by Wayne Kirkland, co-author of Where’s God on Monday?
Imagine this scene: It’s 6pm and John walks in through the front entrance of the house he shares with Liz, his wife, and their three children. He puts down his briefcase and Liz immediately gives him a kiss, inquiring, “How was your day at work, dear?”
John automatically knows what his wife is asking. He’s employed as an accountant for forty hours a week at a firm downtown. Liz is asking him how his paid job went today. After a short commentary on the office politics and a struggle sorting out a client’s books, John returns the favor by asking Liz, “So how was your day at home?”
John never thinks to ask, “How was your day of work at home?” Liz knows she has also been working today. And we hope John doesn’t think she has just been lazing around or resting while he’s been gone! Taking care of three young active boys, looking after the house and the meals, volunteering at the boys’ school – all these activities have filled Liz’s day. Liz has actually been working hard but the words John uses don’t overtly acknowledge this.
Unfortunately, when we use the word “work” we usually refer to paid employment. However, for most people this is only part of their daily work and for others like Liz, their work doesn’t include any paid work at all. Sadly, the value of “paid” work is generally assumed to be of much greater importance than any unpaid tasks or roles we perform. This is not how it should be….
Defining “work” biblically
This narrow view of work is problematic when we come to examining the scriptures. The biblical writers lived in a tightly connected and closely integrated society. Their life was one where home and employment, relationships and activities were not separate spheres, but had real and obvious everyday connections.
Our fragmented and highly compartmentalized world doesn’t connect well with that society. If we are to read the scriptures with an understanding of their full meaning, we need to develop a much broader, holistic definition of work. Here are a couple of examples of people attempting to do this.
Paul Marshall defines work as, “human activity designed to accomplish something that is needed, as distinct from activity that is satisfying in itself.”
John Stott suggests that work is, “the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community and glory to God”.
There are obviously a number of ways to nail down what we mean by work. Let’s not get hung up on the details, but simply note that by seeing work as much broader than paid employment we will understand more thoroughly the biblical references to this topic.
Am I working when I read to my daughter in bed? In a sense I am. I may find it dull and unstimulating – or pleasant and fulfilling. Either way there’s a degree of expended energy involved, and it’s a very important task in the overall goal of raising and disciplining my daughter.
What about when I attend a school or community committee? Or when my elderly neighbor needs help with her groceries? Or when a friend has just lost a brother through death and needs someone to be there – to sit with him and listen?
You bet! Some may be instinctive responses to people in need, others may be quite deliberately planned; some may seem effortless and “self-rewarding,” others may be a real chore and require major application … but all of these “tasks” are work.
Students work. Superannuitants work. Stay-at-home parents work. “Unemployed” people work. We all work. It’s the dominant activity of our everyday lives, consuming the majority of our waking hours.
Whether or not we get paid for the task is somewhat irrelevant – at least insofar as whether it counts for work. So over the next few posts, when you read the word “work”, make sure you include all productive activities you engage in on a weekly basis.
Where’s God on Monday introduces readers to a basic theology of work. Written in fourteen engaging chapters, this book teaches us what the Bible says about work and how to work out our faith every day of the week. Each chapter includes questions and exercises for small group or individual reflection, blending theological reflection with practical application.
If you’d like more information about this book, visit our website, this excerpt from the book, or this blog series written by Wayne Kirkland (posts: Idle, Idol, or Worship; Are You Engaged—In Your Work?; Are You Doing Spiritual Work?; and Sabbaticals Can Be for Everyone).
 Paul Marshall’s article on “Work” in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (IVP: Downers Grove, 1995), 899.
 John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Marshalls: Basingstoke, UK, 1984),162.