God, Creation, and the Good of Work

“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image.’” (Gen 1:26)

“Certain things,” writes philosopher Josef Pieper, “can be adequately discussed only if at the same time we speak of the whole of the world and of life.” Death and love are such subjects, Pieper claims. So, too, is work as I hope to show. To ask, ‘what is the meaning and purpose of our 9-5 lives?’, ‘what is the good of work, of spreadsheets and emails, joists and concrete mixers, waiting rooms and whiteboards?’ is to inquire about the whole of existence. It is to speak, as we will see, about cuticles and cuttlefish, copper and cherubim.

This isn’t always clear to us. We strive for ‘work/life balance,’ relegating our jobs to the company of things simply to be endured, alongside dental work or the wrong use of apostrophes on public signage. Or we go the other way: we so inflate the importance of work that leisure is seen as self-indulgence, and we commit ourselves—all that we have and are—to the cult of productivity. Work becomes total. Everything a side hustle. In short, we are confused by work. Perhaps as Christians this is especially so. Our ears are sometimes troubled by whispers: this job is a distraction, seek first the kingdom, set your heart on the things above. Work becomes a site of confusion or half-heartedness or guilt, sundered in any meaningful way from our lives of faith.

So how are we to think about work’s meaning and purpose, its proper limits? Here I want to reflect on Genesis 1 and 2, with particular attention to Genesis 1:26. In this passage, our working lives are deliberately placed within the wider context of our human vocation, which is to seek the flourishing of all creation. Understood within the context of the whole of existence, work is thereby infused with rich meaning and purpose. Genesis 1:26 begins,

Let us make…

We need to stop right here. It’s just three words, but they pry open a whole world. We’ve heard these words before in Genesis: “Let,” “Let there be,” “Let them.” At least ten times already, God has called forth creation. We’re made aware that there is a world that precedes us that is prior to our aims and purposes, already flush with meaning and intention. The full meaning of our lives cannot be found just in ourselves. From the first breaths and stumbling steps of our kind, we are set among a great company of other fellow creatures, a “family of things” in Mary Oliver’s phrase—the sun and the moon; the sky, sea, and earth; birds and animals and plants. We are members of a cosmos, an intelligent order of things. And this cosmos is not just there, a neutral fact or pretty backdrop to our lives, it has a nature and purpose of its own. God did not say, “let us see what happens, let us be surprised,” but “let us make.” God had a plan. As Augustine of Hippo puts it, God “was not ignorant of what he was going to create.” To ask about the meaning and purpose of our work, we must first ask about God’s intention for creation as a whole.

A full description of God’s creative intent would require a longer article, indeed a whole book—in fact, a whole history, the history of this very world—but the tradition prompts us to say at least two things. First, it was God’s rich, dynamic inner life of love and goodness as Father, Son, and Spirit that motivated creation, and God’s desire was to share this love and goodness with others. Second, and intimately related, God created the cosmos to manifest him, to give him glory. This is our world’s true end, and each creature is called to contribute to it according to their capacities and powers. Human work takes its meaning and purpose, therefore, from the particular capacities and powers with which we have been endowed and through which we are called to play our particular role in God’s cosmic purposes. What these capacities and powers are we discover as we read on.

Let us make Adam…

We are called onto the stage. In Genesis 2, we meet an individual human male named Adam, but that’s not who is named here. In Genesis 1:26, ‘adam’ is best translated ‘humankind’ and represents all of us. The Hebrew word adam is etymologically connected to the Hebrew word for ground, for earth, adamah, and deliberately draws our attention to the stuff we’ve been made from—adam from adamah. The account in Genesis 2 does the same thing: “Then the Lord God formed the human [Adam] from the dust of the ground [adamah] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (2:7). Dust. God’s breath of life. We humans are from the earth—a unity of body and soul.

At times, there has been a tendency for Christians to conclude that the soul is the central element of the human person, to consider our bodies only as husks to be liberated from at death. To do so is to distort and misconstrue our nature and cripple our understanding of work. Work risks becoming merely a convenient context for evangelism (the real ‘work’ of saving souls) or as a means of earning money for kingdom causes. A hierarchy is created of more or less ‘spiritual’ (and therefore valuable) occupations, with pastor or foreign missionary resting somewhere near the top, and the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker left to fight it out further down the pecking order. And for most of us, our daily 9 to 5 lives are excluded from the realm of Christian meaning.

But, as Thomas Aquinas says, “my soul is not me.” We are more than spirits. To speak well of work, we need to consider cuticles and cartilage, callouses and capillaries, the very stuff of our bodies. Genesis 1 tells us that this material cosmos is our native habitat, the proper location for living out our Christian lives. We are earthlings made for life on earth. And this means work, even in its simplest terms of procuring things truly useful for living, has meaning and dignity. Indeed, we are commanded to such labour.  

“Work and take care of the Garden,” God tells Adam and Eve in Genesis 2; to us, he might say, “go to your desk, send your emails, earn your salary so that you may order your groceries online and occasionally get takeaway from that Indian place everyone is raving about.” There is dignity in such work. And for Christians, honest labour that feeds and houses and keeps warm our bodies cannot be considered beneath our dignity. Such work is good and necessary for the type of creatures we are. So, too, is work that delights our senses, that uses the very qualities of the material world—texture, colour, timbre, aroma—to enrich our lives. So, too, is knowledge work that advances our understanding of this world that is our proper home. None of this work is beneath us, a distraction, or simply something to occupy the time while we wait for our heavenly futures. God in his goodness has made us embodied creatures. Work that recognises this and that seeks to meet our creaturely needs can be a way for us to express gratitude for the gift of life and of this good earth.

And such work has its rewards! God created the world such that it is filled with things “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen 2:9). The command to work is not a call to fruitless toil, even after the fall, but a call to delight in the good stuff God has made. “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.” (Eccl 2:24)

But we need to say more if we are to sketch the meaning and purpose of human work. Every living creature on earth must eat and, in this sense, has proper work to do: the kiwi to grub for worms, the squirrel to stockpile acorns, the seagull to squawk and swoop and steal your chips. But human beings have been gifted with particular capacities and powers that are unique to us among our fellow creatures: capacities for knowing, for language, for making, for wisdom, for reason, for imagination, and for relationship. These capacities make sense of the particular role our work is given to play in God’s cosmic purposes. Stratford Caldecott writes: “man occupies a central place in the universe, but he does so as a microcosm containing all the elements of nature, and faculties and powers corresponding to both animals and angels.” As human creatures who are body and soul, we are unique in the whole universe of created things and have a unique vocation within which our work finds its ultimate meaning. Thus, we read,

Let us make Adam in our image…

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’ll turn to in our next edition of Common Ground.

(Image: “The Gleaners,” Jean-François Millet, CC Zero)