This article, along with the preceding "What Is Man?," is adapted from the first chapter of Udo Middelmann's insightful book Proexistence: The Place of Man in the Circle of Reality (with permission). Middelmann, lecturer and author, is President of the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation, which is based in Gryon, Switzerland.
The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation is a place to research Schaeffer's thought, and it offers a program of individualized study and cultural engagement during the summers. For more information, the foundation can be contacted at the following address: Chalet Mon Abri CH - 1882 Gryon, Switzerland (email: UDDebCh@aol.com; phone: **41 24 4986 ).
Human Identity, Biblical Worldview, Creativity, and the Meaning of Work
By Udo Middelmann
When the Bible gives me a place and says who I am and affirms my identity not from the immediate surroundings but rather from God himself, then I come to what is so intimately linked with my identity -- the need to be creative over God’s universe. And this is work. Just as God expressed himself and his character in his creation and in his revelation to man, so the image of God in man must be expressed, must be externalized. It is not a threat to me if I work, if my identity is no longer tied to the job that I do, the part in society that I play or the body in nature that I am. In fact, all of a sudden, work and creativity, so intimately linked together, become a challenge.Many Christians feel that work is a result of the Fall. They remember that when Adam was punished, he had to gain his livelihood by the sweat of his brow, he had to till the ground, do difficult and dangerous work. For example, Jacques Ellul in “Work and Calling” gives an excellent description of how Christians through Western history have viewed the notion of work. His own view is that “work is of the order of necessity. It is given to man by God as a means of survival, but it is also posed as a condition for survival. . . . It is not, therefore, a part of the order of grace, of gratuity, of love, of freedom. . . . Like violence, like political power, work also is part of the order of necessity. One cannot escape it: it is the human condition resulting from the rupture with God.”1 Work is not freedom and it has “no ultimate value, no transcendent meaning.”2 As he says, “Work is thus limited in everyday life, and even limited to the banal, to the ‘hopeless.’ It is neither value nor creation.”3
To the extent that Ellul rejects the medieval notion that “work is purely and simply a curse, a sign of the condemnation of Adam” he is, I believe, to be commended.4 But he also rejects the solution posed by Luther. Work, Luther thought, is equally valid before and after the Fall, because “it is a part of the order he [God] established for man.”5 Luther argues that “in making shoes, the cobbler serves God, obeys his calling from God, quite as much as the preacher of the Word.”6
By making a distinction between calling and work, Ellul, however, drives a wedge between the infinite and the finite, between God and man, between the activity that matters to God and the activity that matters to human history. He sees work as “the most completely relative type of situation”7 and only relevant because it prolongs human history. This view resembles rather remarkably the neo-orthodox division between the absolute and relative, infinite and finite, eternal and temporal, Geschichte and Historie, applied to calling and work. In any case, Ellul rejects the notion that work can have ultimate significance, that all of reality -- sacred and secular -- stands in relationship to the infinite-personal God. Ellul asks the question whether his solution is “not in reality a solution of despair” and answers, “To be sure, it contradicts the idea of the Christian life as the unified life, integrating the totality of our action and feelings.”8The Bible, it seems to me, is on the side of Luther. In Genesis 2:15 before the Fall we find this statement: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” That was creative work. It was not merely a matter of man’s survival. It was a part of man’s original purpose. It tied in with his being creative and imaginative, with his being God’s vice-regent. So it isn’t that man did not work before the Fall but that his work had a different character. Before the Fall, work was easy and joyful; afterwards it was toil. But in both cases work is intimately linked with the question of who God is and who man is.
Indeed, we make a mistake if we wander the streets of Europe, fleeing from any kind of work and creativity. We are wrong to seek an answer only to the question of who I am and not to the question of what I shall do.But if I see work in relationship to creativity, then I no longer work just because everybody else does it or because it is expected of me as a necessity. I do not have to look at it as a burden contrary to myself, nor see myself caught in the utilitarianism and machine likeness of our own age. Rather, I can see work as an extension of my own essential being.
The Bible frequently speaks of outward manifestations of inward reality. If my inward reality is indeed to be a child of God made in the image of God, then I should project who I am out into the external world. I cannot continue in idleness once I have perceived who I am. This point is made repeatedly in the Bible.Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer or ruler,
she prepares her food in summer.
and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond,
and want like an armed man. (Prov. 6:6-11)
If you are a man, work. It is a necessary part of the expression of who you are. It has nothing to do with the Fall or the present society.Proverbs has much to say about this: “The soul of the sluggard craves, and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Prov. 13:4). Or: “He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits has no sense” (Prov. 12:11; cf. 28:19). “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish, and will not even bring it back to his mouth” (Prov. 19:24). What a picture of a man who refuses to express who he is!
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.
There is a lion in the streets!”
As a door turns on its hinges,
so does a sluggard on his bed.
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who can answer discreetly. (Prov. 26:12-16)
The New Testament also speaks about sloth. The parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30) is a strong indictment of the “slothful servant” (v. 26). Romans 12:11 reads, “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.” But it was apparently in Thessalonica where the problem was most prevalent, for we find in both of Paul’s letters a charge to work. In 1 Thessalonians we read, “But we exhort you, brethren, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody” (1 Thess. 4:10-12). In his second letter, Paul expands on this:Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labour we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busy-bodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. (2 Thess. 3:6-12)
And just to show that this isn’t a harsh statement and must never be taken as harshness, to show that we must allow the individuality of the situation, Paul adds, “Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing” (v. 13). The balance is there, but the principle is clear. If any man will not work, neither let him eat.
We are called on as Christians to be men before God, to have character, to fulfill the purpose of our creation which is to glorify God by being the ones he has made us to be. All of this is linked with expressing into the external world by the creative activity of work something of our identity as men. Work is linked with man’s superior status. He is different from everything else that is there.
- Jacques Ellul, “Work and Calling,” Katallagete (Fall-Winter 1972), p. 13.
- Ibid., pp. 13-14.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Ibid., p.9.
- Ibid., p. 10.
- Ibid., p. 14.