A Brief Theology of Work

Is work a virtue or a punishment? What’s the end game for increased productivity and shorter work weeks? Is there a biblical angle to all this?

Labor Day weekend is the unofficial end of the summer in North America. In our modern services and knowledge economy, we don’t think much about labor anymore; but work-related discussions remain top of mind. I’m talking about concepts like productivity, the pandemic’s Great Working From Home Experiment, and the idea of four-day work weeks. Work may seem mundane, but it’s actually quite philosophical, and today we dive into that philosophy.

The Origin of Labor Day

Labor Day is the celebration of labor in North America, the first Monday of September every year. By contrast, over 80 countries observe International Workers Day on May 1st, which curiously stems from a North American event – the Haymarket Affair. This event took place in Chicago on May 4th 1886, as the labor movement fought for an eight-hour workday.

After the American Civil war came a depression, followed by intense industrialization. At the time, workers typically worked over 60 hours a week over a six-day work week, which meant about 10 hours a day. So, there was significant social pressure – demands, meetings, rallies – to reduce the work day to eight hours. One such rally, a pacific manifestation, took place at Haymarket Square in Chicago, and a bomb was set off, resulting in 11 deaths and dozens of wounded. The incident galvanized labor movements around the world, and triggered the celebration of the equivalent of Labor Day elsewhere. However, concrete progress on the goal of a shorter work week wouldn’t come for another four decades.

Six, then Five…

Industrialization drove a work culture of six days a week. The significant influence of Christianity in 19th century Western societies helped to preserve Sunday as “the Lord’s Day,” although there’s much to be said about how people actually observed it.

The gradual reduction of the work week had more prosaic and pragmatic reasons. Absenteeism was high on Mondays, and productivity wasn’t particularly high. At the turn of the century, some factory owners decided to give workers Saturday afternoons off, so that they could drink and “enjoy” themselves, recuperate on Sunday, and show up to work refreshed – and sober – on Monday.

A key development happened in 1926. He didn’t invent the concept, but Henry Ford ushered in a five-day work week at Ford Motor Company. Prior to that, at least one factory had done the same out of consideration to Jewish workers who observed Sabbath. Ford was very intentional and pragmatic about this. He felt that well-compensated and rested workers, with time to spare, would spend more in goods and services and grow the economy – which would lead to more cars being sold. Through these and other developments, by the middle of the 20th century most countries had institutionalized a five-day work week through their legal systems.

This arrangement, and even the notion of work itself, have long been questioned, particularly as the global economy transitioned from manufacturing into the so-called services and knowledge economies. But for decades, no real progress was made on challenging the five-day workweek, despite increasing productivity and technological advance.

The same thing goes for the physical collocation of workers. Even in a knowledge society, where the internet has decentralized plenty of social and personal interactions, work remained notoriously impervious to these trends.

…Then Four?

That, of course, came to an abrupt end with the pandemic, which managed to disrupt one of these trends and seriously challenge the other. The pandemic brought about the Great Working From Home Experiment. I don’t need to say much about this; much has been said and written, and if you’re an office worker, I’m sure you’re going through your own debates on if and when to go back to the office.

The benefits of working from home are undeniable, but the burnout and isolation it brings are also real. The burnout angle has brought renewed focus on further shortening the work week. The reasoning goes more or less like this: if we have proven to remain productive while working remotely – and in some cases havea actually exceeded our previous productivity, considering that this comes at great personal cost – isn’t it time we revisited the work week? Shouldn’t we leverage the pandemic’s disruptive momentum to question this too?

Much of the public discussion here has been fueled by a study conducted in Iceland. In July, the country released the results of the largest known study into four-day work weeks. The country’s public service workers reportedly remained productive and reaped important benefits to their mental health over the span of the four- year study. As a result, a majority of the country is now working, or planning to work, four days a week.

Previous smaller studies seem to confirm these results; they just didn’t have the scale of Iceland’s, nor the momentum of these discussions happening in a near post-pandemic environment. In Canada, perhaps the best-known example is an ongoing trial taking place at the township of Zorra, Ontario, and the results of a similar trial by Guysborough, Nova Scotia, last year.

A Brief Theology of Work

All this talk about work seems very mundane; but in fact, work is very philosophical. Broadly, there are two key ways to think about work. One is as a virtue, extolling the importance of diligence and discipline to individuals and society. A well-known flavor of this school of thought is the Protestant work ethic, credited with shaping modern western society and captured by Max Weber in his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Another way to think of work is as a nuisance – an obstacle to leisure, joy and happiness, or even a form of oppression. Four episodes ago, I talked about “Life Beyond Earth”, and touched on how philosophical science fiction is. It doesn’t limit itself to predicting scientific and technological progress, but often conflates this with societal and cultural progress.

Star Trek is a great example of this phenomenon. Its economy has no money, no hunger, no greed and no scarcity. In a world like that, work takes on a whole new meaning; you work if you want, as a matter of self-realization or noble occupation – not as a matter of need.

As you may infer from the term “Protestant work ethic”, we do have a theology of work in the Bible, and I find it useful as we consider the current state of work and its envisioned evolution. Briefly, I want to focus on four points.

1. In the biblical worldview, work is part of our purpose – not of our identity. The basis for work in the Bible is presented at the very beginning, in the book of Genesis. As a sidebar, it never ceases to amaze me how much of the basic foundation of reality as seen through the Christian lens is laid right at the beginning in Genesis. You have the creation of the world. You can debate how to interpret that – but the key point is that the world was created by God.

But the book speaks not only about origin – it speaks a lot to purpose as well. Humans are created in the image of God, and tasked with sharing with Him in the development and care of creation. Adam is placed in the garden to tend to it. Right there, the Bible debunks a common misunderstanding – that work is some kind of judgment or punishment. Quite the opposite. Frankly, we were created to work. It’s just that after the fall, like everything else in this world, work became cursed. We now earn our lives by the sweat of our brows – with our fair share of effort, and frustration, and trouble. But this doesn’t annul or take away the fact that we were created for work.

Work is not supposed to give us identity. It really can’t define who we are, though modern society commonly falls for this. But work is an inextricable part of our purpose.

2. Rest and leisure have a place in this theology, but that place isn’t purpose. Rest is biblically important, even holy in a sense. Resting restores us to be able to work, but also to come back to our Creator. This is the idea of Sabbath. In Exodus 20:8-11, God’s people are told, “you have six days to do all your work – but the seventh day you shall not work.” This celebrated God’s own rest in creation, and allowed His people to come back and commune with Him.

There are two things to note here. In this context, work is not limited to employment, but all productive activity. In a modern context, this would include things like fueling your car, mowing your lawn, doing the laundry, etc.

The second thing is, the prescription is to rest. Many translations render the passage as “you shall work six days.” That doesn’t mean that a Christian can’t work part-time, or have a five-day or a four-day work week. The real prescription is on the rest day. Set aside one day for the Lord.

Like I said earlier, in the 19th century the true nature or observance of this day was controversial, and that remains the case today. One well-known example of no-compromise observance is Eric Liddell, a Scottish athlete who refused to run his flagship 100-meter race at the 1924 Olympics in Paris because the race was on a Sunday. He went on to win gold in the 400-meter race, and later became a missionary in China.

Again, I want to highlight that rest has a divine purpose. Expressed in human terms, the idea of sharpening the axe from Stephen Covey comes to mind – relaxing and recuperating in order to remain productive in one’s calling. Spiritually, it’s also an important and necessary discipline.

3. There is no conflict between a Christian worldview and increasing productivity. It is part of God’s mandate to humanity to partake in caring for and developing God’s creation. Like I said, there’s never been an issue with Christians being homemakers, part-time employees, financially independent, or any other arrangement.

That said, my last point is something of a caveat.

4. A biblical worldview does not see increased productivity, reduced workloads or financial independence as a stepping stone on the way to exalting rest or leisure. Yes, we celebrate advances in technology and society that reduce our workloads. But the ultimate focus and nature of Christian effort is beautifully summarized in Ephesians 2:10, which says that we were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

These good works are to be understood as anything that serves others and glorifies God. That’s work for us – not only as employment, but as busyness, as overall activity – that is our guiding principle.

We don’t believe for a second that this progression of technology, automation and productivity has the goal of putting us in some sort of Star Trek-like idyllic society; and we don’t look forward to four-day work weeks so that we have an extra day merely to consume – to buy more and to binge watch more. We seek to make wise use of every waking hour, in the spirit of “redeeming time” (Eph 5:15-16) and being faithful stewards of creation.

I hope this inspires you. Work is important. Not so much that you should let it identify you; but it’s certainly part of your purpose. This long weekend, I invite you to celebrate Labor Day by rejoicing in that.

Published: September 5, 2021