Work, Culture, and Economics
by Jordan Ballor
"But not only did God make Sunday, he made Monday, too, and Tuesday, Wednesday … So if God made all those days, he's in all our days, not just the one you want to put him in." ~ The Rev. Al Green
Amid recession, and the ongoing plight of joblessness across America, recent Labor Day holidays have been bittersweet for many. For those who have the gift of employment, the right to work can seem more like a privilege. And for those looking for work, the hope of being hired soon can sometimes seem more like a fantasy. But it is precisely in this kind of challenging economic environment that we can most clearly see the blessing that work is, both to ourselves and to one another.
For ourselves, work helps give life meaning and purpose. Human beings are naturally productive, tending, when unimpeded, to use our minds and hands to make things, to be creative. The very term manufacturing comes from root words that mean "making by hand." Indeed, God has set up the world in such a way that work is a blessing, the way he provides for us to provide for ourselves and our families. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this context called work God's "order of grace," the regular means God has given to take care of our material needs. Anyone who has been out of work knows this to be true: Having a job and receiving a paycheck is a great blessing.
That human beings were created to be creators, to work, is undeniable. The anthropological concept of homo faber, man the toolmaker, attests to this basic aspect of what it means to be human. From a Christian perspective, we confess that human beings make things in a way that imitates their Maker. While God creates "out of nothing" (ex nihilo) and then orders and arranges it, we create in a creaturely way, dependent on God's primary acts of creation. All this is true about the human person, and it is good that it is so.
But God has also given our work a spiritual meaning. The Apostle Paul exhorts us in this way: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men" (Col 3:23). That is, we are accountable to God for the opportunities he gives us to be productive, as well as for the energy and talents that we apply in our work. The first great commandment is to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37). We are to love God in all we do. This includes that portion of our day that we spend at work. We are, quite simply, to show our love of God in our work.
It is one thing, however, to say that we are to love God in our work. It is quite another to do so. What does loving God in our work really look like?
What does loving God in our work really look like?
It is here that the second great commandment comes to the fore: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:39). As the Christian writer Lester DeKoster puts it, at its core "work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others." It is in putting ourselves in the service of others that our work also finds meaning. For in making ourselves useful to others, we do for them as we would have them do for us. And this is, as DeKoster puts it, the great secret connecting work and the two great love commandments. For in making ourselves useful to others, we make ourselves useful to God. This is how we show our love for God: in serving others.
After all, that's how he shows his love for us. The incarnation is God's entrance into a life and death of service for human beings. The Apostle Paul makes this connection as he writes, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." He says this just before he points to the example of Christ as the one who serves others, "taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:4,7-8). This is the good news of Jesus Christ, for our life and death, our rest and our work.
The early church father Augustine says, "Every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God's account." For God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. So let us love one another, this day and always, not simply in our leisure, but also in our labor.
Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), and this article was adapted from Chapter 2 of that book, by kind permission. His other books include Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010). He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research and a doctoral candidate in historical and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. Learn more.