Every other living creature is created according to its kind, but we are crafted in the image of God. This is at the heart of the meaning and purpose of our work (though its significance goes well beyond the confines of our working lives). Often we imagine image bearing in terms of some nebulous sense of being special, set apart for particular attention by the creator God. As it relates to work, this may inspire little more than a sense of obligation, say, to tolerate our annoying colleague with his endless stories and microwaving of egg sandwiches in the office kitchen. For he, too, we counsel ourselves, is made in the image of God. But for the original readers of Genesis, there was much more at stake.
In the wider Ancient World of which Israel was a part, there were only two things that were commonly referred to as “the image of god”: idols and kings. Both were seen as localised, bodily representations of the gods. They were a stand-in physically for the absent god, representatives of the god’s rule. The king, in particular, imaged the god through his rule. That this meaning is in play in Genesis is seen in the rest of our verse:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Gen 1:26)
Humans were created to image God by ruling over other earthly creatures. Talk of rule can make us nervous. We naturally hear these words against the background of the climate crisis and the long history of human degradation of the natural world. But such exploitative rule is alien to the text. In the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, our calling as God’s image bearers is “to see that the creation becomes fully the creation willed by God.” And as we’ve seen, God’s will for creation is to communicate to it his love and goodness, and for creation to manifest his glory—his wisdom, goodness, beauty, justice, love, and power. As image bearers, we are called to use our distinct capacities for knowing, planning, will, imagination, reason, language, and relationship to bless the rest of creation (including each other) and to help it fulfil its purpose of bringing glory to God.
This vocation goes beyond creation care and provides the context within which to understand the meaning and purpose of our daily working lives, a purpose beyond simply procuring resources for living. Consider your colleagues. Consider your office. Consider your cab or classroom, your workshop or workstation. Consider your clients, or patients, or students. To do good here, to these people, in this place, is meaningful because it is a way for you to participate in God’s great unfolding purpose for his creation. To bring beauty (house plants and pictures, colour and design) to cubicles irradiated by fluorescent bulbs, to defend truth in offices degraded by gossip, to promote fairness in remuneration and praise, to seek out the lonely and awkward (even those who microwave eggs) is to use your unique human capacities for knowing, imagining, and relating to communicate something of God’s love and goodness to his creation. Such work is not a distraction, not a thing to be relegated below more ‘spiritual’ matters. It is what you were made for. Your workplace is a little bit of God’s good creation given to you to tend and care through the exercise of your God-given capacities so that God’s love and goodness can be seen there.
But it is not just how we work that matters but the ends toward which we work. To mend, to make, to till, to heal, to organise, to understand is good and meaningful because through such work we fulfil our primal calling to steward God’s good earth and help creation bring glory to God by fulfilling its potential. Take copper. Copper is a soft, malleable metal of pinkish-orange colour. It has among its capacities high electrical and thermal conductivity, resistance to corrosion, and antimicrobial properties. Jewellers or sculptors who mould copper into beautiful designs, engineers who use copper wire to conduct electricity or telecommunications or to increase the efficiency of electrical cars, architects who use copper in gutters and plumbing, on domes and spires, on bench tops or bathroom fixtures are using their unique human capacities of imagination and reason to help copper fulfil its potential, and, in doing so, they enable it to witness to the wisdom and power and goodness of God who created such a marvellous metal.
Or take, perhaps more complicatedly, cuttlefish. Chefs in the Mediterranean or Europe or East Asia who dry and shred caught cuttlefish to make snacks, or serve it with risotto or as tapas, or breaded and deep-fried, or artists who use cuttlefish ink to print or draw, or ancient metallurgists who used cuttlefish bone to cast metal, or modern designers who study cuttlefish skin to engineer ‘smart clothing’ capable of changing colour can be said to be using their unique gifts to help the species cuttlefish fulfil its potential and therefore bring glory to God its creator. As Stephen Hipp puts it, “precisely in helping creatures to be what they are called to be, what they were intended by God to be, and operate as they were intended to operate, man fulfils that part of his vocation described in Genesis 1:26.” And in this, we ourselves glorify God by becoming who we were made to be: creatures endowed with unique gifts, whose work of making and learning and organising and healing and exploring can communicate God’s goodness and manifest his glory. This is the expansive frame in which to understand the meaning and purpose of our work. As Dorothy Sayers wrote in the 1940s,
The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.
In the eighty years since, the Church’s approach has perhaps changed little. We remain conflicted about the meaning and purpose of work, its dignity and value. Our work is a context for evangelism and should be conducted morally, and where it consumes and disorders the other goods of our lives, it can be a distraction. These are good things to say. But if this is all we say, we don’t say enough. Work is not just toil. Work can be more than simply feeding our bodies—though such work has dignity. Your work, your 9 to 5 life of spreadsheets and emails, joists and concrete mixers, waiting rooms and whiteboards is a means by which you can participate in God’s cosmic purposes. Through and in your work, you are called to communicate God’s love and goodness to other creatures, and to bring creation back to God by enabling it to fulfil its potential and therefore witness to the exuberant goodness, power, wisdom, life, beauty, and love of its creator.
And yet… And yet. Work can be hard. Work can be unpleasant and frustrating. Work can feel pointless. It can be toil. To speak only of work’s burdens is to speak falsely, but to not speak of them at all is also to deny reality. So why is work frequently so hard? It’s this question we seek to answer in part two of our Theology of Work series: “The Fall, Toil, and the Tower of Babel.”