We humans have a love-hate relationship with work. We associate labor with childbirth for a reason. And this is no new development; the apostle Paul did it two millennia ago (Galatians 4:27; 1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Labor is painfully difficult, and then exceedingly rewarding. Serious work in a fallen world is like childbirth in microcosm. It doesn’t come easily — not if it counts. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. We encounter obstacles both expected and unexpected. It takes pushing, often beyond our sense of ability. And in the end, it’s undoubtedly worth it.
Paul listed “labors” among the pains he had endured, alongside beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Corinthians 6:5). He knew firsthand that life in a fallen world is not easy, and the Christian life all the more. In fact, the Christian life is not just cursed like physical labor, but opposed by demonic forces. Expect the friction and obstacles to be all the more difficult. And yet Paul charges Christians to rise to it. He means for us to encounter resistance and endure, not fold.
Christians of all humans shouldn’t be surprised that our world struggles with work in all its forms. Into the confusion about work we all feel in this fallen, broken age, we have an important word to say about the labor God made us for, even as it is cursed and often feels relentlessly frustrating.
Work as God’s Idea
From the very beginning, God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:28). Work is not the product of sin, but a major facet of God’s original plan for human life in his world.
God designed us to move and be active, to exert energy and employ skill to produce goods for human flourishing. Before sin entered the world, God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And then God made the man “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). God made men and women to use, not squander, the energy he gives us daily through food and rest, to accomplish his mission — the work — he gave us to do in the world. Work, then, we might say, is the exertion of energy, investment of time and attention, and application of skill toward the ends of God’s calling to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, as well as subdue it and have holy dominion. Such work is a central aspect of what it means to be human.
And so, it makes sense that when sin enters the world, and God curses the creation, he also curses our work:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Genesis 3:17–19)
Work is good. And work is cursed. Such is our lot in this age, until the creation is set free from its bondage to corruption and enters with us, the redeemed, into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). Even then we will not sit around doing nothing, but we will be freed to work and move and expend ourselves in joy, finally unencumbered by the curse.
In the meantime, we learn to work, despite the curse, at our work.
Work with Your Hands
We often have career and work-for-pay in mind when we talk about our work. But for Christians, the concept of work and labor extends far beyond simply what other people pay us to do. Let’s begin, though, with the weekly labors that pay mortgages and put bread on the table.
In all the Scriptures, no one talks about work more than the apostle Paul. “Work” was more than just “working with our own hands” (1 Corinthians 4:12), but not less. Paul himself was a tentmaker. Such work was an especially pressing issue in Thessalonica, where some in the church were idle, refusing to work — waiting, they claimed, for Christ’s imminent return. Paul saw it as a spiritual-sounding covering for laziness. He put himself and Timothy forward as examples of hard work.
You remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)
We were not idle when we were with you, . . . but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thessalonians 3:7–8)
And he expected the same from every Christian. “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).
Paul knew the transforming power of the Spirit, and expected mooches and thieves alike to find a new work ethic once they came to Christ. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Not just to relieve the need for others to be burdened by you, but to secure enough, through honest hard work, to be able to share with others in need.
And yet, for Paul, such work-for-pay was only one aspect of work or labor for the Christian. He didn’t mean for converts to work their forty-plus hours, Monday to Friday, and be idle for the other eighty waking hours of the week. He both embodies and teaches a work ethic that is relevant at the office and at home, even for “time off” and vacation. It begins with a particular kind of rest.
Final Rest from Labor
The first word, and foundational word, for the Christian about work is that the labor of our hands cannot get us right with God. Human effort and exertion, no matter how impressive compared to our peers’, cannot secure the acceptance and favor of the Almighty. God’s full and final acceptance — which we call justification — comes to us “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). God’s choice of his people “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16), and so, fittingly, his final and decisive approval and embrace of his people is through their believing in him, not their working for him (Romans 4:4–5; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5).
The Christian faith — rightly understood, grounded in justification by faith alone — is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). And then in this rest, God supplies remarkable, even supernatural, ambition for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.
Freed for the Good of Others
As we come to Christ in faith, we receive another gift, in addition to justification: “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we’re justified, but he gives us new life in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts. By the Spirit, our coming into such rest does not make us idle or lazy. Rather, Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:21; 3:16–17; Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:8, 14).
The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God in them. It’s been called “the Protestant work ethic.”
Paul not only commended hard work (Acts 20:35; Romans 16:6, 12; Colossians 4:13; 2 Timothy 2:6), but criticized the idle and lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 7, 11; Titus 1:12–13). And he was not the first. Proverbs warns against the folly of sloth (Proverbs 12:24, 27; 19:15) and against the sluggard (fourteen times). Twice do we hear this refrain:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Both Proverbs 6:10–11 and 24:33–34)
The opposite of the sluggard is the diligent (Proverbs 13:4) and upright (Proverbs 15:19). Laziness will catch up with us; it’s just a matter of time (Proverbs 6:6–11; 20:4; 21:25; 24:30–34). Laziness makes ridiculous excuses to protect its own comforts (Proverbs 22:13; 26:13). Sluggards may even think (and say) they are smart and develop elaborate rationales against just doing hard work (Proverbs 26:16).
But Christians should be the freest people on the planet to work hard. Because we know we do not have to earn the favor of God Almighty with our works — but that it has been secured for us by Jesus — we have been liberated to pour our energy and time and skill and creativity into blessing others. Which leads to one of the main ways Paul talked about work.
Christian Ministry as Labor
Paul wasn’t the first to see Christian ministry as labor. Jesus talked about a plentiful harvest, and few laborers, and told his disciples to ask “the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38; Luke 10:2). Such laborers in kingdom work, he said, deserve their wages and food (Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18).
Paul not only worked with his own hands, and charged others to do the same, but he saw Christian ministry as labor. He wasn’t worried about collapsing tents when he spoke regularly of concern that his labors not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). A dozen times in his letters he refers to ministry helpers and associates as “fellow workers.” He knew that “living on in the flesh” in this life would mean “fruitful labor” (Philippians 1:22), not retirement, excess leisure, or extended vacations. He wanted every Christian, not just his delegates and assistants, to join him in “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Work with Your Love
Paul knew that hard work in and of itself was inadequate. In Christian ministry, the point is not the hard work itself but the goal: love. He spoke of the “labor of love” — the hard work we do for others (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Hard work in service of private, selfish ends is not commendable, but selfless, others-oriented, loving labor is.
Paul testifies, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29), not because he simply had a hard-working personality type, but because he was driven to proclaim Christ for the good of others: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Because “godliness is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8), he said, “we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God” (1 Timothy 4:10).
He also saw the ministry of Christian preaching and teaching, done rightly, as hard labor (1 Timothy 5:17–18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13), not a nice fit for guys with soft hands and a preference for an indoor job. Such labor is not only cursed and opposed but specifically targeted by Satan, who often focuses his assaults on opposing lieutenants. If he can cut off the leadership and supply lines, he will soon overwhelm the ground troops. A pastor who doesn’t sweat and strain, especially at his study and teaching (2 Timothy 2:15), is not fulfilling his calling.
Perhaps Paul would acknowledge that he had some unusual wiring. Maybe it was his singleness that freed him for extraordinary ministry output. Not only did he testify to “far greater labors” than his detractors (2 Corinthians 11:23), but even compared to the other apostles, he said, “I worked hard than any of them” (1 Corinthians 15:10). But again and again, he put his uncommon exertions forward not as an exception to admire, but as an example to follow — within the capacity God had given each, and with the understanding that every Christian can grow and expand our capacity for productive labor.
We Are His Workmanship
Few, if any, will match Paul’s labors. As John Piper shares why he loves the apostle Paul, he commends his work ethic:
His achievements were unsurpassed. Now and then, he referred to his hard work and spiritual authority and fruitfulness. But every time he did that, he confessed his utter dependence on the grace of God. He wanted to glory in Christ himself, not in his own hard work. (88–89)
There is a word of hope here for those who battle laziness. Paul professed again and again that the key to his seemingly tireless labors was God at work in him (Philippians 2:12–13; Colossians 1:29). It was not in his own strength to do what he did. Christ was strengthening him (1 Timothy 1:12; Philippians 4:13). In the same breath, he says he “worked harder than” the other apostles, and he says, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And still today, Christ strengthens his church by grace (Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 2:1).
Paul would be quick to challenge today’s hardest workers with the truth that, apart from God, our best labors will prove futile in the end. And for those who know they need help, who have more regrets about laziness than over-work, he would remind them, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). God doesn’t leave us to labor in our own strength. He has our good works prepared ahead of time. And he doesn’t demand a dead sprint, but invites us to walk in them.
Credit: David Mathis