“Does God work?” Willie asks his father in the children’s book by George MacDonald, The Genius of Willie MacMichael.
“Yes, Willie, it seems that God works more than anybody – for he works all night and all day and, if I remember rightly, Jesus tells us somewhere that he works all Sunday too. If he were to stop working, everything would stop being. The sun would stop shining, and the moon and stars; the corn would stop growing; there would be no apples and gooseberries; your eyes would stop seeing; your ears would stop hearing; your fingers couldn’t move an inch; and worst of all, your little heart would stop loving.”
“No, Papa,” cried Willie. “I shouldn’t stop loving, I’m sure.”
“Indeed, you would, Willie.”
“Not you and Mamma.”
“Yes – you wouldn’t love us any more than if you were asleep without dreaming.”
“That would be dreadful.”
“Yes, it would. So you see how good God is to us – to go on working, that we may be able to love each other.”
“Then if God works like that all day long, it must be a fine thing to work,” said Willie.
“You are right. It is a fine thing to work – the finest thing in the world, if it comes of love, as God’s work does.”
After this conversation with his father, Willie decided that if God worked, he would work too. As the story goes, Willie learned to knit, and eventually he knitted a pair of socks for his father. Willie discovered, thanks to his father’s teaching, an important biblical image of God that began to change the way he lived.
God is a worker
In the Bible, God is frequently depicted as a worker. In Genesis 1 and 2, God wears no end of occupational hats: strategic planner, designer, civil engineer, real estate developer, project manager, waste manager, and many more. The psalmist declares that God, “who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4, NRSV). And Jesus said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). The biblical portrait of God as worker is a stark contrast to the picture of the gods of the Ancient Near East. Work was beneath their dignity. Such is not the image of the God of the Bible. In his book, God the Worker, Robert J. Banks explores 16 biblical comparisons drawn from the world of human work to depict God, including God as composer and performer, metalworker and potter, garmentmaker and dresser, gardener and orchardist, farmer and winemaker, shepherd and pastoralist, tentmaker and camper, builder and architect.
Exploring these biblical images of God the worker is a work-transforming and life-changing journey.
Work is intrinsic to human nature
As author Elton Trueblood says in his book Your Other Vocation, “It is by toil that men can prove themselves creatures made in God’s image.” While exploring the implications of the divine image in people, Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Work is the natural exercise and function of man – the creature who is made in the image of his Creator.”
t’s important to emphasize the dignity of work today because many believe Christianity teaches that work is the penalty for sin or God’s retaliation for our rebellion. Indeed, the idea that work itself is a curse may be one of the most stubborn myths of Western culture. However, most biblical exegetes acknowledge that work is not the legacy of the Fall, only its character as toil.
The image of God the worker reminds us that “work of all kinds has intrinsic value (it is good in itself, not merely for what it produces) in that it sustains and develops God’s creation and is part of the dignity of being God-imaging creatures,” says R. Paul Stevens.
Junior partners with God
Second, the image of God as worker helps accent our role as partners in the work of creation, preservation, and redemption. There is a cooperative nature to God’s work and humanity’s work. As John R. W. Stott said in 1979, “This concept of divine-human collaboration applies to all honourable work. God has so ordered life on earth as to depend on us. So whatever our work, we need to see it as being in cooperation with God.” But we are the junior partners; we are dependent upon him as well.
As the psalmist declares, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Thus, we are junior partners with God, working at our God-given assignments in dependence upon him. We are not the architects of our own fulfillment. We are not self-made persons.
Gordon Preece puts our work as God’s junior partners into proper perspective: “By seeing our work in the light of God’s work, we can see God’s hand in our everyday tasks. Unless we do so, we will underestimate the importance of God’s work and either worship our work or think it worthless.”
God’s work is a model for us
Third, the work of God, while it is unique, is a model for human work. God’s work can be correlated with human work. For example, we tend to prize and value the work of evangelists, pastors, and apologists because what they do connects so readily to God’s own work as Redeemer. “Unfortunately,” writes Robert Banks, “in some quarters it is only when someone is engaged in these activities that they are regarded as doing God’s work.” We need to rediscover the fact that the work God does is far broader than Christ’s work of reconciling people or helping them grow together in faith and obedience.
To be sure, God’s redeeming and transforming work is central to his plan for humankind. But God is also Creator, Sustainer, Preserver, Provider, Revealer, and Lawgiver – to mention only a few of his many other occupational hats. All of this means that everyone who does legitimate work should be able to say, “My work is God’s work.”
For example, the work of a teacher could be said to reflect something of God’s desire to reveal truth to people. The work of a doctor reflects something of God’s healing power and gift. The work of a musician reflects something of God’s creative ability. The work of a secretary involved in scheduling appointments reflects something of God’s own love of order. In other words, we should all be able to say, “My work is God’s work.”
An important issue for evangelism
Fourth, the image of God as worker communicates an important message to persons outside the church. As evangelists and apologists of the Christian faith, we are always looking for points of contact between our message and the life experiences of those outside the faith. “If we bypass the world of work,” says Robert Banks, “we miss one of the most fruitful points of contact we have available.”
Most adults spend more time at their workplace than anywhere else. The average person spends some 88,000 hours on the job from the first day of full-time employment until the retirement celebration. Work occupies so much of their lives.
It is therefore crucial for the gospel to interact with this sphere of life. We have an opportunity to show people that God is highly interested in work, that God understands the possibilities and frustrations of work, that God knows the complexities involved in depending on others at work, that God is also concerned to balance work and rest, and, above all, that the world of work is not strange to God, that God is a worker.
The church needs worker images of God
Fifth, the image of God as worker is not only important for communicating the faith to those outside the church, it is also important for preaching and teaching inside the church. Preachers and teachers often use biblical images of God based on social images (king, judge, father), or personal relationships (lover, friend, stranger, deserted spouse), or images that have their basis in the field of human communication (revealer, prophet, teacher, poet, mentor). Perhaps it is time to play creatively with images that portray God in terms of human work. Today we are surrounded by a multitude of images, especially through the media. Most of these images have little to do with everyday life. It is important for preachers and teachers to employ images from the world of work that give shape and dignity to the lives of their listeners.
As Banks continues, “the use of biblical images for God drawn from the world of work and, where necessary, framed in contemporary language would do an enormous amount to overcome the gap between faith and work and between God and everyday life that so many churchgoers experience.”
This is God’s good world
Finally, the image of God as worker tells us something about the locus, or place of human work. After God completed his creative work in Genesis, the text says, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (1:31). As human beings we all labour in the context of a world created by God, a world God has declared good. In some traditions, the material world has been regarded as evil, generating a negative view both of the physical creation and of earthly work.
However, if this is God’s good world, there is no dichotomy between the earthly and the sacred. Wendell Berry puts the issue clearly when he says, “By our work we reveal what we think of the works of God.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Direction, Fall 2003.