Work occupies a significant place in many people’s lives. In some parts of the world there is little prospect of paid employment, because of civil war, famine or other forms of poverty. There are varieties of work: the shoeshine boy in Nairobi, the call-centre worker in Bangalore, the oil worker in Siberia, the child labourer in Beijing, the entrepreneur in Kiev, the barrister in London and the teacher in Memphis are all working. Some are oppressed and some are the source of oppression. Some produce goods and some provide services. Some ‘go to work’ and some work at home. Some are in paid employment and some care for dependants or do voluntary work. In contemporary society we grapple with the implications of new technology and strive to maintain a healthy work/life balance.
The purpose of work
Although the fall turned some work into drudgery, work itself is a consequence of our creation in God’s image. Genesis 1 represents God as a worker. He pronounced what he had made as ‘good’ – God enjoyed perfect job satisfaction. When he made human beings, he made them workers too, and he gave them some of his own dominion over the earth. In Genesis 2 the man is placed in the garden, to cultivate and protect it. In Genesis 4 man builds cities, raises livestock, makes and plays musical instruments, and forges tools.
Fulfilment for the worker
This is implied in Genesis 1:28, and affirmed in Song 2:20; 3:22.
However, it is not work, but rest from work, that is the climax of Genesis 1. Thus the Sabbath ‘relativizes the works of mankind, the contents of the six working days. It protects mankind from total absorption by the task of subduing the earth, it anticipates the distortion which makes work the sum and purpose of life’ (Blocher).
If we are idle or destructive we are denying a basic aspect of our humanity, contradicting God’s purpose for our lives, and forfeiting a part of our own fulfilment.
Some work is, of course monotonous. Modern employers must take great care not to harm the worker physically, but what about her soul and spirit? God’s word calls us prophetically back to work which is fruitful and fulfilling, and which does not sacrifice personal and community values to economic ones.
Benefit to the community
Adam did not cultivate the garden merely for his own enjoyment, but also to feed and clothe his family. The Hawthorne studies showed that people will work harder if they think that their labours are considered by others to be important and significant.
Glory to God
God has arranged things in such a way that he requires human co-operation for the fulfilment of his purposes. ‘Nature’ is what God gives us; ‘culture’ is what we do with it. Without a human cultivator, every garden turns into a wilderness. God provides the soil, seed, sunshine and rain, but we have to do the ploughing, sowing and reaping. A new baby is indeed ‘God’s gift’, but he says, in effect, to the mother, ‘Now you take over’. Or in the words of Ambroise Pare, the C16the French surgeon, ‘I dressed the wound; God healed him.’ So to see our work as co-operating with God is to give it, and us, a high dignity. ‘Work is worship’, if we can see how, even in a small way, our job contributes to the forwarding of God’s purposes, 1 Cor 10:31.
Miroslav Wolf bids us look, not so much back to the original creation, but forward to the new creation. We look forward not the the destruction of the world, but to its transformation, and this expectation gives our work much of its significance.
A definition based on the above
‘Work is the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) i the service of others, which brigs fulfilment to the worker, benefit to the community and glory to God.’
In a 2004 survey, the Work Foundation found that many people felt positive about their work and enjoyed doing it. Pay is less important to people than the content of their job and fulfilling personal ambitions. 42% believed that their most important relationships are at work.
When Work Goes Wrong
Attitudes to work
Some have positive, and some negative, attitudes towards work. Some would avoid work at all costs and others see at as necessary only to fund food and shelter and to pay for leisure and holiday activities.
The 2004 Work Foundation survey found that 15% of the UK population were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their jobs. Nearly 500,000 earn less than £16,000 a year for working more than 60 hours per week, and 40% agree that they work long hours for fear of losing their jobs, and this is especially true of women.
Until recently, we have tended to associated physical and mental stress with occupations such as mining, and with exploitation of children and others in oppressive factory conditions. But in the last 50 years it has been increasingly recognised that many other workers can experience stress, burn-out and depression. A UN report into workers from US, UK, Germany, Finland and Poland found that as many as 10% of workers were affected and that work-related depression was second only to heart disease as the most disabling disease amongst workers. The cost to UK employers in 2004/5 was £3.7 billion. The International Labour Organisation blames unrealistic deadlines, poor management and inadequate childcare arrangements.
The Bible teaches us that work is a gift from God. But it also tells us that since the fall the working environment can be hostile and work itself can be a struggle.
The absence of employment
Since work occupies such a central place in God’s purposes for us, unemployment can be ssen as a serious assualt on our humanity. As William Temple once wrote, the problem is not only hunger or discomfort, or even idleness and boredom, but the spiritual grievance of not be able to make a contribution to the life and welfare of the community. It is shocking to be declared ‘redundant’.
In the majority world, unemployment is often a matter of survival, since no wage-related unemployment benefit is available. Even in the West, unemployment is often associated with poor housing, diet and health. But the suffering is also psychological, and the experience of becoming unemployed has been likened to bereavement, with initial shock being followed by inertia and fatalism. The church should be a place where such people can feel accepted and loved.
The Role of the Church
Affirming the importance of work
For many people, their deepest challenges will be faced in the context of work. Therefore, churches should attend to work in its teaching and in its praying. Sometimes, church will seek to encourage community outreach without realising just how much outreach already goes on by professions, such as doctors, teachers, social workers, etc, and volunteers such as debt counsellors, scout leaders, or workers with refugees.
People need to know that their daily work is important to God. They are not in a lower league because they are not in ‘full-time Christian service’ or do not preach every weekend.
Understanding stress at work
Many are the stories of workers who feel they have been placed under unacceptable levels of pressure. Stress at work is not necessarily due to personal failure or spiritual defeat.
Supporting job seekers
While it is importance that governments do rely on faith-based groups to do their work for them, the church can do a lot to help. People may need help in filling out application forms, or in setting up their own businesses. Many church buildings have been adapted so that community groups, lunch clubs and debt-counselling sessions can be based there. Then there is a whole sphere of community service that the church can facilitate, from visiting the sick to redecorating an old person’s home to teaching someone to read and write. Most local churches could develop much broader programmes of service t local communities.
Working it Out
Work is a personal issue
Work is one of the key ways in which we express our Christian character. It is evident from how we do our work whether we are honest, efficient, and trustworthy. It is at work that our ethical principles are often most challenged, and we must grapple with such issues as Christians rather than just succumb to the status quo. There may be a considerable cost to Christian integrity, although most employers will want people on whom they can rely. We should always ensure that what we do is consistent with what we claim as Christians.
Work is a relational issue
One of the key problems is work-life balance. Good work will allow for a high quality of relationship outside the workplace. There needs to be time to relax with family and friends. But also, the more relational work is, the more expressive of human identity it will be. This has been recognised in the car industry, where long production lines have given way to team-based construction. The valuing of the skills of oneself and others, a willingness to listen and communicate honestly, a commitment to help and encourage one another, a readiness to earn and extend trust, a feeling of responsibility for the team as a whole, and a willingness to contribute one’s own creative inputs for the benefit of the team, – these all express key Christian insights, even if they are not exclusively drawn from a Christian worldview.
Of course, for many people work falls short of the ideal. They work in organisations which alienate; they only se a small part of what their company is attempting to do; they only contribute a small part of their gifting; they may not be able to contribute to the vision of the wider organisation; there may be lack of communication and division of cultures between the powerful and the powerless; and they may be expected to do more or less than they are capable of. Then, work can become dysfunctional or even evil.
Work is a communal issue
We do not always experience, or contribute to, a work culture of mutual respect and encouragement. Some suffer from the effects of sexism, racial abuse, or disablism. If the culture of the workplace is cutthroat or downright dishonest, the work may feel their only choice is to deny that these things are happening or collude with them. Work is also communal in terms of where we live, for some areas are dominated by one particular industry, which can affect the whole community for good or for ill.
Work is a global issue
We are linked not only to the conditions of the workers who live next door, but to those whose goods we buy and who may work thousands of miles away. Buying products with the Fair Trade logo is one way of helping safeguard the incomes of workers in the Majority World.
Globalisation presents us with three challenges: the identify of the worker (e.g. child or woman), the quality of the conditions (many still work in sweatshops), and the adequacy of the pay. These are issues of justice. They confront us with the old biblical question: How should we then live? Some will make a priority of becoming ethical customers. Others will set up or support church initiatives. Many will campaign and lobby.
‘We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a world of work which is troubled. God intended the world of work to be a place where people could express and celebrate the fact that they are made in the image of God the Creator. When we look at the current state of the world of work and compare it to God’s original intentions, we must be saddened that work is sometimes used to dehumanise people to such an extent that those responsible must face the judgement of the God of justice.’
Based on Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (4th ed.) 217-239