Session Two: Work & Our Humanity

In Session Two, we will explore the idea that our work is what makes us human. As we mentioned in Session One, our work exceeds the bounds of paid vocations and includes the whole of our lives—our work as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and citizens. With this framing our understanding of work, the thesis of Session Two is that be at work in God’s world is to be human, and to be human is to be at work in God’s world.

THE BEAUTY OF GOD’S DESIGN FOR WORK

The human experience is a sometimes beautiful, oftentimes maddening array of relationships. No one exists in isolation, divorced or apart from relationships. In fact, no one can exist apart from relationships. Essential to being human is existing relationally—with God, with one another and with creation. Yet our present experience of these relationships is often marred by frustration and strife. It is at times more chaos than harmony, more disorder than accord, more disconnected than cohesive. But, as we will see, it was not always so, nor will it always be so. God designed our vocations, our work, to be the thread that weaves these relationships into a beautiful, harmonious tapestry of the human experience. In other words, in and through our work we relate to God, to other image bearers and to creation. And this is the good design of God. God, as Creator, has fashioned and fit us, His image bearers, to be at work in His world. In our work we are fully human. To understand this more fully we need to journey back to the beginning and re-examine God’s work of creation found in the first chapters of Genesis.

GOD’S WORK OF CREATION

Genesis 1.1 declares, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There is an enormous amount of truth embedded in this verse, but what I want us to understand for now is that creation is God’s acting to make himself known by his word that purposes, makes, orders, blesses and keeps all that exists. There are three critical conclusions of understanding creation this way. First, all that exists except God is not God. Biblical scholars Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen note:

“The idea of creation by the word preserves first of all the most radical distinction between Creator and creature. Creation cannot be even remotely considered an emanation from God. It is not somehow an overflow of his being, his divine nature. Instead, it is a product of his personal will. The only continuity between God and his work is his word.”

In other words, the biblical understanding of God’s creative work denies the claims of pantheism—the idea that god is so present in creation, that his being is bound up in and dependent upon creation, that creation and god are one in the same. In contrast, the biblical Creator stands distinctly separate from and supremely sovereign over his creation. This is the second conclusion of understanding God’s work of creation in this way—God is King over the cosmos. From the microscopic to the galactic, the physical to the spiritual, the potential to the actualized, the whole of the created order to the whole of the human experience, God is the great Creator King, and all that exists or can exist owes its allegiance to him. However, this does not mean that God is entirely absent and removed from creation. God’s creative activity was stirred and compelled only by the internal, personal will of God. As such, God is deeply and personally concerned with his creation. While He is not the impersonal god of the pantheists whose existence depends upon creation, He is also not the clockmaker of the deists who sets creation in motion and then retreats from it. To quote another biblical scholar, Albert Wolters: “The fact is that the same Creator God and the same sovereign power that called the cosmos into existence in the beginning has kept that cosmos in existence from moment to moment to this very day.”  This is the inescapable testimony of the entirety of Scripture—all of creation is not only created by God but also maintained and sustained by God. Wolters concludes: “The created order is at every instant unimaginable without the creating activity of God.”

Third, creation is the work of God. In the creation account of Genesis chapter one, God spoke (v. 3), separated (v. 4), called (v. 5) made (v. 7) and set (v. 17)—all language of work. As we have mentioned, God’s chief aim in his work of creation was to disclose himself to his creatures that they might enjoy the fellowship of his presence. The narrative of the first two chapters of Genesis makes it clear that God created, that God worked for the benefit of man.  In the work of creation, the blessing of God’s creative activity overflowed to the benefit of man. God could have set man in a barren landscape to make a habitation and provision for himself. Instead, God creates in beautiful, paradisiacal garden in which there were not only pleasing aesthetics and pleasurable experiences; there was order and sustenance and provision to support and sustain life. It is into this life-giving, life-supporting garden that God placed the crown jewel of his creative work.

Unique among God’s creative acts, humanity is created in the image and likeness of the Creator himself. Genesis 1:27 declares, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  The crown jewel of God’s creation is the creature upon whom he bestowed his own image and likeness. As Adam and Eve lived in the garden, they found themselves in a beautiful array of relationships—creatures imaging the Creator, lovers of their fellow image bearers and cultivators of the created order. The connecting thread of this tapestry of relationships was their work. In other words, it is through our work that we image God in the world, serve and love our fellow image bearers and cultivate the created order. We will look at each of these relationships and the place of our work in these relationships in turn.

CREATURES IMAGING THE CREATOR

So we will turn first to the idea that our work as creatures images the Creator in the world. As creatures imaging the Creator, humanity is inherently disposed to work. In fact, as creatures imaging the Creator, humanity must work. The first word man hears spoken to him is a command of the Creator to work. Genesis 1:28 recounts, “And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”” But what does it mean that God gave humanity dominion? God’s granting dominion to humanity is admittedly mysterious and often times misunderstood, but this endowment of dominion is a critical intersection of God’s work as Creator and our work as creature. If we fail to understand the nature and purpose of humanity’s God-given dominion, we will ultimately formulate a sub-biblical or extra-biblical understanding of our work. There lies in the first two chapters of Genesis clues to help unfold this mystery.

According to the first chapter of Genesis, God created the realms of creation—the firmament, sea/sky and earth—in three days and filled those realms in three days with greater and lesser lights, fish and birds, animals and humanity. The language of “God called” ceases after the third day. “And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night (on the first day)” (verse 5). “And God called the expanse heaven (on the second day)” (verse 8). “God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas (on the third day)” (verse 10). And after verse 10 there is no more “God called” language. This may seem strange, but I think this is a helpful clue to understanding the parameters of the dominion God has given us. God’s calling or naming is connected to his dominion. God states his dominion over his creation by naming it. And the dominion God has over the creation that fills and inhabits the realms he has named, he grants to man by leaving them, in a sense, without a name that man might rule there on his behalf. This is the point of Genesis 2:19 when God brings the animals to Adam to see what he would call them. Bartholomew and Goheen say it this way: “The fundamental similarity between God and humanity is humankind’s unique vocation, its calling or commissioning by God himself. Under God, humanity is to rule over the nonhuman parts of creation on land and in sea and air, much as God is the supreme ruler over all.”  Humanity has been entrusted by the Creator King with vice regency. And humanity assumed this role with joyful obedience that was worship of the Creator. But to what end is humanity to exercise dominion, to wield authority, to direct creation? As image bearers of the Creator, our work is to be aimed outward—in the same manner as the Creator’s—at blessing others.

IMAGE BEARERS LOVING ONE ANOTHER

This is the second component of humanity’s creational tapestry of relationships. Image bearers exist in relation to other image bearers. And the mark of these relationships is to be a reciprocal love for one another. This love is on display in poetic fashion at the end of the second chapter of Genesis as Adam and Eve unite in the first marriage. There is a rightness to our existence within and our belonging to community. But this love is not to mark the marital relationship alone. Jesus declared that the whole of the Law and Prophets are aimed at love of God and love of neighbor. So then, humanity’s exercising dominion over and subduing the earth is to be aimed at loving and blessing others just as the Creator worked to benefit those outside himself. “In God’s own creative work, he acts for the good of what he has made and not [merely] for his own selfish pleasure” (Bartholomew & Goheen). But man cannot, like the Creator, create out of nothing. So how is man to work and create for the benefit of fellow image bearers?

IMAGE BEARERS CULTIVATING THE CREATED ORDER

The third component of humanity’s web of relationships is stewardship of creation. We just mentioned that as image-bearing creators of the Creator Adam and Eve were given vice regency over creation. But this vice regency is not merely a static ruling over that which God had made. Instead, humanity’s vice regency entails dynamic stewardship and cultivation, care and creativity. Man’s vice regency demands he continue the work of the Creator by bringing out the potential of God’s creation, ordering and structuring it, and placing it in the service of others. We are to be creators and cultivators for the benefit of our fellow image bearers. “As we take God’s creative commands of “Let there be…” and develop the potentials in them, we continue to spread the fragrance of his presence throughout the world he has made” (Wolters). It should be noted that humanity’s image bearing is not restricted to certain aspects of creation but encompasses the whole of it. Whether agriculture or arts, commerce or community, economics or ecology, finance or friendship, humanity is to develop and work in God’s world in a way that blesses others. Bartholomew and Goheen summarize this well: “Humans are made for God, and also for one another and for the creation, to be at work within it.”

THE MISDIRECTION OF GOD’S GOOD DESIGN FOR WORK

But something went terribly amiss. The beautiful tapestry of relationships woven with the thread of humanity’s vocation has frayed and unraveled. Adam and Eve were not content to be like God and bear his image—they wanted to be God. As a result, their perfect, harmonious communion with God was broken, as was their communion with one another and the created order. Tim Keller states, “The desires of the sinful heart create strains in the fabric of the real world that always lead to breakdown.” As we traced God’s good design for work along the thread of humanity’s relationships—with God, with one another and with the created order—we will likewise trace the misdirection of God’s good design for work along the thread of those relationships.

CREATURES REBELLING AGAINST THE CREATOR

Where work was to be worship of the Creator, it is now idolatrous worship of the creation. God had gifted Adam with his own image—the imago Dei—and commanded him to work in the world to bring out its potential. In other words, Adam worked in the beginning out of the identity God had given him. Out of Adam’s identity as an image bearer of the Creator, Adam was to work. Adam did not work for an identity but out of the identity God had given him. But sin has distorted and marred the image of God in humanity, and so we do not work out of our identity as image bearers, we work for an identity for ourselves. In our work, we not only neglect our Creator, we reject our Creator and turn to love and serve and seek identity in the created order, especially the work of our own hands. Consider the man who rises early and stays up late seeking to land the best deal that will win him the promotion and the respect of his supervisors. Or the mom who reads all the parenting books so that the good behavior of her children reflects well upon her. Are these not attempts to find identity in our work? Do we not all look to our work to define us?

IMAGE BEARERS REJECTING ONE ANOTHER

Additionally, where work was to be directed outward at the benefit of others, it is now misdirected inwardly at self-preservation and self-promotion. Tim Keller argues: “A life of self-glorification makes unity and love between people impossible.” Man’s bent to seek first his own good undercuts any potential to leverage his work for the benefit of others and thereby destroys the unity of community. Consider the executive board members who decide to initiate a massive layoff while also planning an increase in their own compensation. Or the restaurant server who lies about how much tip he made so he has to put less in the community pot that is split evenly at the end of the night. Are we not all, at some root level, prone to work for our own benefit and not the benefit of others?

IMAGE BEARERS TOILING IN THE CREATED ORDER

Thirdly, where work was to produce a flourishing of actualized potential, it is now often a burdensome, fruitless toiling. Adam’s work to bring out the potential of God’s world was once fruitful and uninhibited, but it is now drudgery by the sweat of the brow and inhibited by thorns and thistles as we discover in Genesis 3.17-18. Again, Tim Keller notes: “Work, even when it bears fruit, is always painful, often miscarries, and sometimes kills us.” Consider the farmer, like my father-in-law, who labors greatly and crop production still decreases. Or the student who studies for hours and still cannot pass the exam. Have we not all experienced futility in our work? Have we not all experienced the frustration of work that is undone?

Where we reject the Creator, turn against our fellow humans and fruitlessly toil in our engagement of creation, we are in fact sub-human. But this is not, praise God, the end of the story.

THE RESTORATION OF GOD’S GOOD DESIGN FOR WORK

Where the tapestry of humanity unraveled as a consequence of sin, God is re-weaving it in and through Jesus, the same Word by whom the tapestry was woven in the beginning. In Jesus, God is re-creating a humanity who bears his image and he calls to love one another through their vocational cultivation of creation. It is from Jesus we receive a reiteration of the cultural mandate of Genesis: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28.19a). Because the church has so long understood this charge through the dualistic framework we discussed in Session One, we have failed to see that the command to make disciples is not limited to personal evangelism but encompasses the entirety of creation over which our Lord and Re-Creator has authority! Making disciples, therefore, is in part personal evangelism, but it is also co-laboring with Jesus to re-weave the relational tapestry of humanity—image bearers of the Creator, care takers of other image bearers and cultivators of creation—with a renewed and redeemed thread of vocation.

THE REDEEMED COMMUNITY AS REDEEMERS OF WORK

As those who are in Christ new creatures, Christians have been called and empowered to direct the whole of their lives, in a variety of vocations, to manifest and multiply the realities of re-creation while we anticipate the final consummation of God’s work to restore all things. Whether accounting, medicine, homemaking, scholarship, architecture, marketing or agriculture, Christians ought and must work out of a renewed imago Dei for the benefit of others by stewarding and cultivating the creation over which God has placed us. By doing so, while imperfectly and in part, the beauty and glory of humanity as God intended it will be displayed in the people of God among the world.

This vision of work requires three things. First, it demands that work be regarded and praised as essential to our humanness. Second, it requires a re-allocation of the fruit of the church’s work. And third, it necessitates a celebration of the diversity of vocations to which God has called his church. To conclude, we will unpack each of these.

First, if the church is to be all we have been called by our Lord to be, we must recover a whole-life view of discipleship. God has called his church to live in all of life, in the whole of his world, manifesting and multiplying the realities of re-creation—realities that transcend any secular/sacred fabrication and gather all of life under the lordship of Jesus. The dividing wall of dualism must be broken down. Key to this is a biblical vision that sees work not as an inconsequential activity but as the vital and necessary thread that weaves together the fabric of humanity. Innate to our humanness is a disposition to work, and necessary for work is an engagement of creation. To neglect or marginalize the importance of work, therefore, is to be sub-human. Particularly for the people of God, a neglect of this vision of work is to fail to walk in the renewed, fully human humanity over which Christ stands as Lord.

Second, and perhaps the most urgent call for the American church of affluence and consumerism is that we take seriously the mandate to leverage her vocations for the benefit of others. In illustrating this point in the story of Esther whom God placed in a vocation of great power in king’s palace, Keller writes, “Unless you use your clout, your credentials, and your money in service to the people outside the palace, the palace is a prison; it has already given you your name… If you are unwilling to risk your place in the palace for your neighbors, the palace owns you.”  In a culture inundated with consumerism and individualism to the point even the church is desensitized to their destruction, a call to leverage work and its fruit for the benefit of others seems hardly possible. But the church must. And the church can. We have been called and equipped by God to work in a diverse multitude of vocations in order to bless our neighbors in God’s world.

Therefore, thirdly, the church must recognize and affirm the necessity and worth of all vocations as they place the realized potential of creation into the service of others. Any culturally constructed value system or hierarchy of vocations must be leveled by the biblical paradigm. The biblical paradigm leaves no room for condescension or dissension in the body over varied vocations because the biblical paradigm not only recognizes but celebrates the diversity of vocations to which God has called his people.

By ascribing value to work as innate to humanity’s image bearing, directing the work of all vocations to love of neighbor and celebrating the worth and necessity of the diversity of vocations, the church will co-labor with God as weavers of the renewed human tapestry that is soon to be perfected in glorious splendor.

 

Athanasius, On the Incarnation. 1st electronic ed. Fig Books, 2012. iBooks edition.
Bartholomew, Craig G., and Michael W. Goheen. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
Keller, Timothy. Every Good Endeavor. 1st ed. New York: Dutton, 2012.
Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005.