Why We Work

A biblical perspective on work, the dominion mandate, how the fall affected work, and the way we expand God’s glory (and our good) through work.

by Brandon Clay on June 22, 2021
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People work. Whether someone works for a paycheck or volunteers, labors in a home or toils in another workplace, adults spend much of their waking hours at work. Over a lifetime, Americans will spend 90,000 hours at their job. For those who are employed, much time is also spent commuting an average of 225 hours per year. Yet many people are not happy with their jobs: only 45% of Americans are satisfied or extremely satisfied with their work. Is it possible many people do not have an appropriate perspective about work?

With as much time people spend working and so many not happy with what they do, it would be helpful to consider a biblical perspective about work. After all, God has revealed much to us about work. In this brief overview, we consider why we work, the dominion mandate, how the fall of man affected work, and the way we expand God’s glory (and our own good) through work.

Why We Work: Because God Works

We work because God works. In the book of Exodus, we find God’s command to work given to the people of Israel and his reason why. Moses wrote in the fourth commandment,

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:9–11)

The command was clear to the ancient Israelites: work for six days, and rest on the seventh day, just as God did in the creation week (Genesis 1:1–2:3). Both men and women are made in God’s image, and he commands those who reflect him to work like him. God’s commands mirror aspects of his nature.

God commanded the ancient Israelites not only to have a day of rest but also to work most of the week.

Throughout the ages, God’s people have understood the fourth commandment in different ways. But the point is that God commanded the ancient Israelites not only to have a day of rest but also to work most of the week. Other verses either commend or command a work-filled life (emphasis mine):

  • “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” (Proverbs 13:4)
  • "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” (Proverbs 14:23)
  • “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28)
  • And to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12)
  • “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

We honor the Lord when we work because we are fulfilling one of our purposes: to reflect the working God who made us.

Ham

Noah’s son Ham working at the Ark Encounter in Northern Kentucky.

Biblical Roots of Work: Dominion and Fall

Work is an ancient concept tied to creation. It is intimately bound to God’s plan for the earth. He made the earth to be ruled and managed by people. We find work’s origin in Genesis 1:26–28:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

God commanded his people to “have dominion” over the animals, “be fruitful,” “fill the earth,” and “subdue it.” This collection of verses is known as the dominion mandate. In this mandate, God commissioned Adam and Eve (and by extension all of humanity) to rule over the world that he had created. They would do so by tending to animals, managing the ground, having children, and responsibly gathering the resources of the planet. This dominion of the earth would happen through work.

The dominion mandate continues into our post-fall world today.

Adam and Eve started their work in the garden of Eden. Scripture tells us, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Even before sin entered the picture, Adam and Eve worked. You may have heard that work was part of God’s curse after the fall of man. Not so. The tending of the garden was God’s ordained task for Adam and Eve before the serpent ever tempted Eve. God’s general, pre-fall direction to Adam and Eve was for procreation and dominion. Their specific jobs were to be parents and managers of the garden of Eden. But that time did not last long.

Something changed about work after the fall. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, work changed. God cursed our work in a manner of speaking. Eve’s work in childbearing was negatively affected. She could still have children, but her pain was increased (Genesis 3:16). Adam could still work the fields, but his work was more challenging. Instead of an easy ground to till, he would reap “thorns and thistles” along with his harvest (Genesis 3:18). Instead of easy labor, he would “sweat” in order to “eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). Work continued after the fall, but it was more laborious and painful.

Working

Person heading to work. Courtesy of Unsplash.

Work in Our Time

Since creation and the fall, some things have not changed. The dominion mandate continues into our post-fall world today. God never rescinded his command for people to populate the earth and manage his creation. Yet, the influence of the fall on work remains. Just as Adam and Eve experienced the effects of sin on their work, so also our work is fraught with challenges that would otherwise be gone in a sinless world. In our time, work remains but in a modified state.

There’s been much written on work in recent years. On The Theology of Work Project website, Andy Mills, co-chair of the project, summarized a Christian perspective on work when he wrote,

God has chosen to create men and women in His image to, among other things, work and tend this created order for His glory and for the betterment of humankind. In ways we can’t fully understand, the good work we do now, done with and for Him, will survive into the New Jerusalem. Work itself has intrinsic value.

Mills reminds us that work is a worthwhile enterprise. Work has intrinsic value. Work betters people and glorifies the God who created people to work. Moreover, the effects of this work will somehow survive into the next life and the New Jerusalem. Though we may not understand exactly how, God counts our work in this life toward the life to come (Matthew 25:23), though our salvation and adoption as a child of God are wholly due to the work of Jesus Christ.

After all, we don’t see crickets building skyscrapers. Some animals may build things like beaver dams, and those are impressive in a way. But beaver dams and spider webs don’t include the complexity and innovation like indoor plumbing, recessed lighting, or security systems. God gave ingenuity and creativity to people to reflect the work he does himself.

Moreover, people persist in their “dominion” over the earth. After all, we don’t see crickets building skyscrapers. Some animals may build things like beaver dams, and those are impressive in a way. But beaver dams and spider webs don’t include the complexity and innovation like indoor plumbing, recessed lighting, or security systems. God gave ingenuity and creativity to people to reflect the work he does himself. It’s people who manage the resources of the planet like the “fish of the sea,” the “birds of the heaven,” and raw materials in the ground. We don’t find kangaroos harvesting salmon in the oceans, raising turkeys for Thanksgiving, or mining lithium for batteries in electric cars. God assigned people the task of managing the resources of the planet.

God also initiated a self-perpetuating economic system. When people fulfill the first part of the dominion mandate by being “fruitful,” babies are born. Parents then should raise their children to eventually take their place in an economy that manages resources in the world, fulfilling the second part of the dominion mandate.

But since work is not without the effects of the fall, there’s a good reason why many don’t enjoy their work. Zookeepers clean a lot of smelly cages. And how would society function without those who manage sewers and garbage dumps? Do you ever think about roofers laying shingles on a hot Texas summer day? Work in the post-fall world isn’t always pretty, fun, or clean. Indeed, many people earn a living by the “sweat of their brow,” an old allusion to the curse from Genesis 3:19. The fall continues to affect the way we work adversely.

Your Job: A Holy Work

Though work is not always easy, God is honored when we work with him in mind. In a sense, our work is a type of worship. The apostle Paul sanctified our everyday responsibilities when he wrote, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). That means all legitimate work can be honorable to the Lord. This includes work done by pastors and teachers, but this “holy” work is certainly not limited to ministry positions.

John Calvin once wrote this about work:

We know that people were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every person applies diligently to his or her own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.

Calvin expressed a common theme in Reformation thought about work. He aimed to encourage the commoner and prince alike that a person didn’t have to administer sacraments or preach sermons to be pleasing to God. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker could all live lives of devotion to the Lord. Every work was holy, provided it was legitimate and biblically moral.

God is in the details of our everyday work.

In the same way, our work can honor God. You can please God whether you fly a plane for American Airlines or fuel those same planes on the ground. Whether you build an NFL stadium or scrub toilets at one—all work can be done to honor the Lord, thus making it a holy sacrifice. Moms, engineers, plumbers, teachers, farmers, social workers, lawyers, grocery checkers, doctors, veterinary technicians, soldiers, programmers, midwives, firefighters, ditch diggers, and even salesmen can honor God in the way they work.

Motherhood

Mom with baby in the honorable work of motherhood, courtesy of Unsplash.

God’s Glory and Our Good Expand with Work

And as we work, God’s glory expands. When we take dominion in our various spheres, chaos is put to order. Mothers rear and nurture children in the Lord. Bakers assemble disparate ingredients into delicious treats. Builders construct homes from hundreds of tools and materials. Your work puts things in order where there was less order. Through work, you are taking dominion in the little piece of ground that God has given you.

And as you put things in order, your good expands. In other words, you benefit when you obey the Lord’s direction regarding work. If you work for a paycheck, you can convert that into rent, groceries, car insurance, and contributing to God-honoring work. If you work in a home, you can raise children who will eventually take dominion in a way that honors God. Whatever you do, you can honor God in the way you work, thereby expanding God’s glory and your own good in the process.

Twentieth-century pastor A.W. Tozer wrote in The Pursuit of God, “Let us practice the fine art of making every work a priestly ministration. Let us believe that God is in all our simple deeds and learn to find Him there.” God is in the details of our everyday work. He has been in those details since the beginning. May we learn to see him there.

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