Sunday, February 2, 2014

Myths About Work Part 3: Work Is Life's Purpose

I began this series on myths about work by summarizing a Babylonian creation myth. I think modern people and the ancient Babylonians share some misconceptions about work, and I am contrasting them with what the Bible says. Make sure you look at part 1 and part 2.
My previous post addressed the idea that work is inherently bad. This time, I’m discussing the opposite extreme – seeing work as the purpose of life. The Babylonians thought that people were created to work, and many people today act that way.

Last time, I said that “Work is bad” might be the most common myth people believe. I said “might be” because this one is also remarkably prevalent. Think of people who stay late at the office every night, neglecting their families and their health. We identify with careers so much that “What do you do?” is usually the second question we ask each other after “What’s your name?” Children are taught to study hard and go to college so they can get a good job, and not having a job carries a strong social stigma.

Although the Bible affirms that work is good and is part of what God created us to do, it does not turn our effort into the total of our existence.

Work is an expression of the image of God in every person. We work because we are like God. But even God didn’t work all the time. He set the example of resting on the seventh day after working for six days to create the world.

Similarly, God commanded His people to rest one day out of seven. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

In both the Old and New Testaments, the greatest commandment is to love God with all of ourselves – heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus added “love your neighbor as yourself” as the second great commandment. This is as close as the Bible comes to giving a purpose statement for human life.

Our work can be one way in which we love God and others. For example, my current work of producing English-teaching materials is an act of love for the students because it helps them acquire skills that will help them earn money, learn more about the world and live richer lives. Anything that people pay you to do is somehow beneficial to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t pay for it. And any act of service to others shows love for God.

But for most of us the greatest opportunity to love others is by spending time with our families. And work is notorious for cutting into family time. Overwork also takes time away from loving God through personal prayer and Bible study. It also leads us to worry rather than trusting God as He tells us to do.

So what’s the solution? Surprisingly, it’s the same as the solution to the opposite problem of seeing work as evil: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That means work is a means to the end of glorifying God, not an end in itself. But “whatever you do” includes resting, building relationships with family and friends, exercising, enjoying hobbies and anything else you spend time on. These things can and should glorify God just as much as your work does.

Update: See part 4 and part 5.

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