A Christian Theology of Work

A Christian Theology of Work

This spring, my new book, When Christians Clock In: How Faith Makes a Difference in the Way We Work, will be published. I’m eager to share excerpts from the book here on the blog.

As I sat down to write this book, it occurred to me that perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew. To declare what the Bible says about human labor is a tall task.

The Biblical record that says most about work, sweat, toil, and labor is the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The primary word in the book is the Hebrew word hebel, which is usually translated “vanity.” The word means vapor, emptiness, transitory. It is like a fog that you cannot get your fingers around. It is gone by mid-morning and leaves no evidence that it was ever there. This is the word most used to describe work. We read in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19,

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,

seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me —

and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?

Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled

and used my wisdom under the sun.

This also is vanity.”

Not a pretty picture of work. But Ecclesiastes does suggest several reasons behind our work. To know why we toil may be a good starting place. We’ll look at the first reason in today’s post.

We Work Because We’ll Die If We Don’t

Ecclesiastes says that fools fold their hands and die from laziness (4:5). So we work to stave off death brought on by lack of creature comforts. We work to put a roof over our head and food on the table. Since the curse of Eden, we have been sweating in the dirt to secure our food from a hard scrabble ground that exacts a price on us in exchange for a crop. Maslow’s hierarchy of need is true. We work to provide for basic human needs. An empty stomach can be a powerful motivator.

So what does that suggest about a welfare system that houses and feeds those who can work but don’t? Is this the mercy of the Bible coming through or the curse of a world that is not fair? I don’t think many Christians would oppose a form of welfare that aided the orphan and the widow, the in-between jobs provider, the incapacitated and injured, the single parent with a load of child care.

But what about the able-bodied, jobs available, lazy person? Does Ecclesiastes suggest that this person is a fool who should fold his/her hands and die? Are we required to remove the consequences for non-work as an act of human compassion? Maybe our government has nullified the musings of Ecclesiastes by rewarding the refusal to work.

Even this week as Congress reconvened, our country’s lawmakers disagreed about reinstating unemployment benefits to millions of people who lost them at the end of 2013. In today’s sluggish economy that has not yet completely rebounded from a financial collapse five years ago, deciding how to help and what type of aid to offer is not easy.

These are the kind of tensions that work theologies bring on. Where do consequences for laziness end? And where does mercy begin? How does society require someone to work? How responsible is society for those who choose not to work?

Work baptizes us into a river of theological questions.

So on one level, Ecclesiastes may be right – that we work because we’ll die if we don’t.

But working to eat to work to eat to work to eat seems like hebel to me. It is a fog that you live in but can never quite hold in your hand. You are here today, gone tomorrow. Is working for life’s necessities all there is to our labor?

In my next post, we’ll look at another reason suggested in Ecclesiastes.

Comments

  1. Dan
    Thanks for an extremely thought-provoking blog! I’ll have to read it several times to begin my personal answer to your question!

    Blessings!

  2. John 6:26-27

    Appreciate your heart. Anxious to read the follow up.

    His Alone,

    jb

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