Posted by: Brian Musser | June 1, 2012

A Godly Definition of Work

Out of Context:

The philosophical concept of dualism developed in ancient Greek thought.  This was the idea that the spiritual was ultimately good and the physical world was necessarily evil.  The mind was derived from the good Olympic Gods and the body was derived from the evil Titans.  Salvation was available to those who could separate their minds from their physical bodies. As you consider these ideas it is not hard to imagine vast implications for the world of work.  Physical work is downplayed and almost evil.  Mental work is elevated.  The nobility thought about things and had slaves to labor for them.  What the Greeks believed philosophically and theologically directly influenced their view of work.

In a Buddhist mindset attachment is the cause for suffering.  We have ambitions, wants and desires.  When our wants and desires are unfulfilled we experience pain, loss and suffering.  The Buddhist tries to remove wants and desires becoming unattached from this world.   In so doing they will avoid suffering.  The theological removal of ambition has extraordinary implications in the work environment.

Discussion Question:

What are some of the possible implications that either Greek dualism or Buddhism would have on the way you work?

So when we step outside of the Christian world view and examine examples from other philosophical frames it becomes quite clear that what we believe deeply affects how we work.  However, many of us have never thoughtfully developed a consistent and coherent way to intimately connect what we believe directly to our work.  This series of lessons aspires to be the initial step in the direction of a practical theology of work.  Our goal will be to Biblically study what we believe as a Christian and directly apply it to our work.

The Beginning:

It is good to start an extensive project at the beginning.  You start a race at the starting line.  You start a class on the first day.  You start a song with the first note.  You start a book with the first chapter.  Since, we will be using the Christian Bible as the text for this study; we should start at the beginning.  In the first book, the book titles in Hebrew “Beginnings.”  Genesis is the starting point for work.  In Genesis work begins.

Genesis 1:1 (HCSB)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

The Bible starts with a God who is active, a God who creates, a God who does and a God who works.  It is interesting to use the phrase God works.  Does God really work?  It might seem that work is beneath God.  God wouldn’t dirty his hands by working would He?

Misconception:  Work must include difficulty, toil, frustration, etc. therefore God’s perfection prevents Him from working.

Sometimes our theological thoughts and ideas about God are so grand that we have trouble thinking about God actually doing anything.  Sometimes God’s transcendence, other-worldliness and holiness are so stressed that we cannot imagine God working.  We think that real work would in some way diminish God’s perfection.  However; throughout Christian Scripture God is illustrated as an extremely active worker.  This apparent contradiction does not come from a faulty definition of God but from a misconstrued idea about work.

Discussion Questions:

What are some other words you think about when I say the word work?

Often when work is easy we do not consider it work.  Our concept of work includes descriptors such as hard, toilsome, tiring, time-consuming, exhausting, frustrating, boring, necessary and required.  With a concept of that necessarily includes those ideas it is not only hard to imagine God as working but it would be wrong.  Nothing is hard for God.  God never gets tired.  God is never frustrated or bored.  Nothing outside of God ever imposes requirements upon Him.  God has unlimited amounts of time and energy so nothing can ever truly consume them.  Work and God seem like mutually exclusive ideas.

But then the Christian Scriptures engage us as we examine God and work.  We hear about a God who creates, makes, shapes and forms.  We read about a God who rests.  We see a God who reveals himself as a shepherd, a gardener, a metal-smith.  We listen to God describe himself as a worker.

Examine some of these passages:

Psalm 104: 10-14

Deuteronomy 11:1-7

Proverbs 8:27-30

Psalm 139:13

Isaiah 1:24-25

Discussion Questions:

Is God describing Himself as a worker in this passage? 

If yes, how? 

Identify some of the work that God is doing in these passages. 

Is the work being described metaphorically? 

 This produces an unnecessary tension in our minds.  Is our theology about God wrong?  Has God misrepresented himself in Scripture?  But the key questions are neither of these.  Are our ideas about work Biblically correct?  What is a theologically sound definition of work?  God works.   Our definition of work must be based on God’s work, although there are some aspects of human work that are distinctly different from God’s.

Discussion Questions:

List some clichés and/or sayings about work?

Are there religious sayings that talk about work?

Here are some of the ones I thought of:

“That was a breeze.”

“I have a light workload.”

“No pain, no gain.”

“He is consumed by his work.”

“As busy as a beaver (or bee).”

We even have some religiously inspired work related sayings.

“Only what is done for the Lord will last.”

“He that doesn’t work doesn’t eat.”

Some of these sayings are quite useful.  Some are confusing.  Some of these saying contradict others.  Some of them are completely wrong.  However, they completely illustrate the fact that when we use the word work many underlying assumptions come with it.  So to get past our assumptions I will propose a basic definition of work.

Work is the intentional use of a person’s energy (mental, physical, emotional and/or spiritual) to accomplish a specific change.

There are four key ideas within that definition:

1)      Personal – By my definition, work is only done by persons.  This does not mean that only humans can do work.  The word person is broader than a synonym for the word human.  God for example is a person.  Angels would qualify as persons.

2)      Intentional – Work is done based on a previous decision of the will.  Work cannot happen by accident or at random.  This is why work must be done by a person.  Only persons have the ability to use their will to intentionally decide to do work.

3)      Energy – Work requires that a person intentionally spend energy.  We have to use some of the resources available to us.  This energy may come in several different forms: mental, physical, emotional and/or spiritual energy.

4)      Change– The person has to intend to make a change and the person has to accomplish a change.  However, the accomplished and the intended changes do not necessarily have to be the same.

Discussion Questions:

Based on this definition do you think God can work?  Why or why not?

Conclusion:  Hopefully, you can see that if we have a theologically sound definition of work, a definition that does not include frustration and or exhaustion, then there is no problem with Scripture describing God as a God who works.  The next lesson will be a three part series examining how each part of the Trinity works.  We will create a foundation for what work is based on how God works.

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