Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God Himself,
and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth.
From the beginning therefore he is called to work.
— Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (1981)
We know that men were created to busy themselves with labor and that no sacrifice
is more pleasing to God than when each one attends to his calling and studies to live well
for the common good to his calling and studies to live well for the common good.
—John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels (1555)
Work in the Ancient World
The pagan world found work both oppressive and degrading, a thing proper for slaves and women but not for free men. That world institutionalized both sloth and slavery with one swipe of the philosophical brush that separated mind and body. As that world saw it, the intellectuals, those in whom humanity most clearly shone forth, should be free from all physical labor so they might devote themselves to the pursuits of the mind. The lesser life forms, though they might bear the semblance of humanity, should labor with their backs and hands to give the aristocracy much needed time to think. Work was something common people did.
Christianity changed all of this. The Gospel promised forgiveness of sins through Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is, it promised the penitent freedom from guilt, confidence before God, boldness toward His creation, and the Spiritual power to live effectively in the image of God, as kings and priests under Christ. All of man’s labor might thus become service toward Christ and worship directed to the God who made the universe. In Christ, all lawful work became sanctified. All lawful work became a type of kingly and priestly business.
As the lower classes embraced the Gospel, the Christian faith undercut slavery and called the slothful to labor. By the end of the fifth century, chattel slavery was fading as a central economic institution. This, without any sort of violent uprising or enforced abolition. The Gospel freed men to work, and free workers slowly made slavery economically obsolete.
Thou Shalt Not Steal
In summarizing the Christian ethic, the Apostle Paul expounded on the 8th commandment with these words: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). The repentant thief was to manifest his faith in a pattern of productivity. First, he was to stop stealing other people’s property. Then, he was to work with his hands at some productive craft or service to earn his own wealth. Finally, he was to save some of what he earned by that labor so that he might be able to help those who couldn’t provide for themselves.
It is important for us to understand that Paul’s definition of honest labor included savings and charity. Savings implies delayed self-gratification. The man who works and saves isn’t a slave to his belly and he isn’t enthralled by the demands of the existential now. He is free to see beyond the moment and beyond his own needs and concerns. He is therefore someone who is in a position to help those in need. He is ready to act as a philanthropist, if only on a small personal scale. He is prepared to act in the future.
As Scripture has much to say about work, it also has much to say about sloth. The slothful man or sluggard is one of the archetypical characters we encounter in the book of Proverbs. There we are told that the sluggard is destined for poverty (6:6-11); that he is an irritant to anyone who employs him (10:26); that he will make poor use of the resources he does have (12:27); that he will owe money and service to the diligent (12:24); that he makes amazing excuses (22:13); that he lets his home and property fall into ruin (24:30-34); and that he is incredibly good at getting out of work (26:16).
What Proverbs is describing is our slavish nature. The sluggard will barely work to feed himself. Even lifting his hand from his bosom to his mouth is a challenge (Prov. 19:24). Only external compulsion will force him to work.
The Romantic and Marxist vision of man has no place for the sluggard. The Romantic and Marxist will insist that the man has been poorly educated or deprived of opportunity and that he is the product of his socio-economic environment. That he simply needs proper encouragement and motivation … that he needs to be loved. “Man is born free,” Rousseau said. He and his followers never considered the enslaving power of sin.
The Blessing of Work
As far as Scripture is concerned, work is basic to human freedom. The man who has been freed from the bondage of lust and laziness values the freedom to work without hindrance, meddling or handouts. He enjoys his labor and the wealth it brings (Eccl. 2:24; 3:13). He is productive, blessing his community with new goods and services. He is provident, laying up wealth for future use — whether as an inheritance for his children and grandchildren or as help for those in true need (Prov. 13:22; 1 Tim. 6:18).
The free man trusts God’s mercies. This means he prays for his daily bread (Matt. 6:11), but he takes responsibility for himself and his family (2 Thes. 3:10; 1 Tim 5:8). He doesn’t expect others to foot his bills. He rejects covetousness and envy. He will not steal nor will he ask the State to steal for him.
The free man is goal-oriented. He considers the future. He sees his work as a means to an end … the advancement of God’s Kingdom. Because of this, he is open to practical wisdom. He will welcome new ways to work smarter and more efficiently. He will work at learning. He will try new techniques. He will invest time and energy to increase his skills and his productivity. As a consequence, his work will become easier over time while his income and assets also rise. His diligence leads to greater wealth, and he becomes a greater blessing to his family and community.
Man is the image of the working God. His work images that of His Creator and, rightly done, advances His Kingdom on earth and in history. Sin undercuts and distorts man’s created impulse to work and stewardship. The man who hates God learns to hate God’s plan for work and falls either into sloth or into the idolatry of self-serving control. He becomes a slave or a tyrant. In neither case, is he truly free?
In Christ, man is restored to meekness before God and faithfulness within His world. The true, practicing Christian is God’s freeman, a king and priest to God, working patiently to advance God’s rule in this world and offering each day of productive labor as worship to his Creator and Savior. He works knowing that his labor is never in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58). And so he works with joy. This is what the world has called the Protestant work ethic. This has been the prevailing thought form that once transformed and built Western civilization.