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What Good is Work? (Part I)

When I taught at Concordia College, I often found myself discussing the concept of vocation with students. They usually had great plans to find work after college that exactly aligned with their many passions. While I never wanted to squash dreams exactly, I sometimes shared with them a story Craig Barnes tells in his book, The Pastor as Minor Poet.

Barnes, now the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, recalls once asking his grandmother if his grandfather, a farmer, was fulfilled in his work. “She was confused by the question,” he writes. So Barnes went on explaining to her what he meant. She responded eventually, “I don’t know, honey. He was a farmer.” Barnes eventually concludes, “You cannot determine who you are by what you do.”

This week, I’m pleased to launch a three-week series on stewardship and work, by writer and theologian Jonathan Malesic. I met Jon last summer at writing workshop in Minnesota farm country. I don’t know how Jon is farming soil, but I believe you’ll find him great harvesting words. 

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders   

What Good Is Work? (Part I)

Jonathan Malesic

If you pass a collection basket on Sundays, then your congregation is ultimately funded by its members’ paid employment. Many of your ministries depend on volunteer work. And the work of family members sustains a church across generations. All of this means that the theology of work matters for stewardship.

But there are many different theological approaches to work. Is all of work “service,” with more of it necessarily better? If work is a “calling,” then what do you do when you hate doing it? Does the highly abstract work people do today cooperate with God’s work of creation? Is work essentially good for body and soul, or bad for it?

The importance of work, and the open questions surrounding it, mean that it’s a good idea to appreciate and speak to the work your congregants do -- for reasons of both financial stewardship and the stewardship of souls. Despite the massive amount of time Americans devote to their work, churchgoers report that they almost never hear a sermon about the experience of working. Moreover, many of them claim not to expect their pastors to have much wisdom to share about their working lives.

There is a lot of potential, then, for you to break through that impasse by starting a conversation about work and listening to church members’ stories and concerns about their work. Doing so may also help your congregation think more theologically about the various ways their work -- in their jobs, at their homes, and in the church itself -- contributes to your church’s ministry.

One good place to start is the book of Genesis, where work is a major theme in the first several chapters. God’s creation in Genesis 1 is not a construction project -- unlike us, God speaks, and things appear -- but at the end of that narrative, all of creation is described as “work.” So God works, then rests from work.

A kind of work, “tilling and keeping” the garden, is also essential to humans’ role in creation. Still, we should be careful about casually saying that “human beings were made to work.” Especially in light of how difficult work will later become, there is nothing to indicate that tilling and keeping was onerous. This work was an assignment, but it wasn’t strictly necessary for sustaining life; gathering from the fruit trees would have been sufficient.

Of course, one of those fruits was forbidden. After the man and woman ate, God punished them by making labor (in two senses) both painful and necessary. Tilling would become toiling, sweating among the “thorns and thistles” to eke out grain for bread. On this account, work is dreadful, a curse. It’s like what my father, a retired middle manager with working-class roots, would say when one of us kids complained about a job: “You don’t have to like it. That’s why they call it work.”

The Genesis story about work concludes tragically, as Adam and Eve’s son Cain, a farmer, murders his brother Abel, a herder, because God favored the products of Abel’s labor. Cain’s punishment is, “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength” (4:12). His work has become fruitless.

Work as it is today -- whether it is paid employment or unpaid care work -- is not how God initially intended. Despite our belief in the work ethic, there is nothing inherently good about hard work. In fact, Genesis associates hard work more with sin than goodness. We may often have to work hard, but in situations when it isn’t necessary, then an easier path -- including leisure -- may be better.

Living as we do after the Fall of Adam and Eve, we should expect to work and to experience work as difficult and charged by jealousy and other painful interpersonal relations. But that isn’t the end of the story. As I’ll argue next week, the gospel seriously questions our commitment to work.

Check out Part II and III of this series below:

What Good is Work? (Part II)

What Good s Work? (Part III)

For More Information

Jonathan Malesic has written about the meaning and value of work for America, The New Republic, the Wilson Quarterly, and several academic journals. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia and taught theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, for more than a decade. He is now a writer living in Dallas.


Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"work" image by Pablo Ricco. Creative Commons license on Flickr.

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