Work, what is it good for?

Teach me thy love to know;

That this new light, which now I see,

May both the work and workman show.

George Herbert, “Mattens”

“What do you do?” 

This is often how we get to know someone. What do you do? So much of our lives—from our childhood hopes and dreams, to the grind of our 9-5 work days, to the hopes for retirement rest—rotates around what we do. It is quite normal, even inevitable, that we find much of our identification in our work.  

The danger for the modern man is not that he identifies with his work, but that his understanding of work itself is broken. At worst he considers it meaningless; a terrible necessity that stands as a barrier to personal fulfillment. Or it becomes so full of meaning that he becomes enslaved to it. One has to look no farther than Tesla losing executives at an alarming rate, due to the “pace” of the organization (employees tell stories of finding Elon Musk sleeping under tables in conference rooms, exhausted from overwork), or to the unhealthy work environment at Amazon detailed in a recent NY Times exposé, to see that when work is invested with ultimate meaning it becomes a terrible and destructive master.

These broken views of work simply do not work. What we need, instead, is a recovery of a comprehensive view of work as vocation. It is common to use the words “work” and “vocation” interchangeably, as though vocation is simply another word for what we do for a living. However, a comprehensive understanding of vocation is full of meaning rooted in God’s activity and plans for putting the world to rights. The word vocation comes from the Latin word “vocare,” which means “to be called.” The 15th century reformer Martin Luther, committed as he was to the principle of the “priesthood of all believers” translated 1 Corinthians 7:20 as: “Each one should remain in the calling in which he was called,” and used this verse to argue against the millennia old Roman Catholic teaching about the special “calling” of the priesthood over and above the laity. Luther saw that this sacred-secular divide did not only create problems inside the church, but also led to the common man understanding his work as unmoored from God’s plans and unseen by God’s eyes. The average worker found himself in precisely the same predicament as modern man—weary and laboring under a broken definition of work.

Instead, Luther argued, when one is called by God into the Kingdom through faith in Christ, one is also called into the work and social connections that God has placed one in, regardless of the perceived sacredness of the work. One might still seek their freedom or advancement (1 Cor 7:23), but their work in the here and now is made holy by the calling of God. There are not two realities (sacred and secular), but one reality held together by Christ. And there are not two stories, but one story moving steadily toward the restoration of creation in and through Christ. The comprehensive view of vocation unites “sacred” and “secular” work into the one category of “calling,” and reminds us that in order to be called there must be one doing the calling. Our vocation is ultimately decided by a good and sovereign Lord over all creation, one who can be trusted and is worthy of our ultimate allegiance and love. 


The significance—and ultimately the quality—of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.”

—Wendell Berry

Work as vocation means that we see our work as God’s particular calling for our lives and as one thread in the grand fabric of God’s ongoing story of redemption. A comprehensive view of work as vocation reminds us that God is the Lord over all creation, and that He has called us to our particular work. Viewing our vocation as a calling by God helps us to see that our work fits into a much larger story—our work is one thread in the fabric of God’s redemptive story. When it comes to story, each individual word contributes to the whole, imbuing each word with special meaning. Flannery O’Connor, herself a master of story, tells us, “A story is a way to say something that cannot be said any other way, and it takes every word of the story to say what that means.” In the same way, it takes every “work” to say what God’s grand story means. From the plowman to the professor, God uses every legitimate work (work that is toward the common good and does not violate God’s laws) as words in his story of putting the world to rights again in and through Christ. 

Work, created

The story begins with God working: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Out of the dark and formless nothing, God spoke and matter was made. Stars and moons, water and land, plants and animals; all the work of his creative mind and all brought about through his creative call. Then the Creator-God does something surprising, be breaks his creative pattern in order to come down to his creation. He dirties his hands, planting a garden and forming man from the dust of the ground and woman from the body of the man (Gen 2:5-9). 

He then takes the newly formed man and woman and sets them down into his good creation and commissions them with the task to work. They are to, “fill the earth and subdue it” (Get 1:28), and to “work it and keep it” (Get 2:15). They were to pattern their work after their maker and represent him as vice-regents working for his glory and for the good of his creation. Mankind working together with God was to be the means of human and creaturely flourishing under God’s good rule and reign, and no one was to be exempt from participation. As Bonhoeffer says in his essay Christ, Reality, and Good, “the work founded in paradise calls for cocreative human deeds. Through them a world of things and values is created that is destined for the glory and service of Jesus Christ. It is not creation out of nothing, like God’s creating, but it is creation of new things on the basis of God’s initial creation. No one can withdraw from this mandate.” Work is not, as is commonly assumed, a temporary evil, but an eternal good in which we cocreate with God. But work, as all good things, was bent and twisted by the fall of mankind. 

Work, frustrated

Knowing that God worked and created us to be cocreative fellow workers in his project for human flourishing on earth (under his good rule) is good. But, as we all know, sometimes works just stinks. Sometimes the work-a-day grind wears us down and saps us of energy and joy. And the world has nothing to offer us beyond the empty promises of productivity or “impact”—promises that are empty not because they are bad desires but because they cannot stand up to the weight of the promises themselves. We will always be let down because our work will never be productive enough and our impact will always remain immeasurable.

Additionally, we are told over and again that we are merely biological masses of atoms, spinning meaninglessly through time on the space-orb of Earth. We must, we are told, make our own meaning and create our own destiny. This story is what the scriptures describe as “life under the sun,” in which the most meaning and happiness one can hope for is summed up by: “eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we die” (Eccl 8:15; 1 Cor 15:32) As Macbeth put it in a particularly low moment:

“[Life] is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 

Signifying nothing.”

The comprehensive view of work as vocation strongly repudiates this hopelessness. Life is a tale, our narrators are idiots, it is full of sound and fury, yet it signifies something—something immeasurably more. We all intuitively know this, which is why we keep hoping our work will be more than it is. Work as vocation reminds us that there is an author, one who stands above the fray and guides us through the sound and fury toward a certain and good end. Work does stink; not because it is meaningless, but because its meaning is bent and twisted by the fall. When our first representatives rebelled and fell from grace, they were cursed by God and death was introduced to their bodies and souls. But the curse was not just a separation between God and man. Their rebellion cost us joy and meaning and productivity in our work: 

“Cursed is the ground because of you;

    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

    and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face

    you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

    for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

    and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:17b-19)”

Thorns and thistles. Pain and sweat. Our work has been frustrated.

Work, redeemed

Sometimes work stinks and sometimes, sadly, human work cuts against the grain of God’s good design. The world has been entrusted to us as a gift, but we have made a mess of it. Our neighbors have been given to us as a family, but we have made enemies of them. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, things fall apart and our work cannot hold it together. Into this mess God sent his Son to redeem his people and his creation—which, groaning under the weight of sin, waits eagerly for the consummation of His redemptive plans (Romans 8:18-22). The coming of the Son of God inaugurated a new cosmic reality, one in which our work matters.

We work for the love of God.

When Paul wrote to men and women in Colossae who were trapped in slavery, he encouraged them to work for the pleasure of the one who is beyond and above their earthly masters: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23-24). Paul reminds them that they are seen in their difficult work—not only by Paul but by the “Lord Christ;” the image of the invisible God who holds the universe together (Col 1:15-17). They have a true and good Lord, who himself became their slave in order to work for their deliverance and eventual inheritance as heirs. He is worthy of their work, and they will one day bend their knee in perfect allegiance, but as free and willing worshippers delighting in their Savior King (Phil 2:6-11).

Work as vocation teaches us that no matter our working circumstances, we are to “work heartily” for the love and glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

We work for the love of neighbor.

When we work as though we are called by God, we work for the common good. Good work, whether we see the outcome or not, contributes to human flourishing especially when we remember that God has given us neighbors to love through our work. In one of his sermons, Luther said, “If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.” Earning a living is a legitimate and good motivation for work. But even that is transformed and sanctified when we see that our living is to be directed toward the love of our neighbor.

We work for the love of the work. 

In her excellent essay, Why Work?, Dorothy Sayers tells us that work “should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.” Work as vocation reminds us that there is intrinsic value in doing excellent work. When we work for the love of the work itself, we follow our maker who looked over all of his work and declared it good. We are reminded of Luther’s advice to cobblers, that their calling is not to make shoddy boots with crosses on them, but to make excellent boots that will serve their neighbors. A cobbler working for the love of the work ultimately contributes to the common good because their neighbors need good boots that will last, not shoddy boots with crosses on them. In loving their work and in “doing well a thing that is well worth doing,” they contribute to the common good of their neighbors and they please God, who is, as Hebrews tells us, “not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” (Hebrews 6:10).

Work, finished 

Sabbath. Vacation. Retirement. We need rest. God designed us this way, and when we rest we display something of the imago Dei as we follow him in his rest: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen. 2:2-3). Rest is the created and natural reward of work, just as a family feast is the natural reward of tilling, planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting the family garden. 

God made our bodies in a way that demands rest. In our sleep and on our off days we are meant to remember that God works for us. Daily and weekly rhythms of rest remind us that God delights in us as his workmanship—once hopelessly spoiled and broken—now made new and whole in Christ. We remember the Gospel, that he was at work from before the foundation of time seeking and saving us. And we remember that he is still at work holding the creation together and building and advancing his kingdom. Rest reminds us that, while we are cocreative agents in kingdom work, ultimately we are recipients of the kingdom (Heb 12:28). It is his gift to us. In rest we become thankful lovers again, remembering that the world and our work cannot be measured up by its utility. Our rest reminds us that while we sleep and sabbath, he is working, and that, “unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1).

Work, forever

Finally, there is a teleological dimension to a comprehensive view of vocation. Our work is not only a result of what God has done for us in the past though Christ. It is not only a result of what God is doing for and through us in our present work. It is also aimed toward a certain telos, or end. All good stories have a good resolution in the end.

Seeing our work as God’s calling within God’s story reminds us that there is a rest beyond daily and weekly rhythms. There is a rest yet to come: “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb 4:9-10). In Christ our work has a final telos in our entering into his rest. We will finally and forever experience the peace and flourishing of paradise, a peace and flourishing unmingled with pain. But, there is more to the story.

Rest is our reward. But it is a rest that is in and through Christ. It is Christ himself who is the ultimate telos of our work and when we meet him in our resurrected bodies we—his workers—will finally be complete and whole in his image. He will be our rest, but there is still work to do. Consider how strange it would be if God worked, then created work in the perfect paradise garden, then continued to use it in a redeemed way throughout his story of redemption, and then, finally, did away with it completely. It would be strange for us to spend most of our waking lives working in some way or another, only to find ourselves floating in the clouds for a never ending workless existence. This is not the story of the scriptures. In his final vision of the end of the story (Rev 20-21), the apostle John sees a city descending from heaven, replete with walls, gates, foundations and streets. There will be cultivation of natural resources. The nations will bring their glory and gifts into the city to honor the King. There will be culture. There will be flourishing. And there will be work to do in the rest of God.

Work, done well and aimed toward God’s glory and the common good, shapes us into virtuous people. People prepared for an eternity of restful work in the kingdom centered on the true and forever King. Christ has finished his painful work and entered into his seated rest. And yet Christ continues to work in the midst of his rest. In the same way our work will be transformed. No longer will we fight with thorns and thistles. He will make all things, including our work, new.

As the Lord of the Rings nears its end, Tolkien takes Sam and Frodo back home to the Shire. The evil of Sauron has been destroyed, yet they find that there is still work to do. Sam turns to Frodo and asks how to best use the gift lady Galadriel entrusted to him (a small box containing a fine grey powder and one seed) in his gardening. Frodo advises him: “use all the wits and knowledge you have of your own Sam, and then use the gift to help your work and better it.” In the end, as both Frodo and the audience knows, Sam has been shaped into a virtuous Hobbit-gardener with the wits and knowledge to make good use of the gifts he has been entrusted with.

In the end, as now, we also will have work to do and gifts to use. May we remember that we are part of a bigger story and that our work today will shape us in one direction or the other. May it shape us into men and women who will have wits and knowledge to put God’s gifts to use for the betterment of our work today and for an eternity of flourishing in His good kingdom.