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What is your attitude toward work? Not the “job” you have right now, but the idea of work itself? Is it a necessary evil? Or an expression of our God-likeness? In this post I want to explore some of the historical roots behind our modern attitudes about work, and I want to propose what might be a fresh perspective on something that occupies more than half of our adult lifetime.
Closely related to work is the idea of “vocation.” This word expresses the belief that God is present in calling and equipping people to fulfill a particular purpose in life. Vocation means life is not a mere toss of the dice; you and I were created for a purpose, and not just a general human purpose, but a specific individual purpose.
There is, however, a dark side to work — a side where people are sometimes forced to labor in dehumanizing conditions. This dark side is an abuse rather than something built into work itself. Nevertheless, these abuses cause a lot of people to understand work, at best, as a necessary evil. How did we come to this? And where should we go from here?
The idea of work as a curse goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers. For them, work had no redemptive value. Unemployment was a virtue. The goal of the Greek was to become like the gods whom they perceived as beings of pure contemplative knowledge and rational thought. The way to achieve their goal was to have a large slave class to do the menial tasks necessary to survive. This would make it possible for an elite class to dedicate itself to the sublime task of philosophical contemplation.
The church of the Middle Ages absorbed this Greek perspective into its theology, presenting meditation, contemplation, and separation as the highest form of religious activity. Again, only an elite class can afford to live such a life, hence the formation of the medieval monastic systems. The masses of people who had to subsist thorough hard work were viewed as profane. These vulgar masses could be saved, however, by having attributed to them the excess of holiness gained by the cloistered few who had time to seek God and pray.
The Renaissance period saw a radical reversal in the concept of work flowing from a new understanding of the nature of God. Finally, free from the Greek philosophical framework, people began to view God not just as an eternal intellect but as the all-powerful Creator. Men could exercise their creative capacity and become like God through the productive management of their environment. Contrary to the concept of work as a curse, people started to think of work as an expression of human potential.
The German reformer, Martin Luther, considered both the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of earth as sacred. In one we relate to God by faith; in the other we relate to our neighbor through works. He also developed the concept of vocation as one’s specific call to love in this world.
John Calvin agreed with Luther’s analysis but carried it a step further. He added the moral obligation to reform society’s structures so that they would more accurately reflect the mind of God. He also extended the apostle Paul’s concept of the church as a body to describe the world. Calvin defined vocation as an expression of the gifts and talents God has given to each individual.
Karl Marx added to our understanding of work the idea of self-realization. However, he believed the societal systems of his day were short-circuiting the true function of work, turning it instead into a dehumanizing experience and an alienated labor force which he predicted would rise up and overthrow the entire system.
Sigmund Freud brought about a swing back to the concept of work as a necessary evil. He viewed work as a way to provide the real goal in life, which was leisure. In Freud we find the philosophical roots to the “Thank God it’s Friday” concept of work.
So, where are we today? What has our concept of work evolved into in the 21st century? I think we’ve lost our way. Work is viewed as a affliction and increasing numbers of people are playing the system to get by with as little work as possible (Am I being fair?).
I don’t think we can return to 16th century concepts of work or that this would even be a good idea. I do think, however, we need to reassess the honor, creativity, and love that work can represent. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Greg Waddell was a missionary in Uruguay and Argentina and now teaches theology and strategic leadership at Mid-South Christian College and Victory University (Memphis). He is available for speaking engagements. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com.