Work: The Bible’s Double Perspective
We have spent so far three Sunday evenings summarizing the Bible’s theology of work, or, better, introducing that theology. Remember, we are talking about work in the sense of one’s occupation, the sense in which it is used, for example in Psalm 104:23: “Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.” We said, according to Scripture, work is holy, all kinds of work, all manner of occupations, and that in doing one’s work as unto the Lord one is serving him. We noted that this understanding of a Christian’s vocation has often been lost to the Christian mind, especially as a result of the creation of a dichotomy between the spiritual realm and the secular realm. It has often been thought that “spiritual” work is holy – the work of ministers, monks, and nuns, or the spiritual work of laymen that they perform in their spare time (church work, evangelism, private devotions, etc.) – but ordinary occupations belong to the secular sphere in which work has no spiritual meaning or special Christian importance. That is: one does spiritual work to serve the Lord; one does secular work to eat. The Reformation rejected that dichotomy and in Reformed Protestantism in particular the argument was made that work – work like Adam’s as a farmer and the Lord’s as a carpenter – is also to be service to God.
We also said that in the economy of God, in his providence, our work is one of the primary instruments by which God bestows his blessing upon our lives. As Luther put it, “Work is holy; the hidden mask behind which God gives us what we need.” Further, God prepares us for particular kinds of work and, by various means, calls us to particular occupations and vocations.
Tonight I want to take the next step and consider the Bible’s double perspective on work, one very positive, the other quite negative. This double perspective appears even in the various terms the Scripture employs for human work or labor. The ordinary terms for work and labor, in both Hebrew and Greek, have the same neutral connotation of the English word “work” [םלאכה, םעשה, έργον] But both languages have terms that are used in Holy Scripture that correspond more closely to the English word “toil” and imply that work is wearying, troublesome, and unfulfilling [עםל, κοπος]. [W.S. Reid, “Work,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1188] Those latter terms can mean “work” but also “trouble,” “sorrow,” and “hardship.” We find the Hebrew word עםל, `amal, in a statement like this one from Ecclesiastes 1:3:
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Topics: Meaning in Our Work, Theology of Work
Church: First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma