Work and idleness

The gift of work

Moses with the ten commandments by RembrandtThe Bible implies that work has always been at the heart of the way God intends the universe to operate. Genesis tells the story of how God made the world and
‘saw that everything he had made’ was ‘very good’ Genesis 1:31. He took pleasure in his creativity and involved humanity in the process, asking Adam to name the animals (Genesis 2:19) and tend the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). 
The Bible also describes how work has been part of the divine purpose for humans from the earliest times (see Psalms 104:14-15; Psalms 104:23. The Ten Commandments instruct people to live by the same pattern that God does – working for six days and keeping the seventh for a day of rest (see Exodus 20:9-10).

The burden of work

The Old Testament teaches that intimate knowledge of good and evil entered humans’ hearts after Adam and Eve disobeyed God (this is known as the Fall) Genesis 3:22. In response, God told Adam that work would, from now on, involve hard labour rather than being an uncomplicated blessing: ‘By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’ Genesis 3:19. There is a sense of work being toil rather than pleasurable. Furthermore, rather than working in harmony with God, people could be motivated to work hard by envy at another’s progress, or out of a sense of dissatisfaction:
Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbour. .. Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind. .. one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business.                                     Ecclesiastes 4:4,6,8 ESVUK     

Idleness from work

There are a great many sayings, or ‘proverbs’, about work and idleness in the Bible. They stress the importance of diligent work, and the foolishness of idleness. For example:
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.                   Proverbs 10:4 ESVUK
The sluggard does not plough in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing.         Proverbs 20:4 ESVUK
Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.                 Proverbs 19:15 ESVUK     

Jesus on work

In the New Testament, Jesus often taught about the kingdom of God using parables which related to working hard or making a profit from available resources (e.g. Matthew25:14-29). Jesus talked about how ‘the labourer deserves his wages’ Luke 10:7.
However, he also challenged the world’s ideas and value systems. Indicating that it was up to God regarding how he treated individuals, Jesus’ told a parable about how workers in a vineyard were all given equal pay regardless of the hours they had worked (see Matthew 20:1-16). When those who had worked all day complained, the owner said they had agreed to his terms and it was up to him if he wanted to be generous to the other workers.

Work redeemed

According to the New Testament, work is important, but it is not the means of salvation. No one can ‘earn’ their way into God’s favour, and Christians are to disregard the worldly status that some achieve (see James 2:2-4). 
However, through Jesus’ act of redemption, Christians believe work is transformed into a means of blessing again. Once again, humans can labour in harmony with God’s purposes ‘for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ Philippians 2:13. By working in partnership with God’s Holy Spirit, believers will bear ‘fruit in every good work’ Colossians 1:10 and discover the work that God has already prepared for them to do (see Ephesians 2:10).

Other cultural references

  • Texts: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is about migrant farm workers travelling around America during the Great Depression trying to find work. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is centred around work; Bleak House by Charles Dickens has Esther arriving at the house due to the need for work…
  • Paintings: Work by nineteenth century painter Ford Madox Brown, Office at Night by Edward Hopper. The Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro liked to paint people working, usually surrounded by nature, such as farmers (paintings include Hay Harvest at Eragny and Hoar Frost, the Old Road to Ennery).

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