Good Work

Good work is an act of love. It is a gift from God to us which is turn becomes an act of service from us. It is not the only way of loving, but it is a substantial way of doing so.

And yet we typically don’t start by asking if our work is love but if we love our work. That is, we ask first if our work is good for us, and not if it is good for others; with what it pays, what status it brings, how satisfying we will find it, what skills it develops, and perhaps, with what opportunities for mission it brings. These may be important questions, and may determine whether a particular role is appropriate, but none of them answer the question of whether the work itself is good and with whether it is good for others.

This distinction opens the possibility of work that is good for us but not for others, and of work which is good for others but not for us. A not-for profit organization may take advantage of its staff because its cause is noble, and a cigarette company may treat staff well because its cause is not.

Work itself is good. It been with us since before the fall. It is embedded into God’s creation blessing to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1:28). Fulfilling this requires, amongst other things, a lot of work. God places humanity in the garden and invites them to tend it. Work, then, has an immediate relationship to creation; it brings order to the world, taking up the raw materials that God has abundantly provided and shaping them to new, imaginative, and useful ends — turning trees into houses, wild plants into tended crops, iron ore and carbon into electricity pylons, raw data into intelligible charts, dirty clothes piles into clean laundry, and so on.

But secondly, work is also good because it has a purpose, namely, it is for others. Others who will use those crops, pylons, charts, and clean clothes. That is, not all activities which make use of creation are work. We could pick a flower, plant a tree, compose a tune, or write a poem – these activities are good – but if they are not for others they are not work.

These two aspects of good work are witnessed in the first human work recorded in Scripture. Surprisingly perhaps, this work is not gardening but ‘naming’. God brings the various animals to Adam and he recognizes they are different and names them, ‘whatever [he] called each living creature, that was its name’ (Gen 2). And this is good in itself. You cannot protect, welcome, enjoy, understand or use what you cannot identify and categorize, and you cannot categorize what you cannot name. But it is also makes it possible to do work with and for others. It is not enough to say I will do something for someone at some time. Work requires ‘naming’; I am going to make this coffee, with milk, for you, now.

Creation provides endless opportunities for work (we might call this ‘creation work’). This work, however, while not obliterated at the Fall, is complicated by it. Work becomes frustrated and frustrating, and with it temptations for us to use work to do ill. But it also opens new avenues of good work.  Work that relieves some of the impact of the Fall (we might call this ‘fall work’). For example, preventing or restraining evil (locksmiths, police), facilitating reconciliation (marriage counsellors), or treating sickness (doctors, dentists).

The resurrection of Jesus Christ has again introduced new work (‘redemption work’). As we wait for him to return and complete the work of new creation, we will share in his good work of redemption. This will occur, regardless of our primary employment, in our workplaces, our families, in our Christian communities and in our neighbourhoods. This work will include a mix of proclaiming Jesus’ lordship, praying, explaining the good-but-fallen creation and its creator to others; urging each other, and others, to turn from sin, ask for forgiveness, and live for him.

A tight definition of work will elude us rather, it is when several elements are typically present. Love will often take the form of either loving a few people in a lot of ways, or of loving many people in a few ways. Work often corresponds to ‘love the many’. Additionally work requires exertion, it uses the opportunities of creation, it is needed by others, and often in a way that can be relied on. The need for the work is often expressed in payment (those that provide unpaid care for young children being an obvious exception). Work will often require our specific skills or gifts (we find we are suited to some kinds of work but not others) and it will typically take most of our week.

A common thread we’ll find as we assess what good work we could do in the areas of creation, fall, and redemption, is that our work is seldom ours alone. That is, my good work is often done with others and almost always relies on the good work of others. And in turn, my work also enable others to do good. This is part of how God has made humanity: we depend on one another, and our work is one of the primary ways we get to share God’s good gifts and promote communities where people care for each other.[1]

One of the ways to bring good work into focus, is to notice when it fails to be good. Work fails to be good when it fails to connect properly with creation. For example, someone who cannot play a tune cannot make music (of course it’s possible that work which fails here, may be doing so ironically, as say in a comedy, but in this case the work is ‘comedy’ and not ‘music’)

Work fails when it doesn’t do good for others, writing a journal is not work, writing a novel might be. More specifically, work fails when it is designed to be relied upon, and it is not reliable. This does not render entrepreneurial work invalid. The entrepreneur offers a new work to the world. Even if a particular offering was not needed the attempt was. In fact, almost all work will find it has depended in some way on an initial entrepreneurial act.

Work also fails when it does no good to the worker. Yes, every work involves its tiresome elements, but if work is only drudgery, then it fails to be good work. Moving a pile of bricks from one place to another only to move them back again is not work, it is pointless exertion.

And work fails when it does not support, enable or permit other aspects of life, when there is no room, for families and friends, when there is no room for neighbours and communities, and when there is no room for rest.

Yes, work fails when it is not accompanied by rest. The creation has embedded in it six days for work, and one for rest. We should not feel scandalized that for most of us our paid work is five days; there are enough other work-like responsibilities in life to easily account for another day. And we should not expect a list of activities to be easily divided into ‘work’ and ‘rest’. It will depend on who does the activity and why it is being done. Two people may dig up a plant, for one, it’s a lazy Saturday afternoons rejuvenation, for the other it is part of their work as a gardener. The difference will be how often the planting is done, and the degree to which it is depended on by others.

However, while work often fails, and we fail at work; it doesn’t always and neither do we. Roads get built, sermons are preached, criminals are caught, sick people are healed and the young are cared for and raised. And some people enjoy most of their work, skills get used, workers get paid and other responsibilities are attended to, and there is rest. In other words, work remains a good gift, a gift for us to steward creation, a gift where we can enjoy the fruit of our work and others work – a gift for our good, but at its heart a gift to and for others, if you like, an act of love.

[1] Andrew Cameron, Joined-up life: a Christian account of how ethics works (Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 270–271.