The surprising reason for work

by Mary Yeo-Carpenter // February 19, 2018, 7:28 pm

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Photo by Zhipeng Ya on Unsplash

Do you know why you work? If you do your work well, nobody notices it.

Consider the garbage collectors. We seldom see them at work, but if their job is left undone for just a week, it becomes obvious, not only visibly, but by smell as well! They are generally unappreciated and not commended, yet they go about their vocation each day.

Why work? To pay bills, of course.

I mean, we need food, shelter and clothing. And in modern society, we have to work to earn money to pay for the goods and services we need. 

As someone once quipped: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” Or as the Bible puts it: “A worker’s appetite works for him, for his hunger urges him on.” Proverbs 16:26 (KJV)

And that is not a bad reason for work.  After all, society thrives only when most of its members are responsible, taking care of their own needs and wants. 

The Bible makes fun of the sluggard, the man who will not work. Amusingly, a man so attached to his bed is described as being like a door on its hinges. And how could we not smile at the picture of a man who puts his hand to the dish but just could not exert enough effort to bring the food to his mouth?

More serious is the warning: “He who is slack in his work is brother to him who destroys.” (Proverbs 18:9)


Work is not a result of the Fall. Before sin entered the world, God told our first parents to tend the garden. The Fall brought a curse to work but work itself is not a curse.

So we are to work or we will starve. The Bible calls on believers to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, but not those who will not take care of themselves.

Do we work simply because of economic necessity? Definitely not, says psychologist James Hillman. Rather, Hillman calls work “the irreducible”. We don’t work for food gathering or tribal power and conquest or to buy a new car and so on and so forth. Work is its own end and brings its own joy.

That argument probably does not gel with the experience of many. We all know people who live for the time when they are able to do their thing instead of work.

But the psychologist has a reason for this: “We moralise work and make it a problem, forgetting that the hands love to work and in the hands is the mind.” Maybe so. But sometimes, work itself brings no pleasure. Like the POWs who were made to work on behalf of enemy forces and under terrible conditions.

So why work? Even if we have no bills to pay, even if we have an inheritance that will take care of all our wants, we are to work because work gives dignity.

Work is not a result of the Fall. Before sin entered the world, God told our first parents to tend the garden. The Fall brought a curse to work but work itself is not a curse.

Social psychologist Eric Fromm sees work as a way to justify one’s existence in saying: “I am because I effect.”

For the believer, work is even more noble than that. The Bible begins with God at work in creation. John’s gospel tells us that this Creator God is now at work in re-creation, the new creation. 

Jesus, while on earth, tells us that “My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I too am working.” John 5:17

So legitimate work is part of being made in the image of God.

Why work? Because work is a hedge against sin.

Paul told the young pastor to counsel young widows to remarry and take care of their homes. His reasons: If the widows are young, they should not become a burden to the church; and those who are not kept busy become busybodies, “upsetting whole families”. There is some truth to the saying that idle hands are the devil’s workshops.

We see this truth played out in the church. Those who are busy with ministry are seldom those who are gossiping, complaining and causing divisions.

Why work? Because work in this fallen world is a reminder of the curse of sin.

Because we rebel against God, God says the earth, initially made for our pleasure, will no longer yield its fruit willingly to us. Thorns and thistles will now frustrate our gardening. No matter how much we love our work, there will be times of frustration and we remember again that this is not what it should be.

We should feel the hard edges of work that we may appreciate again the cost of our salvation. So here, we offer our work up as worship to our God and King.

Even advocates of the work instinct acknowledge that work can be frustrating and for some, never really satisfying. They argue that the way to resolve this is to recognise the community reason for work.

We work to belong, even if that particular piece of work we do is not infused with meaning. But if work is worship, then even repetitive, mundane work can be redeemed.

Why work? Because working is the right stewardship of the gifts and opportunities God has given us.

Every talent and every opportunity we have is God-given and to be used for the upbuilding of the church and the blessing of society. We do our bit to make this world better.

Here I remember the story of a Chinese Christian woman imprisoned for her faith. She was made to clean the buckets that acted as latrines for other prisoners. But she did her work with excellence, making sure that each day, the prisoners had clean buckets. When she was released, they needed five prisoners to do her work and, even then, the buckets were never as well cleaned.

Why? Because she loved God and her neighbour (fellow prisoners), she wanted them to have clean buckets each day.

Why work? Here is the surprising reason: So that we can be generous.

Listen to Paul: “Let him who stole steal no longer; but rather let him labour, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.” Ephesians 4:28 (NKJV)

Here is the surprising Gospel. The Gospel makes us generous. In practical ways, we are to love our neighbours. But since we cannot give what we do not have, we work. 

“The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms lost men from parasites to producers, from those who take from others, to those who give sacrificially to meet the needs of the helpless.The Gospel turns a man’s attention from himself to others.”

We need to understand that if we are not earning what we have, we are stealing. In the US, there has been much talk about the entitlement society.

The rationale for entitlement is that if I need (or want) and don’t have, I should be given it. My needs, my pleasure, that’s what drives the sense of entitlement. In contrast, our neighbour’s needs are what should drive the believer.

Generosity must mark the believer. Because we are the recipients of amazing generosity. God so loved that He gave … so we give. Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh puts it this way:

The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms lost men from parasites to producers, from those who take from others, to those who give sacrificially to meet the needs of the helpless. The Gospel turns a man’s attention from himself to others. The way to cure the sluggard is to make a saint of him.

Generosity as an attitude of mind and heart is a cure against laziness. And against workaholism.

Work is highly esteemed but not simply for self. In the parable of the lazy servant, Jesus condemned the man for his laziness. But that laziness was the result of an attitude of self-interest: “I know you are a hard man …”

The servants who worked hard worked for the praise of the Master. Workaholics do not work to give, they work for self-satisfaction. They work to avoid the work God is calling them to do. Like the Pharisees, they work to avoid the harder work of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

In the end, that is the work that will make all work meaningful. If we focus on that work, the question of whether we should live more simply will resolve itself.

This article was republished with permission from IMPACT Magazine

About the author

by Mary Yeo-Carpenter

Mary Yeo-Carpenter is the mother of two teenage boys. She and her husband John are involved in church planting in North Carolina, USA.