We live in a generation that considers work as a necessary evil, simply as means to an end, and ultimately only as an avenue to secure wealth and provisions for the “real life” that occurs outside of our work time. The British playwright, Oscar Wilde, holding this worldly view famously declared that “work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.”
But the wisdom coming from the wealth of Christian thought on the nature of work, speaks of another reality: The ancient and biblical truth that work can be a way to imitate God, an activity that can bring healing to the soul and an avenue of worship of the one true God.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word used for work (avodah) could be translated as meaning both to worship and to labor. In biblical terms work and worship are connected. In the New Testament, Jesus declared the holiness of work when He declared:
My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working (James 5:17, NIV).
The Desert Fathers and Mothers in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries of the Christian era understood something of this healing nature of God-given work. It is said in the Philokalia (the collection of writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, literally called “The Beautiful Writings”) that one of the Fathers, called Abba Paul “proved that without working with his hands a monk cannot endure to abide in his place, nor can he climb any nearer the summit of holiness.” For the early church work was seen not only as worship, but also as part of God’s process of sanctification.
This wholesome perspective on work finally gave place to Benedict of Nursia’s (480-547 AD) monastic maxim of “Ora et Labora” (prayer and work) that reminds all of us that the two activities of work and worship indeed operate together and are complimentary dimensions of a “whole and holy life”. The Medieval Church Theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) would later agree: “There can be no joy in living without joy in work.”
It is clear that work and worship are intimately connected in the foundations of a Judeo-Christian worldview. One of the great recoveries of the Protestant Reformation under the leadership of Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD) and John Calvin (1509-1564 AD) was an affirmation of the dignity of all honest occupations and manual labor as vocations (literally callings to worship God).
How do we recover a redemptive and Biblical theology of work in a world that has a broken view of work?
I have been considering Thérèse de Lisieux’s (1873-1897 AD) theology of doing the smallest of things with great love and devotion unto God, as a possible foundational construct in a renewed theology of “redemptive work”. It strikes me that the beginning of this exploration must start with the ultimate purpose of all our action in this world: love. The twentieth century American monk and author, Thomas Merton (1915-1968 AD), describes this biblical approach as follows:
“We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others.”
How will our perception and practice of work change when our first and ultimate motive is love? What would our leadership look like if love was the first and last reason to lead? But maybe more importantly, what if that motivating love in work was defined as our love for God?
The Apostle Paul writes:
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17, NIV).
If we did our work not only in the Name of God but also for the love of God (and the love of our neighbor), then maybe we could transform our work into the pure worship of the only true God. The work would recover its original purpose of glorifying God, healing our souls and serving all of mankind.
Dr. Corné Bekker is an associate professor in the Regent University School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship and an ordained minister. He previously served as the Assistant-Dean of Rhema Bible College in Johannesburg , South Africa.