What Good Is Work? Is Government Assistance Biblical?

“Christians must revive a centuries-old view of humankind as made in the image of God, the eternal Craftsman, and of work as a source of fulfillment and blessing, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight, and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it 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.”
                                                                                                                                Dorothy L. Sayers

Public Assistance

I know from experience that lack of work almost always leads to complacency, stagnation, negativism, and laziness. It can eventually lead to serious financial woes, including insolvency and lack of preparedness for emergency. I suffered a back injury in 2004 while helping a gentleman “flip” houses for a living. I did a lot of concrete work, tear outs of old kitchens and bathrooms (oh, the cast iron tubs and old radiators!), and hanging drywall. I spent hours at a time on extension ladders painting the eves of houses. Due to my injury, and the subsequent collapse of discs in my lumbosacral spine, it became impossible to work in any capacity for several years. I subsequently began receiving welfare benefits, then, ultimately, social security disability benefits. Recently, I have been able to hold a part-time job or two while still collecting SSDI benefits.

A sense of guilt eventually set in, and I felt it necessary to return to the “world of the working,” which to me is akin to the world of the living. I am currently attending online classes at Colorado Christian University to finish my undergraduate degree in psychology, and will graduate next year. I have applied for admission to the master’s degree program in professional counseling at Lancaster Bible College (with a concentration in addictions). Classes begin September 2018. It is thrilling to me to be able to finally complete my education in psychology which I started at the University of Scranton in 1982. It is my intention to work as an addictions counselor until the day I can no longer make it out of my house and to the office.

It’s is sad to see the extent of “welfare as a way of life” in America today. Indeed, it often spans generations. There are so many factors that feed into this dilemma; too many to get into here. I think there are two ways we can help break that cycle. One is through an incentive-based public assistance program. We have to STOP allowing people to collect benefits while doing nothing whatsoever to improve their station in life. The other is to make college much more accessible to lower income families. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, approximately 25.3 percent of the Commonwealth’s population (one in four) receive some type of vital support, ranging from cash benefits and food stamps to medical assistance and low income home heating grants.

Welfare Benefits Pie Chart

In the matter of people who are incarcerated, it is paramount that we focus on vocational, psychological, spiritual, and educational programs and not merely on warehousing of criminals. In addition, we have to do something about the stigmatizing of felons, which is disenfranchising them from the workforce upon their release. Then there’s the nationwide opiate epidemic, mainly heroin, and our tendency to criminalize what is actually a brain disease. Yes, the individual makes a choice to get high, but the power of the morphine molecule is impossible to resist by sheer willpower, and the result is relapse and recidivism.

From a Theological Perspective

I read Courage & Calling by Gordon T. Smith for a class at Colorado Christian University. It’s available on Amazon.com by clicking here, and I highly recommend it. Gordon believes God calls us first to Himself, to know Him and follow Him, but also to a specific life purpose, a particular reason for being. This second calling or “vocation” has implications not only for our work or occupation, but also includes our gifts, our uniqueness, our life community, and what we do day-to-day. When we fulfill our specific vocation, we are living out the full implications of what it means to follow Jesus.

There seems to be this huge assumption in our social context today that work is bad (or, worse yet, something to be avoided) and leisure is good. Billions of dollars are spent every year on ways that help us relax or escape from the toils of work. God made man to work, and that work was to be meaningful. I believe God made mankind workers so that they could be co-creators with Him – not in the sense that they are creators of the Earth, but that their work was a part of God’s continual re-creation. Man is to be a steward over creation. Over all there is.

In Courage & Calling, Gordon says it is important to have a biblical theology of work. The witness of the Scriptures and of Christian spiritual heritage suggest that responsible human life includes stewardship of our capacities and opportunities. A biblical theology of vocation provides us with a critical and essential lens through which to view our lives and what it means to be stewards of our lives. So, we can ask not only “What good is work?” but “What is the good work I am called to do?” Living well, surely, is a matter of taking seriously the life that has been given us – the opportunities and challenges that are unique to us, to our lives, our circumstances. Taking our lives seriously means that we respond intentionally to these circumstances and the transitions of life. This is something I had no concept of, or capacity for, while in active addiction.

I had to come to understand three things. First, our lives are of inestimable value. Second, living our lives to the full is precisely what it means to be good stewards of our lives. Third, we live fully by living in a way that is deeply congruent with who we are. In the Scriptures there is a clear proclamation of what it means to have human identity – a person created by God, with worth and significance. It is also true that the field of psychology has enabled many to appreciate the full significance and weight of this scriptural insight. No lives are dispensable. No one can say that their life or work does not matter. Each person brings beauty, creativity and importance to the table.

Let’s Go To The Scriptures

The Bible has much to say about work, which in its different forms is mentioned more than 800 times. This is more frequently than all the words used to express worship, music, praise, and singing combined. The Bible begins with the announcement, “In the beginning God created…” It doesn’t say He sat majestic in the heavens. He created. He did something. He made something. He fashioned heaven and earth. The week of creation was a week of work. From the very beginning of the scriptures we are faced with the inescapable conclusion that God himself is a worker. It’s part of his character and nature.

Proverbs beautifully illustrates the work ethic. “Take a lesson from the ants you lazy bones. Learn from their ways and become wise! Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, they labor all summer, gathering food for the winter. But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep? When will you wake up?” (Proverbs 6:6-9, NLT)

In Genesis 2:15 we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (NIV) [Italics mine.] We were created by God to be stewards of His creation through our work. Work is actually a gift from God, and by it we employ useful skills to glorify Him and to help our neighbors. The Fall did not create work, but it did make in inevitable that work would sometimes be frustrating or seemingly meaningless. I believe Adam’s work in the garden can be seen as a metaphor for all work. In the story of Creation, we see God bringing order out of chaos. A gardener does the same thing by creatively using materials at his disposal. Adam was called by God to essentially rearrange the raw materials of a particular domain to draw out its potential for the benefit of everyone.

I believe our true calling evolves over time, and tends to emerge as we discover and hone our God-given talents into skills and useful competencies to be used for the glory of God and the service of our fellow man. Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Here’s the key: When it comes to work, there is no distinction between spiritual and temporal, sacred and secular. All human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God. Work is, quite simply, an act of praise. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (NIV) Our work matters profoundly to God. We must be committed to the idea that we express our Christian discipleship through our employment, which is an important part of life. It is in this realm that we are called to stewardship.

Certainly, it can be argued that we will not have a meaningful life without work, but we cannot make our work the meaning of our life. As Christians, we must find our identity in Christ, not in our work. Yet, work is the major way we respond to God’s call in our life. It gives us the platform from which we can be salt and light in a tasteless and dark world. Interestingly, the idea of rest must also be in the picture. God rested from his labors on the seventh day, and so should we. Please know I’m not talking about a dogmatic observance of “the sabbath.” There are literally dozens of interpretations of sabbath from a religious perspective. In Courage & Calling, Gordon tells us the pursuit of diligence can sometimes become the burden of perfectionism, which is a burden to you and to those with whom you work. It can easily lead to a person feeling overworked and exhausted. Our only hope is to keep a balance.

This is only possible with a clearly defined pattern of sabbath renewal in our lives. The word sabbath comes from the Hebrew shabbat, which is derived from the verb shavat, meaning “to cease.” By regular sabbath rest, we are freed from seeing work as a burden; it is ultimately God’s work that is entrusted to us for six days a week, but we are not responsible for, nor should we feel the need to, feel the burden of carrying this work seven days a week. The sabbath gives us perspective. I will go so far as to say we should not call it a “day off,” because this does nothing more than define our day of rest negatively in terms of the absence of work. Sabbath actually builds a sense of rhythm into the whole of creation.

Closing Remarks

Work is a lifelong endeavor. Genesis 3:19 says, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (NIV) It is important to realize that through the doctrine of work God changes culture, society, and the world. The entire world has fallen into a state of injustice and brokenness. Redemption is not just about helping individuals escape this world, or saving souls condemned to eternal spiritual death (although this is certainly the message of the Good News), it is about restoring the whole of creation. I can think of no better way to contribute to this goal than through fulfilling God’s call on our lives. We must integrate our faith and our work. It is critical that we perform our jobs with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability.

You and I were designed by God to work. Work is not a curse that we must endure, it is the way we experience purpose, meaning and joy. It’s what we were created to do: work and produce. In fact, not working takes a greater toll on us in the long run. Our attitude toward work should be without parallel. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” God wants us to work in a vocation that compliments the way we were designed to act. Ultimately, this means discovering our skills or talents and using them rather than burying them in the ground or hiding them away. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

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