By Scott Rae
Work has intrinsic value because it was ordained by God prior to the entrance of sin into the world. If you look at the Genesis account of creation closely, you’ll see that God commanded Adam and Eve to work the garden before sin entered the picture (Gen. 2:15). God did not condemn human beings to work as a consequence Adam and Eve’s sin. Work is not a punishment on human beings for their sin.
To be sure, work was affected by the Fall, making it more arduous and stressful and less productive, but that was not the original design (Gen. 3:17—19). God’s original idea for work was that human beings would spend their lives in productive activity, with regular breaks for leisure, rest, and celebration of God’s blessing (Ex. 20:8—11). Even in the pre-Fall paradise, God put Adam and Eve to work. Work was a part of God’s original design for human beings from the beginning, and because of that it has intrinsic value to God. Work will also be a part of the world after the Lord’s return.
The prophet Isaiah envisions the world after Christ’s return as one in which nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). The obvious point of the passage is to show that universal peace will characterize the Kingdom when it is fulfilled. But what often goes unnoticed is that weapons of war will be transformed into implements of productive work (plowshares and pruning hooks). That is, there will still be productive work as part of the program when Christ returns to bring His Kingdom in its fullness. So work has intrinsic value because it was ordained before the Fall and will be a part of life when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. In the paradise settings at the beginning and end of human history, work is ordained by God.
Work as Dominion
What makes work so valuable to God is its connection to another mandate from creation, the command to exercise dominion over the creation. That is, work is one of the primary ways that God had in mind for human beings to do what He commanded them to in the world.
Work is intricately bound up with the dominion mandate over creation. God ordained work so that human beings could fulfill one of their primary roles for which they were created. Work is not something that we do just to get by, or to finance our lifestyles. It is not a necessary evil that will be done away with at some point. Work is not what we do just so that we can enjoy our leisure. Work has inherent dignity because it is the way God arranged for human beings to fulfill a part of their destiny on earth, that of exercising responsible dominion over creation.
That mandate is still in effect today and God is still empowering human beings to be effective trustees of His world. Thus work has intrinsic value because of its connection to the dominion mandate. Adam and Eve were doing God’s work in the world by tending the garden and doing their part to be responsible trustees over creation. We do God’s work in the world in our jobs because they are connected with the task assigned to all human beings to exercise dominion over the world. We are junior partners with God in the advance of His dominion over the creation, which after the Fall also involves alleviating the effects of the entrance of sin.
Made in the Worker’s Image
So work has intrinsic value because it was created before the entrance of sin and is the means by which we partner with God in the exercise of dominion over the world. But there’s a more foundational reason why work has value to God: because God is a worker and human beings are workers by virtue of being made in God’s image.
In other words, we work because that’s who God is and who we are in His image. Of course, God is much more than a worker and so are we. But God mandates work because that’s a part of who He is and part of who He made us to be in His image.
Look carefully at the way God is portrayed when it comes to work. One of the first portraits of God in Genesis is as a worker, fashioning the world in His wisdom. God is portrayed as a creative God in Genesis 1—2, with initiative, ingenuity, passion for creation, and innovation all a part of His work in creation. God is portrayed with what we might call “entrepreneurial” traits in Genesis 1—2. From the beginning of the Biblical account, God is presented as engaged in productive activity in fashioning and sustaining the world. At the end of the creation account, Genesis 1:31 gives the Sabbath model as a day for God to rest “from all His work.” God blessed the Sabbath because “He rested from all the work of creating that He had done.” The pattern for the Sabbath was to rest because God rested (Exodus 20:11), and conversely, to work because God worked in creation (Exodus 20:9).
The pattern for creation became the pattern for human beings. They worked six days as God did, and rested one day as God did. We work because it is part of what it means to be made in God’s image and to be like Him.
This is why Ecclesiastes can proclaim the goodness of work in this way:
“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Eccl. 2:24—25).
Originally published in Religion & Liberty