All work has dignity because it reflects God’s image in us, and also because the material creation we are called to care for is good. The Greeks saw death as a friend because it liberated us from the prison of physical life. The Bible sees death not as a friend, but as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), because the created world is a brilliant and beautiful good (Gen. 1:31), destined to exist forever (Rev. 22:1-5).
Indeed, the biblical doctrine of creation harmonizes with the doctrine of the incarnation (in which God takes upon himself a human body) and of the resurrection (in which God redeems not just the soul but the body) to show how deeply “pro-physical” Christianity is.
For Christians, even our ultimate future is physical. Some views of reality see the spiritual as more real and true than the physical; other, more naturalistic views see the spiritual as illusory and the physical as the only thing real; but neither is true of the Bible. We acknowledge that the world is good. It is not the temporary theater for our individual salvation stories, after which we go to live disembodied lives in a different dimension. According to the Bible, this world is the forerunner of the new heavens and new earth, which will be purified, restored and enhanced at the “renewal of all things” (Matt. 19:28; Rom. 8:19-25). No other religion envisions matter and spirit living together in integrity forever. And so birds flying and oceans roaring and people eating, walking, and loving are permanently good things.
As we have seen, this means that Christians cannot look down on labor involving more intimate contact with the material world. Caring for and cultivating this material world has worth, even if it means cutting the grass. This also means that “secular” work has no less dignity and nobility than the “sacred” work of ministry. We are both body and soul, and the biblical ideal of shalom includes both physical thriving as well as spiritual.
Food that nourishes, roofs that hold out the rain, shade that protects from the heat of the sun…the satisfaction of the material needs and desires of men and women…when businesses produce material things that enhance the welfare of the community, they are engaged in work that matters to God (Jeff Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God).
In Psalm 65, verses 9-10, and Psalm 104, verse 30, we find God cultivating the ground by watering it through rain showers and, through his Holy Spirit, “renewing the face of the ground.” However, in John 16, verses 8-11, the Holy Spirit is said to convict and convince people of sin and God’s judgment—which is something a preacher does. So here we have God’s Spirit both gardening and preaching the Gospel. Both are God’s work. How can we say one kind of work is high and noble and the other low and debasing?
We have an excellent foundation if we understand the goodness of creation and the dignity of work. We work in a wondrous world that is designed at least partly for our pleasure. The author of Genesis tells us we should experience awe as we stand before the richness of the creation, for it teems with life. God seems to delight in diversity and creativity. Other places in the Bible speak of God’s creative activity as being motivated by the sheer delight of creating (see Prov. 8:27-31). This, too, is part of God’s plan for what our work should be about, and what it would still be about if we had not experienced the fall, which marred everything, including our labor.
We were built for work and the dignity it gives us as human beings, regardless of its status or pay. The practical implications of this principle are far-reaching. We have the freedom to seek work that suits our gifts and passions. We can be open to greater opportunities for work when the economy is weak and jobs are less plentiful. We no longer have any basis for condescension or superiority; nor is there any basis for envy or feelings of infidelity. And every Christian should be able to identify, with conviction and satisfaction, the ways in which his or her work participates with God in his creativity and cultivation.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in a special report by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and The Washington Times entitled, ”Faith at Work: Individual Purpose, Flourishing Communities.” Reprinted with permission.
This excerpt is taken from “Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work,” published Nov. 13, 2012 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Timothy Keller, 2012.