Work: What Is It Good for?
Excerpt from The Missional Entrepreneur by Mark Russell
Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reportedly said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” This statement reflects my fundamental assertion: Business should not be viewed as a tool to get through life, rather it should be considered an opportunity for spiritual living. We need to reorient our natural inclinations from the visible realm to the invisible one and realize that our faith and spiritual mission are integral to the visible human world.
Understanding the concepts of fundamental and instrumental value is critical to what I’m saying. Something of fundamental value means that it has inherent worth and its worth is not dependent on what it can do. Having instrumental value means that something’s worth is solely determined by what it does or produces.
Many people think that business is of purely instrumental value. In other words, business is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. However, we need to recognize that business is of both fundamental and instrumental value.
Living and working in business is, as we shall see, a way that we partner with God and live according to our created purpose. This gives it fundamental value. But business is also a means by which we produce and distribute goods and services allowing us to take care of one another and do other good works outside of the sphere of business. Thus business also has instrumental value. It is, unfortunate, however, that most people only see the instrumental value of work and business.
Through the centuries people’s perspectives on work have varied. Work has been elevated (think Karl Marx) and disdained (think teenagers cleaning up after a party). Regardless, work was originally viewed as a divine action. This view of work as a spiritual activity has been present throughout church history and was prominently emphasized by groups such as the Benedictines and the Puritans.
The Bible opens in Genesis 1 with the creation account. As the Scriptures say, God worked for six days to form the heavens and earth and everything in it.3 It is worth noting that there are many possible interpretations of the creation account in Genesis. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to remove the clear implications of work as a divine activity. Genesis 2:2 explicitly states that God finished his work and rested on the seventh day. This makes clear that the creation of the universe was to be perceived as work. At the end of Genesis 1, God creates humans in his image. In a very real sense this means, among other things, that humans were created to imitate God in certain respects, including work. After creating humans, God gives them the command to work (Genesis 1:26–28). Consider the flow of the passage: God worked; He created humans in his image; He directed the humans to go work. In the first two chapters of Genesis there are seven principles that should inform our view of work today:
1. Through work we are to be stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28; 2:5–8, 15).
2. Using tools and making tools are an integral part of human existence (Genesis 2:15).
3. We are to be self-sustainers and producers, remembering God is the ultimate Provider (Genesis 1:28-30; 2:9).
4. We are to be appreciators of beauty (Genesis 2:9).
5. We are to work in partnership with one another (Genesis 2:18).
6. We are to work in partnership with our Creator (Genesis 2:19–20).
7. Work is fundamentally good, a source of joy, and makes rest enjoyable (Genesis 1:31–2:3).
In his critique of Adam Smith, considered by many the father of the modern economy, Karl Marx, considered by many the father of Communism, alludes to the fact that Smith inherited from the Bible the idea that work should be viewed as a curse.4 This idea of work as a curse has been prevalent throughout the centuries and remnants of this way of thinking are still found in church pews everywhere. However, it should be reemphasized that God worked and passed the work baton to humans before there are any mentions of any type of curse in the biblical account. Work is therefore best understood as an intrinsic part of our human spiritual experience. It is not the result of a curse. In fact it is the exact opposite; it is a blessing, part of our role in the world and something that we can do to serve each other, God, and the rest of creation.
This is not to say that weariness and dreariness are not aspects of work in our present situation. It is natural at times that work will not seem so spiritual. While writing this I became aware that I had a flat tire and spent a couple of hours changing the tire, going to get it fixed, etc. This did not feel like a spiritual exercise, especially since I enjoy writing about other people doing such a thing more than actually doing it myself. However, in the middle of the endeavor I realized that what I was doing was spiritual, and this helped me adapt my attitude and appreciate the experience, even if it was not exactly the way I prefer to spend my mornings. Now this may not strike you as particularly spiritual. How does “wasting” a day repairing a tire qualify as spiritual? It is spiritual in the sense that I was partnering with God by fixing and repairing a part of creation that is beneficial for contemporary life on this planet. For work to be spiritual it does not need to be anymore dramatic than that.
The difficulty and unpleasantness associated with work, according to the Genesis account, can be attributed to the wrongdoings of humanity. In Genesis 3:17, in response to Adam’s violation of His commands, God told him, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” Thus there is a scriptural warrant for saying that work to a degree is cursed. But what is most important to notice is that work was first and foremost a divine activity and that God invited humans to imitate him by working.
Work is truly a part of our essence. We are spiritual beings created by the Spiritual Being to do spiritual things and that includes work. In the beginning, work was a spiritual exercise. A lot has changed since the beginning. Adam and Eve failed to maintain God’s moral standard, resulting in the Fall. The world’s population has grown and professions have proliferated. Sin has expanded into all human endeavor, perhaps most obviously in business. Yet, despite ever-changing job descriptions and sin’s multiplication, work and business have not lost their spiritual core.