At Work & Theology 101

Is Productivity Moral?

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There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Ecclesiastes 2:24

In his Doing Business and Pleasing God seminar, theologian Wayne Grudem states the following:

Increasing the production of goods and services is not morally evil – and it’s not morally neutral – rather, it’s fundamentally good and pleasing to God. It’s part of his purpose in putting human beings on the Earth. When we create something, productivity creates value in the world that didn’t exist before. Therefore, productivity imitates God in his creativity… God’s wisdom led him to create us with a need and a desire for material things.

On the other hand, David Platt, in his book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream calls out the American church for conforming to consumerist culture:

God actually delights in exalting our inability…success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up.

Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyles. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Some Christians may indeed be called to do such things. What is worrisome in this view is the belief that productivity and success are inherently bad.

How are we to justify these two views? Columnist and third party observer David Brooks writes,

The tension between good and plenty, God and mammon, became the central tension in American life, propelling ferocious energies and explaining why the U.S. is at once so religious and so materialist. Americans are moral materialists, spiritualists working on matter.

How are we to understand this strange contradiction?

We all know the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-27.  Jesus says to him, “One thing you lack, go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

The problem was not his wealth. There have been wealthy men in the Bible who have inherited eternal life, including Abraham, Isaac, David, and Joseph of Arimathea. The rich young ruler’s problem was that he had made his material wealth, a good thing, into an ultimate thing, something he believed he could not live without. His wealth became an idol.

“The human heart is an idol factory” John Calvin wrote in his book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Whenever Christians elevate something besides Jesus Christ to the point that we feel we must have it to be happy, when something is more important to our heart than God, and when something is enslaving our heart through inordinate desires, we have made that thing into an idol.

Tim Keller writes this about idolatry in his book Counterfeit Gods:

Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something besides God. Setting the mind and heart on things above where your life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-3) means appreciation, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done for you.” This is what the Bible calls contentment. 

Christian contentment is a conviction that Christ’s power, purpose, and provision are sufficient for any circumstance. Contentment is saying out loud in your heart and soul: “I have Christ and that is enough.” Contentment of the heart is the antidote for idolatry.

This is what Apostle Paul says to the Philippians when he writes in Philippians 4:12-13,

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can to everything through him who gives me strength.

Grudem is right. We were made by God to produce quality goods and services as a product of our work.

  • When we are productive in obedience to the calling that God has given us, our work becomes a rightful source of personal fulfillment and dignity. 
  • As we strive to be diligent, faithful workers who willingly do more than what is required because we see our productive work as a moral good, we really believe that God will be pleased as we strive for excellence in our work. 

Contentment is  what keeps our pursuit of productivity from becoming an idol. Our hearts must always be focused on Christ and working for his kingdom, not our own. Material goods and resources, according to Scripture, should remain subservient to man and available to support his service to the kingdom and his neighbor.

We should be productive with the gifts and talents God gives us, remembering that what we do and produce should glorify God, serve the common good, and further his kingdom, not ourselves.

What do you think? Is productive work morally good? 

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