In an article published on the Gallup website, Amy Adkins writes rather unflatteringly about Millennials’ attitude towards work.1
“Millennials have a reputation for job-hopping,” she declares. “Unattached to organisations and institutions, people from this generation—born between 1980 and 1996—are said to move freely from company to company. More so than any other generation.’
Adkins cites a recent Gallup report which “reveals that 21 per cent of Millennials say they’ve changed jobs within the past year, which is more than three times the number of non-millennials who report the same”.
Whatever one may wish to make of Adkins’ characterisation of Millennials, it is perhaps true to say that all of us need to rediscover the true significance of work because we live in an age where it has been all too banal and vapid.
Christians who wish to discover the true meaning of work must return to the paradisiacal Garden described in Bible’s first few pages.
For it was there that humans, having been fashioned in the image of their Creator, were given the extraordinary mandate to “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” (Gen 1:28).
The first humans were told to be “fruitful”. They were commanded to “subdue” the earth, and exercise “dominion” over it. In other words, they were given the task of tending the Garden, of participating in the work of the Creator as His co-worker and partner.
As Stanley Horton puts it, “Adam was given work to do, such as cultivating, trimming and caring for the garden.” By this mandate, God made Adam “a responsible being sharing in part of the work of taking care of God’s creation”.2
Work is an activity that is befitting of God’s special creatures who alone are given the privilege to be the bearers of the divine image. In fact, it is in performing daily work that human beings reflect the Creator, for the God in whose image they are made is Himself a worker.
This has led theologians such as Pope John Paul II to maintain that work sets human beings apart from the other creatures that God has brought into being. “Work” writes the pontiff, “is one of the characteristics that distinguishes man from the rest of the creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work.”3
Work is thus God’s intention for human beings and should never be seen as divine punishment resulting from the Fall. And although human sin has made it into something irksome, tedious and even dehumanising, daily work remains a divine mandate and therefore an activity through which human beings can find meaning and fulfilment.
But in order to achieve this, it is important that we see the work that we do as a way in which we can fulfil our calling, a vocation through which we offer our service to both God and neighbour.
As Dorothy Sayers has so eloquently put it, with the right perspective, daily work is seen “not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfil itself to the glory of God” 4
When it is understood as a means by which we can fulfil our calling, daily work is transformed from drudgery to doxology—an act of praise, thanksgiving and worship to God. We offer the work of our hands to God by giving our very best and by making sure that God is honoured by it.
But our daily work does not only bring glory to God. As the great Reformer Martin Luther has tirelessly stressed, in performing our daily work diligently and responsibly, we are in fact also serving our fellow human beings. We are responding to the call to love our neighbour.
Human work is sacred because it was ordained by God before the Fall. This means that all human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God.
In addition, work is the means by which we participate in the life-giving activity of the Creator himself. By it we fulfil our calling to love both God and neighbour.
1 Amy Adkins, “Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation,” Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/231587/millennials-job-hopping-generation.aspx.
2 Stanley M. Horton, The Old Testament Study Bible: Genesis, The Complete Biblical Library: The Old Testament, Vol. 1, ed. Thoralf Gilbrant (Springfield: World Library, 1994), 29.
4 Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1974), 89.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).