At Work & Theology 101

Why Do We Work? Six Labor Day Reflections

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Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.

– Proverbs 6:6-8

As a young boy growing up in rural Florida, I loved Labor Day. My hometown celebrated the holiday like many small towns across the nation, with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks, and other public gatherings. It marked the end of summer, one last celebration before returning to school.

To my young mind, Labor Day seemed like a strange name for this holiday. After all, no one worked on this “labor day.” It was not until I was older that I discovered the story behind Labor Day, and understood the true meaning of work.

The History of Labor Day

Americans celebrated the first Labor Day weekend in 1882. It was conceived by America’s labor unions as a testament to their cause. Labor Day became an official national holiday in 1894, after the legislation sanctioning it was shepherded through Congress amid labor unrest. President Cleveland signed the legislation as part of an election-year compromise.

America was in the midst of an economic depression in 1894. That year, workers for the Pullman Car Co., one of the country’s largest manufacturers, walked off their jobs and went on strike. Hundreds of thousands of workers nationwide joined the walkout.

President Cleveland feared the strike would shut down America’s railroads, so he dispatched 12,000 federal troops to stop the strike. Violence ensued, and at least thirteen strikers were killed.

Cleveland hoped that granting workers a Labor Day holiday would appease them as he sought a third term as president. He signed the holiday into law six days after the end of the strike. Cleveland’s efforts failed – he was denied the Democratic nomination in 1896. Politicians and labor leaders were content to keep the holiday, though.

Honoring the workers of America is important, but Labor Day also provides Christians an opportunity to celebrate the deeper meaning behind work.

Six Reasons Why We Work

For Christians, celebrating Labor Day has multiple meanings. We honor the workers of America, but the holiday is also a chance to remember the importance of work.

Why do we work? As you celebrate with your friends and family, take time to reflect on these six reasons:

1. Work fulfills three purposes.

Our work should glorify God, serve the common good, and further the kingdom of God. Our work is what God uses to change the world for his glory.

2. Work gives us insight into the nature of God.

The opening lines of Scripture say, “In the beginning, God created.” God is a worker. From the very beginning of the Bible, we are faced with the inescapable fact that work is a part of God’s character and nature. As my friend Steve Garber explains, vocation is “integral, not incidental, to the nature of God.”

3. We were made to work – it is ordained by God.

In Genesis 2:15 we read,

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 

God gave us the task of ruling over and taking care of his creation. This cultural mandate, given in Genesis 1:28, is our original job description. Like God, we have the ability to work, make plans and implement them, and be creative. These gifts help point us to our purpose – humanity was created by God to cultivate and keep God’s creation, which includes developing and protecting it.

4. Work is honorable – it is a gift, not a curse.

All professions and all kinds of work, assuming that they are legal and biblically ethical, are honorable before the Lord. There is no dichotomy between sacred and secular work. All work brings glory to God and a potential source of fulfillment, if it is done to God’s glory.

God did not create work to be drudgery. He gave man work before the Fall, as a means of fulfillment. Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 reminds us that a human being can

…do nothing better than…find satisfaction in his work. This too…is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

5. Work provides an opportunity for witness.

You manifest a powerful message, both verbally and non-verbally, of a supernatural approach to work. The world needs this powerful witness to the reality of Christ and the difference he makes in his followers.

6. Work gives us a lifetime mission.

Genesis 3:19 reminds us that “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground.” God intends that humans are to work as long as they live, whether paid or volunteer. Retirement shouldn’t mean the end of meaningful, purposeful work. Our vocations are for a lifetime.

I’d love to hear what reasons you would add to this list. Have a blessed, refreshing, and fulfilling holiday with friends and loved ones today.

Why do you work? What reasons would you add to the list? Leave your reasons here

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  • drjimharris

    Well said, Hugh. I am always reminded when I feel my work is becoming drudgery that God gave Adam “work” in His perfect garden! Work then was pleasing unto the Lord and still is today. All work can glorify Him. Again, thanks for this insightful analysis.

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