen. We may be able to do this kind of work well into our sixties and beyond, as our bodies don’t wear out.

What are some of the downsides? There are many. This kind of work that may involve the use of technology, diagnosing complex health issues, winning a trial, or trying to motivate others to do something can be frustrating. We don’t always get the results we want to see in a timely manner. Also, those who want to enter these fields often have to go to school for many years.

Mental work is also directly impacted by Adam’s sin, as well as our own and those we work with. It is much more complex than it was designed to be. We do not get the results we expect, i.e., thorns and thistles instead of crops. Time pressures add to the stress that is already there due to unreasonably high expectations, unrealistic deadlines, ungrateful customers, and uncooperative employees.

A Theological Perspective

I believe God leads his children where he needs them to serve, based on how he has designed them. A person’s physical and mental abilities (or lack thereof) play an important role in the kind of work they will pursue. For example, a person’s desires and strengths in working with their hands to build things, run a farm, or play professional sports, might lead them to choose these paths. A person whose bodies are not made this way would choose to go where they can do mental tasks.

Mike Wittmer, in his book Becoming Worldly Saints, shares this word of wisdom:

If God has called you to preach, go to seminary and become the best preacher you can be. If God has called you to be a plumber, start as an apprentice and run all your pipes downhill. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t try to preach if God has only gifted you to be a plumber. And don’t try plumbing if God has only gifted you to preach, because that may create an emergency!

Another concept worth remembering is that God meets the wide spectrum of human needs through all kinds of workers. God works through road construction crews to meet our transportation needs. He uses teachers to meet our children’s academic needs. God also uses doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and hospital administrators to meet our families’ medical needs. Those who perform these jobs are God’s coworkers, participating in the creation mandate (Gen. 1:28) to sustain his creation.

My wife shared with me that when she has to use both her brain and her body to do things around the house, she feels like she has truly lived. I think that is because God made us that way.

The Apostle Paul issued some advice to Christian workers of all types, whether they worked with their hands or with their heads. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24). This passage applies to us when we are working for a boss or by ourselves at home. We are to do our work, whatever it is, as if we were working for Jesus Christ, with humility, a spirit of excellence, and dedication to the task.

Working As Unto the Lord

Let me propose some practical suggestions that might be helpful during those times when it is necessary for us to do physical work and we are not good at it (and vice versa).

As I stated before, the majority of us must do a combination of physical and mental labor. Nearly all of us have to move furniture across a room, load things on a truck, sweep a floor, take out the trash, or clean the kitchen. Almost everyone also has to sit down to balance the checkbook, order items from a website, read and follow directions, negotiate a deal, or calculate a budget.

Perhaps, like me, your comfort zone is doing mental work. However, based on your role as a parent, homeowner, or a son or daughter, you may be required to do some physical work in order to show love to a grandchild, be a good steward of what God has given you, or help your mom. I had to wrestle with this as I painted my fence and had to regularly mow the lawn. I needed to remind myself that by doing this work, I was actually showing love to my wife and to my literal neighbors.

It is also worth mentioning that there is another alternative besides just gritting one’s teeth and doing something that is always going to be difficult or near impossible in some cases. If you have the means, it is biblical to pay someone to do it. We hired our teenage neighbor to mow our lawn when it became too much for me.

Hiring a professional ensures the job gets done right the first time (and doesn’t have to be redone by a professional later on). It provides income for their family and honors them for their years of training and experience. Jesus stated in Luke 10:7, “A worker is worthy of his wages.”

Another valid option is to ask a family member, friend, or neighbor to help. If you wish, you can remunerate them for their efforts by paying them back with a meal or doing something for them that they struggle with doing. This arrangement exemplifies loving one’s neighbor.

Whether one’s vocation is mostly using muscle or mind, their intrinsic value is the same. Each one’s work matters to God, assuming it adds to shalom in the world and is not prohibited in scripture. I thank God for the variety of workers that he places in our world. He loves us through their work.

Editor’s note: This article was republished from the author’s blog with permission.

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