What is the purpose of work?
What is the purpose of work? In the lead up to Labor Day, Peggy Noonan addressed this question last week in the Wall Street Journal as she reflected on Work and the American Character.
Noonan suggests work “is a spiritual event.” She goes on to say, “When you work you serve and take part. To work is to be integrated into the daily life of the nation. There is pride and satisfaction in doing work well, in working with others and learning a discipline or a craft or an art. To work is to grow and to find out who you are.”
So, according to Noonan, the purpose of work connects to service, community integration, satisfaction, learning, and maturity. She summarizes her view by noting: “Work gives us purpose, stability, integration, shared mission. And so to be unable to work—unable to find or hold a job—is a kind of catastrophe for a human being.”
How should Christians think about the purpose of work? When understood within the storyline of Scripture, work reflects God’s call to his image bearers to glorify Him through kingdom dominion. This purpose for work becomes clear through four connections to the biblical storyline.
First, the purpose of work emerges when we see its connection to the kingdom of Christ. Genesis 1:26-28 gives our first ancestors a kingdom mandate that includes labor to exercise dominion over the created order. Yet, sin subverts this kingdom call. The first example of what Noonan calls the “catastrophe” that results from not holding a job arrives in the Garden of Eden. The reason Satan seeks to subvert our work through spiritual warfare is because the original kingdom call centers on labor.
Second, the purpose of work emerges when we see its connection to the victory of Christ. Noonan says work is a “spiritual event.” The Scriptures are even more specific than that; work is a Christological event by which we labor to please Christ the Lord and not to please men (Col 3:23). If someone in your office takes credit for successes you achieved, that shouldn’t lead to despair but trust in God’s provision in Christ. When we rightly understand our work in light of the work of Christ, it reframes our perspective on the purpose of labor.
Third, the purpose of work emerges when we see its connection to the body of Christ. Noonan’s reflections highlight the role of work in community integration. For believers, this communal connection is best seen not in gathering around the water cooler at the office but in gathering around the bread and cup at the church. Whether it is through setting up for a church plant in the pouring rain or changing diaper after diaper as a stay at home mom, your work reflects the body of Christ even as it upbuilds it.
Fourth, the purpose of work emerges when we see its connection to the likeness of Christ. Your labor is part of what Christ is using to conform you to his image. As you work, God works in you. Every leak you fix or copy you make is part of what God is using to refashion you into the image of Christ as he prepares you for an eternal kingdom stewardship. What if the mundane parts of your job you despise are exactly the things God is using to prepare you for an eternity of reigning with him?
What is the purpose of work? For Peggy Noonan, it is a “spiritual event” that fosters service, community integration, satisfaction, learning, and maturity. For believers, the purpose of work emerges when we see its connection to the kingdom of Christ, the work of Christ, the body of Christ, and the likeness of Christ. As you enjoy Labor Day, reflect on the kingdom call of work in a way that reframes your understanding of the purpose of your vocation.
Phillip Bethancourt is ERLC Director of Strategic Initiatives.