Human Flourishing—Full Article

I see students, and peers for that matter, constantly struggle with misguided notions of what constitutes valuable work. For example, when students are interested in careers that are compensated less than others (say teaching elementary school rather than investment banking), they face a false sense of failure. They might feel that they are not as competent as their peers who will earn more. Or they might feel that they are settling for something less than they are capable of attaining. Parents also contribute to some students’ sense of inadequacy because they express disappointment when their son or daughter will be receiving a modest salary or relatively little prestige. (It is common to hear of parents saying to their children, “You want to do what?! I did not send you to university for you to become that!”)

I am currently serving a student whose dream job is to work for a national non-profit organization that exists to serve people with disabilities. But in choosing this path, she continues to deal with criticism from her parents and friends that the proposed salary is not high enough. It is hard for her to remember how her future job so well suits her gifts, past experience, and interests and will also enable her to dedicate her life to serving other people because those around her are pushing her to think about money and status and to value those things above all else. Her story is not unique.

1.2. Value in All Types of Work—by Design

The Bible sets forth the dignity and inherent goodness of all kinds of work and corrects our misguided beliefs that the only work that is valuable is work that earns a lot of money or prestige. First, the creation account in Genesis teaches that work has value because God designed it to be an important way that we image and glorify him—not glorify ourselves. The Genesis narrative explains that God created the world out of nothing. The Spirit of God hovered over the chaos and brought form to the void. Then God filled the form with all kinds of creatures. As God worked, designing each part of the creation, he repeatedly declared that his work was good. Finally, as the pinnacle of creation, he created humans and lovingly set them in paradise to “work and take care of” the creation. Commenting on Genesis 1:26–28, pastor John Piper writes,

God made man in his own image so that he would be seen and enjoyed and honored through what man does.

Then he [God] said, first of all, that what man does is work. He subdues and takes dominion over the earth. This implies that part of what it means to be human is to exercise lordship over creation and give the world shape and order and design that reflect the truth and beauty of God. God makes man, so to speak, his ruling deputy and endows him with God-like rights and capacities to subdue the world—to use it and shape it for good purposes, especially the purpose of magnifying the Creator.15

As we work, we take what God has already created, the raw materials of our world, and we bring forth all that is needed for human flourishing. As years go by, we not only work with the raw materials of our world, but we also work with the cultural products of previous generations. Such cultivation and creativity is found in all kinds of work, from farming to medical arts, engineering, teaching, business, and cleaning. They all have something in common: bringing order, purpose, and form to our world for the benefit of humanity. And work in its variety of forms glorifies God because it mirrors our working God to the world.

God is glorified by all the works of his creation (Psalm 19:1–2). But humans have a unique role in bringing glory to God through our work because we are morally conscious and can make choices about our work. Again, pastor John Piper writes,

No beaver or bee or hummingbird, or ant consciously relies on God. No beaver ponders the divine pattern of order and beauty and makes a moral choice to pursue excellence because God is excellent. No beaver ever pondered the preciousness and purpose of God and decided for God’s sake to make a dam for another beaver and not for himself. But humans have all these potentials, because we are created in God’s image. When God commissions us to subdue the earth—to shape it and use it—he doesn’t mean do it like a beaver. He means do it like a human, a morally self-conscious person who is responsible to do his work intentionally for the glory of the Maker. . . . Therefore, the essence of our work as humans must be that it is done in conscience reliance on God’s power, and in conscious quest of God’s pattern of excellence, and in deliberate aim to reflect God’s glory.16

This teaches us that how we work is as important as what we produce. God is glorified by work because we can do it with an eye to pleasing him.

It is also necessary to remember that our life’s work includes more than what we are paid for doing. The Scriptures never limit “work” in this way. For example, the woman of noble character, described in Proverbs 31, is praised for her work in many spheres of life. She is an example first and foremost because her work is rooted in her fear of God (v. 30). She is then praised because of her business dealings and real estate ventures (vv. 16, 24). In today’s thinking, we would limit her work to these matters because she is paid for them. But work is more broadly defined as how waking hours are spent when not experiencing Sabbath rest. So the Proverbs 31 woman is equally held up as an example of wise living because of how she manages her household, serves the poor, and instructs her children (vv. 15, 20, 26). All of these areas constitute her work, and all are important. Remembering this would greatly bless those who exclusively work at home, running a household with its many demands, who do not get compensated. It would help level the playing field between paid work and volunteer work, which in turn would help keep us from giving too much time to either one, knowing it is not the only legitimate work we do.

1.3. Value in All Types of Work—By Example

There is another insight into the Genesis creation account that shows forth the dignity of all kinds of work.17 This insight makes the Genesis account seem radical in its teaching when compared to other worldviews and what they teach about work. Let me explain. The ancient Babylonian creation account, the Enuma Elish, describes the world as created out of a divine conflict. Humanity was then created as an afterthought to worship the gods and work for them. In other words, work is hard, the gods need time off, so enter humanity to do the “bad” work.

Moreover, dualistic worldviews such as Greek and Roman thought regard the world of the mind as superior to the physical realm. Because manual labor is part of the physical realm, they consider it base and avoid it. So in Greek mythology, when Pandora’s Box opens and looses all evils into the world, work is among them. Roman philosophers repeatedly asserted that only slaves should do manual labor.

Now consider God in the creation account in Genesis. We see him creating with purpose and design, calling his work good. We see that he created humans with great thought and lovingly designed them to be the pinnacle of creation, not as an afterthought like the Babylonian creation account. All work, including physical work, has dignity because God does it. We forget that the first human in Scripture to be filled with the Spirit of God was a craftsman named Bezalel, who was set apart to oversee the construction of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 31). Would we have rightly valued him today? I fear not.

As Pastor Tim Keller has noted, when our Savior came to earth, he did not come as a philosopher (a job the Greeks would have highly valued), nor as a noble statesman (a job the Romans would have highly valued), nor as a powerful military general (a job the Jews would have highly valued), but he came as a carpenter—in our modern lingo, a union guy—and this was the one who would save the world. Thus, we would do well to get rid of our modern notions that only some work has dignity because of the compensation and prestige that go with it. We should stop thinking that some work is less valuable because it pays less, requires less education, and is physical in nature rather than cerebral.

Rightly valuing all types of work would encourage students to assess their unique gifts, interests, education, and family needs and pursue future employment based on connecting these individual traits to the service of others. Students (and their parents) would be willing to consider the many fields today that need more qualified workers as good options. They would stop trying to fit themselves into certain careers, whether their gifts lead them that way or not, because of the lure of money or prestige. They would be free to think about how their work can glorify God and bless others.

Another benefit from rightly valuing all types of work connects to the fact that most students will one day become parents. So many people, and especially women, struggle when they finish years of education, work in a particular job for a time, and then leave their jobs to stay home to parent small children and run their households. Many wrestle with a deep sense that when they do this, they are throwing their lives away. They cannot appreciate that the different work of running a household and caring for those who cannot care for themselves is legitimate and valuable work.18 They cannot grasp the notion that the work for their family, which does not bring in a paycheck, might even be more important than what they were doing before. Our hierarchy of work has destructive implications in many directions, family life included.

Let us value work as God intends.

2. Identity in Work

A second implication of our self-centered approach to work is that work has become the means through which we craft our personal identity. For centuries past, humans found their primary identity in their family and attendant relationships. But now, our culture has shifted the locus of personal meaning from family to our work. Thus, deciding what you will be as a worker and attaining that position is of the utmost importance.19 This is why it is so common to meet someone for the first time and ask, “What do you do for a living?” Looking back over human history, this is a new way of living.

Os Guinness traces this shift back to the Industrial Revolution. At that time, Guinness explains, the use and definition of the word “calling” shifted from a scriptural understanding (where humans are not called primarily to an occupation or a place, but to a person, Jesus Christ) to a worldly view (calling became synonymous with one’s occupation). Thus, one’s work became everything. Work even took over from the sacred as the locus of meaning. Proof of this is quotations by those in power: in 1920s-America, business leader Henry Ford asserted, “Every thinking man knows that work is the salvation of the human race, physically, morally, and spiritually.” And President Calvin Coolidge said, “He who builds a factory builds a temple, and he who works there worships there.”20

When we let our work define us, so much is at stake every time we face a deadline or start a new project because our performance becomes the very measure of our worth. Living this way causes tremendous pressure. The Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire helpfully illustrates this. One of the characters, an Olympic athlete named Harold Abrahams, looked to his performance as a runner to provide meaning for his life. In a scene before one of his important races, Harold shares his fears: “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor, four feet wide, with ten lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?” In this scene, Harold admits that if he loses, then he is nothing. Running is his life, and if something goes wrong with his running, he is a failure. He must live under the tremendous pressure to be the best.

But there is more. At another point in the film, Harold admits, “I’ve known the fear of losing, but now I am almost too frightened to win.” After years of training and sacrifice to qualify for the Olympics, it makes sense that he would be afraid of losing. But why is he so afraid to win? The answer raises our awareness to the emptiness of achievement for achievement’s sake. If all there is to life is personal achievement, then one can never stop achieving to derive meaning. One must perform and keep performing, setting a new goal the moment another is attained, thereby constructing meaning for life. Harold seems to sense the drudgery of such a way of life. He questions, “Is this what life is really about?”

Students today, like many adults, certainly labor anxiously under this notion of personal peace and identity being wrapped up in what they do and what they achieve. I have counseled many students who genuinely fear that their lives are over, so to speak, because of a failing grade on an exam or an injury that sidelines them from their sports season. Who they are has become so tied in to what they do.

This makes sense. Humans long for meaning in their lives. There are many who assert that humans are here by chance, the result of evolutionary mechanisms working in nature, and thus without higher reason for our existence. From this perspective, humans must create their own meaning, and one way people do this is through their achievements. Additionally, many experience a lingering sense of guilt that drives them to earn approval through perfectionism or through attaining goals at work (checking off all the boxes on a to-do list actually makes people feel good). These very real emotions motivate people to seek ultimate satisfaction in achievement through work. But work was not meant to bear such burdens, which leave people empty.

2.1. Identity in Christ

Jesus promised his followers that by trusting in him they would know the truth and the truth would set them free. What would it set them free from? The answer is slavery to sin in all of its forms, including the sin of self justification through work. As Christians, the antidote to our restlessness of soul is resting in the truth that we are no longer enemies of God and objects of wrath. Instead, God fully approves and loves us because of Christ’s work on our behalf. We have peace with God and access to his glorious throne of grace to find help in our times of need. This changed status provides genuine peace in our lives.

With identity in Christ, we do not have to prove ourselves through work because the only one whose opinion ultimately matters has approved us! Our meaning in life is rooted in the dignity of our image-bearing through creation and in our union with Christ through our redemption. This is why Christians can rest physically (from actual work) and emotionally (from that nagging inner voice that says we are not measuring up) with a deep rest of the soul. We do not need to look to our work or to those we work for to determine our self-worth. As pastor Tim Keller has commented, because Christ said, “It is finished” when he labored on the cross, suffering to atone for our sin, God looks at our lives when we put our faith in Christ and says, “It is good.” We look to Christ, who has lavished his love upon us and set us apart for himself, and we find joy and peace in our beloved status.

With confidence in our right standing with God, our work becomes what God meant it to be—a way to serve God by serving our neighbors. Reformer Martin Luther wrote extensively on the topic of work.21 Luther argued that all vocations, except those based on clear examples of sin like usury, are valuable to God. Since the gospel alone brings us heaven, humans can stop thinking that religious occupations are more holy than secular ones. Our work enables us to participate in God’s ongoing work of creation through our various positions, but this cooperation neither defines our identity nor merits our salvation. If we embrace these truths, we can relax in our work and not look to our performance or type of work either to define us or move us closer to God.

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