This past week, social media was lit up by a photo of Geoffrey Owens, an actor who was a member of the ground-breaking and award-winning comedy from the ‘80s, The Cosby Show. Mr. Owens was recently seen working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s grocery store. First, we read shaming comments about how far he had fallen from fame followed by compassion from those who supported his efforts to do what he had to do to pay his bills. Next, we saw clips of his appearance on a popular talk show, eloquently defending his choice and the value of all work.
I saw this unfolding drama from a unique perspective. My son is an actor who has lived in Southern California for the past two years trying to make his way into the business with limited success. I can easily understand the plight of actors’ need to work at a variety of jobs with flexible hours in between acting gigs. Moreover, as a Christian with a biblical view of work, I can also understand his point about the dignity of ordinary work. Let me explore how the Bible portrays the value of workers that is founded on the idea that God Himself is a worker and that He created people in His image to bring shalom (peace, well-being, flourishing) to His creation.
Work is Intrinsically Valuable
Nearly 30 years ago, in 1989, I read a life-changing book entitled Your Work Matters to God by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks. They explained the intrinsic and instrumental value of ordinary work. What Sherman and Hendricks taught seemed radical, but was backed up with Scripture and has been echoed by those who address faith and work issues now.
What I learned from their book is that work is intrinsically (by nature, fundamentally, or inherently) valuable. This is true mostly because the triune God is described as a worker. We see this in Gen. 1:1 as God created the heavens and the earth. In Gen. 2:2–3, it mentions three times that God worked. God continuously works to sustain His creation. (See Acts 14:16–17.)
Additionally, in Gen. 1:26–28, we read that God made man and woman in His image. God called them to work and to be His coworkers over creation. This passage is called the cultural or creation mandate. The multiplying, filling, subduing, and ruling requirement God gave them was both a blessing and a command. This was a tall order for Adam and Eve.
The Theology of Work Bible Commentary states, “God worked to create us and created us to work.” Later, we read, “God brought into being a flawless creation, an ideal platform, and then created humanity to continue the creation project.” What a high calling we have!
Because God is a worker and we are His coworkers, we conclude that all legitimate human work is valuable, in and of itself. This includes non-paid work that is done by stay-at-home parents, volunteers, and students. It obviously does not apply to work that promotes evil, but only to work that produces shalom in society. This means that whatever job we have is significant, has value, and contributes to what God needs done in the world. It also means that whatever job anyone else has is significant, has value, and contributes to what God needs done in the world. We need to treat all workers with dignity and respect.
In his book Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, Ben Witherington states, “A Christian understanding of work emphasizes the intrinsic value of the worker first and foremost. . . The value of the workers reflects not merely the work they do, but is grounded in the persons they are, and whose they are, God’s.” This is based on the concept that men and women were created in God’s image.
Work is Instrumentally Valuable
We explored the biblical idea that work is good, period. Now we will look at the idea that work is good for us. Work is also instrumentally valuable. It has purpose and provides benefits to many. One of the main purposes of work is that God meets our needs through human work. God created us as His coworkers with various talents so that He could meet all of the complex physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs of people.
In his outstanding book on the theology of work, Every Good Endeavor, Timothy Keller reminds us, “God’s loving care comes to us largely through the labor of others. Work is a major instrument of God’s providence; it is how he sustains the human world.”
Sherman and Hendricks in Your Work Matters to God share a great illustration to show the value of ordinary work that meets the broad spectrum of human needs. A friend of one of the authors builds pallets, which are used in the trucking business to hold boxes of supplies and goods that are transported across the country. He asks, “How could my friend’s pallets possibly fit into the work of God in the world?” He explains how they are a “humble link in a complex chain” to deliver products that ultimately make it into our homes. He indicates, “God has used a rather extensive system of workers” that were directly involved to bring us the food that we thank Him for before mealtime. He lists the farmers, scientists, bankers, equipment engineers and dealers, truck stop operators, road construction workers, grocery store employees, and his spouse who cooked the meal. He reminds us that those pallets were present as a part of the process.
Based on this wise observation, I do not want anyone to overlook the fact that those who ring up our groceries, including Mr. Owens, are a part of how God gives us this day our daily bread.
I trust that all who understand God’s truths regarding the nature of work will be able to assert with confidence that all kinds of work and all kinds of workers are necessary and are to be respected. God is a worker, so work is a good thing. Furthermore, God uses workers everywhere to meet our family’s needs. Praise God for the gift of work!