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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 166–172 

God as Worker: How It Affects Life and Ministry

Raymond O. Bystrom

“Does God work?” Willie asks his father in George MacDonald’s children’s book, The Genius of Willie MacMichael. 1 “Yes, Willie, it seems that God works more than anybody—for he works all night and all day and, if I remember rightly, Jesus tells us somewhere that he works all Sunday too. If he were to stop working, everything would stop being. The sun would stop shining, and the moon and stars; the corn would stop growing; there would be no apples and gooseberries; your eyes would stop seeing; your ears would stop hearing; your fingers couldn’t move an inch; and worst of all, your little heart would stop loving.”

It is important for preachers and teachers to employ images from the world of work that give shape and dignity to the lives of their listeners.

“No, Papa,” cried Willie. “I shouldn’t stop loving, I’m sure.”

“Indeed, you would, Willie.”

“Not you and Mamma.”

“Yes—you wouldn’t love us any more than if you were asleep without dreaming.”

“That would be dreadful.”

“Yes, it would. So you see how good God is to us—to go on {167} working, that we may be able to love each other.”

“Then if God works like that all day long, it must be a fine thing to work,” said Willie.

“You are right. It is a fine thing to work—the finest thing in the world, if it comes of love, as God’s work does.”

After this conversation with his father, Willie decided that if God worked, he would work too. As the story goes, Willie learned to knit, and eventually he knitted a pair of socks for his father. Willie discovered, thanks to his father’s teaching, an important biblical image of God that began to change the way he lived.

THE GOD OF THE BIBLE IS A WORKER

In the Bible, God is indeed depicted as a worker. For example, in Genesis 1 and 2, God wears no end of occupational hats: strategic planner, designer, civil engineer, real estate developer, project manager, waste manager, and many more. The psalmist declares that God “who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4 NRSV, passim). And Jesus said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). Paul Minear aptly says, “The God of the Bible is preeminently a worker.” 2

The biblical portrait of God as worker is a stark contrast to the picture of the gods of the ancient Near East. Work was beneath their dignity. 3 Such is not the image of the God of the Bible. In his book, God the Worker, Robert J. Banks explores sixteen biblical comparisons drawn from the world of human work to depict God, including God as composer and performer, metalworker and potter, garmentmaker and dresser, gardener and orchardist, farmer and winemaker, shepherd and pastoralist, tentmaker and camper, builder and architect. 4 Exploring these biblical images of God the worker is a work-transforming and life-changing journey.

In this brief essay, I will suggest several implications of this biblical image of God for Christian living and ministry. “Analogies between God’s activities and human work teach us something dependable about both,” claims Banks. 5

LESSONS FROM GOD’S IMAGE AS WORKER

Work Is Intrinsic to Human Nature

So what important lessons are embedded in this image of God the worker? First, it tells us that work is intrinsic to human nature. God the worker has made us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27; cf. Exod. 20:9, 11). {168} Work expresses something of the divine image in people. As Elton Trueblood says, “It is by toil that men can prove themselves creatures made in God’s image.” 6 While exploring the implications of the divine image in people, Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Work is the natural exercise and function of man—the creature who is made in the image of his Creator.” 7

It is important to emphasize the dignity of work today because many believe Christianity teaches that it is the penalty for sin or God’s retaliation for our rebellion. 8 Indeed, the idea that work itself is a curse may be one of the most stubborn myths of Western culture. But the image of God the worker reminds us that “work of all kinds has intrinsic value (it is good in itself, not merely for what it produces) in that it sustains and develops God’s creation and is part of the dignity of being God-imaging creatures.” 9

We Are Junior Partners with God

Second, the image of God the worker helps to accent our role as God’s partners in the work of creation, preservation, and redemption. There is a cooperative nature to God’s work and humanity’s work. As John R. W. Stott says, “This concept of divine-human collaboration applies to all honorable work. God has so ordered life on earth as to depend on us. So whatever our work, we need to see it as being in cooperation with God.” 10 But we are the junior partners; we are dependent upon him as well.

As the psalmist declares, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1; cf. Ps. 90:16-17). Thus, we are junior partners with God, working at our God-given assignments in dependence upon him. We are not the architects of our own fulfillment. We are not self-made persons. Gordon Preece puts our work as God’s junior partners into proper perspective: “By seeing our work in the light of God’s work, we can see God’s hand in our everyday tasks. Unless we do so, we will underestimate the importance of God’s work and either worship our work or think it worthless.” 11

God’s Work Is a Model for Us

Third, the work of God, while it is unique, is a model for human work. God’s work can be correlated with human work. 12 For example, we tend to prize and value the work of evangelists, pastors, and apologists for the faith because what they do connects so readily to God’s own work as Redeemer. “Unfortunately,” writes Robert Banks, “in some quarters it is only when someone is engaged in these activities {169} that they are regarded as doing God’s work.” 13 We need to rediscover the fact that the work God does is far broader than Christ’s work of reconciling people or helping them grow together in faith and obedience.

To be sure, God’s redeeming and transforming work is central to his plan for humankind. But God is also Creator, Sustainer, Preserver, Provider, Revealer, and Lawgiver—to mention only a few of his many other occupational hats. All of this means that everyone who does legitimate work should be able to say, “My work is God’s work.” For example, the work of a teacher could be said to reflect something of God’s desire to reveal truth to people. The work of a doctor reflects something of God’s healing power and gift. The work of a musician reflects something of God’s creative ability. The work of a secretary involved in scheduling appointments reflects something of God’s own love of order. In other words, we should all be able to say, “My work is God’s work.” 14

An Important Issue for Evangelism

Fourth, the image of God the worker communicates an important message to persons outside the church. As evangelists and apologists of the Christian faith, we are always looking for points of contact between our message and the life experiences of those outside the faith. “If we bypass the world of work,” says Banks, “we miss one of the most fruitful points of contact we have available.” 15 Most adults spend more time at their workplace than anywhere else. The average person spends some eighty-eight thousand hours on the job from the first day of full-time employment until the retirement celebration. 16 Work occupies so much of their lives. Says Banks,

It is therefore crucial for the gospel to interact with this sphere of life. We have an opportunity to show people that God is highly interested in work, that God understands the possibilities and frustrations of work, that God knows the complexities involved in depending on others at work, that God is also concerned to balance work and rest, and, above all, that the world of work is not strange to God, that God is a worker. 17

The Church Needs Worker Images of God

Fifth, the image of God the worker is not only important for communicating the faith to those outside the church, it is also important for preaching and teaching inside the church. Preachers and teachers often {170} use biblical images of God based on social images (king, judge, father), or personal relationships (lover, friend, stranger, deserted spouse), or images that have their basis in the field of human communication (revealer, prophet, teacher, poet, mentor). Perhaps it is time to play creatively with images that portray God in terms of human work. Again Banks:

The language of God as itinerant worker, as craftsperson, as designer, as architect works well in a contemporary setting, as do some of the traditional metaphors of God as potter, builder, and maker of clothes. Little-used metaphors such as God as farmer, winemaker, and gardener also have ongoing relevance. 18

Today we are surrounded by a multitude of images, especially through the media. Most of these images have little to do with everyday life. It is important for preachers and teachers to employ images from the world of work that give shape and dignity to the lives of their listeners. As Banks continues,

The use of biblical images for God drawn from the world of work and, where necessary, framed in contemporary language would do an enormous amount to overcome the gap between faith and work and between God and everyday life that so many churchgoers experience. 19

This Is God’s Good World

Finally, the image of God the worker tells us something about the locus of human work. In Genesis after God completed his creative work, the text says, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). As human beings we all labor in the context of a world created by God, a world God has declared good. In some traditions, the material world has been regarded as evil, generating a negative view both of the physical creation and of earthly work. However, if this is God’s good world, there is no dichotomy between the earthly and the sacred. Wendell Berry puts the issue clearly when he says that “by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God.” 20 {171}

NOTES

  1. Quoted in R. Paul Stevens, Disciplines of the Hungry Heart: Christian Living Seven Days a Week (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1993), 13-14.
  2. Paul S. Minear, “Work and Vocation in Scripture,” in Work and Vocation: A Christian Discussion, ed. John Oliver Nelson (New York: Harper, 1954), 44.
  3. See Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 6-16.
  4. Robert J. Banks, God the Worker: Journeys into the Mind, Heart, and Imagination of God (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1994). See also Robert J. Banks and Gordon Preece, “When God Goes to Work,” in Getting the Job Done Right: Eight Sessions on Developing a Biblical Perspective of Work (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992), 21-32; Leland Ryken, “What Does God Do All Day? God at Work and Play,” in Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 159-71; John C. Haughey, “God Who Works,” in Converting Nine to Five: A Spirituality of Daily Work (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 60-79; Alan Richardson, “The ‘Work’ of God as Creator,” in The Biblical Doctrine of Work, 2d ed. (London: SCM, 1963), 12-14; Paul S. Minear, “God as Builder,” in Work and Vocation in Scripture, ed. John Oliver Nelson (New York: Harper, 1954), 44-46.
  5. Banks, God the Worker, 280.
  6. Elton Trueblood, Your Other Vocation (New York: Harper, 1952), 64.
  7. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” in Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949), 53.
  8. See Melvin Kranzberg and Joseph Gies, By the Sweat of Thy Brow: Work in the Western World (New York: Putman, 1975); Nels Anderson, Dimensions of Work: The Sociology of a Work Culture (New York: David McKay, 1964). Most biblical exegetes acknowledge that work is not the legacy of the Fall, only its character as toil.
  9. R. Paul Stevens, “The Marketplace: Mission Field or Mission?” Crux 37 (September 2001), 11.
  10. John R. W. Stott, “Reclaiming the Biblical Doctrine of Work,” Christianity Today, 4 May 1979, 37. Also see Trueblood, 63.
  11. Gordon Preece, “Work,” in The Complete Book of Everyday {172} Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 1124-25.
  12. See Robert J. Banks, “The Place of Work in the Divine Economy: God as Vocational Director and Model,” in Faith Goes to Work: Reflections from the Marketplace, ed. Robert J. Banks (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1993), esp. 22-28. Banks provides a rather lengthy list of dozens and dozens of occupations and how they correlate with God’s own work.
  13. Ibid., 22.
  14. See Banks and Preece, 52. There are two dangers to avoid here. First, much human work obscures and perverts God’s work. Second, certain types of work are often rated as more reflective of God’s work than others. But such distinctions among honorable work are invalid.
  15. Banks, God the Worker, 274.
  16. See John Redekop, “Canadian Labour—A Place for Christians,” Faith Today (September/October 1989), 18.
  17. Banks, God the Worker, 274.
  18. Ibid., 277.
  19. Ibid., 282.
  20. Quoted in Ryken, 162.
Raymond O. Bystrom is Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministries and Director of Supervised Ministry Experience, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. He obtained two masters degrees from Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, and his D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He and his wife Elizabeth are members of the North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church.

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