Work, as defined by Dorothy L. Sayers, in her classic essay “Why Work?” is this:
a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.
Growing up as a pastor’s son in the evangelical South, even though I read the Bible and knew the answers in Sunday school, I never really understood that faithfulness to God, even imitating God, could look like this, like “love for the work itself,” or like doing things well just because God is a good and perfect maker. Definitions like this from Sayers — and like the vision of good work from G.K. Chesterton that says, “every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven” — influenced me as a seminary student to study the biblical and theological foundations for meaningful work more deeply in order to equip other Christians for whole-life discipleship.
But what I found when I began studying the Genesis creation stories surprised me: It isn’t simply because humans are made in the image of a creator God that their work is good. Because God created all things, there’s no sphere of activity that falls outside of his domain. In other words, the very picture of creation erases this kind of sacred-secular divide and commissions every person in the royal priesthood to bless creation in their work. We are, truly, made to flourish.
Work according to Genesis 1
It is helpful to consider how the creation story was given to ancient Israel, to strengthen their relationship with the God who time and again delivered them. The primary mode of reading Genesis 1 would have been hearing it in public worship, and the poetic repetition and imagery of the creation story as it is designed would have trained and shaped how God’s people saw the world and their place in it. And directly so: This public reading of Genesis 1 would have countered the narratives and myths that God’s people heard often, dominant in the surrounding culture. For instance, in ancient Babylon, Israel’s oppressor, the creation myth Enuma Elish taught that the cosmos was created as a result of divine conflict, that after this conflict, the victorious gods established Babylon as their divine dwelling place. Thus humans were subjected to the service — and worship — of those gods in order for them to rest in peace.
Instead, Genesis 1 paints a picture of a creator King, who — without rival or struggle — fashions a cosmic temple, a divine dwelling place, and rests from the work of creation on the seventh day to assert his unending rule and supremacy.
While the seventh day is the climax of the creation story, the sixth day stands out as well. In two sequences, God first created land animals, which he saw as good, and then he created humans in God’s image, after which he saw creation as “very good.” In the Hebrew Bible, we see God ruling from a temple as King, both universally in the cosmos and particularly in the tabernacle and temple (Gen 1; Pss 95, 104; Exod 40). This divine image in Genesis 1:27 indicates a royal and priestly character in humans as both ambassadors and worshipers:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
In Genesis 1, we see a more universal and inclusive picture of the divine image than we do in Babylonian mythology, for instance, where kings like Nebuchadnezzar II could claim exclusive status as divine representatives.
Israel’s creation poem, however, asserts the radically gracious provision of the creator God and the unique responsibility of divine image bearers — humans. In Babylonian mythology, humans gathered food for the gods, and they similarly served their gods’ only image bearer, the king. Israel’s creation story frames this differently: Every human being is created in God’s image, and on top of that, Israel’s God provides food for the humans, which we see emphasized in Genesis 1:29–30, the feast of creation. As Israelites heard this passage read aloud during worship in the context of captivity, they would have heard God’s reminder of their innate dignity and immeasurable worth. Their dignity is not tied to their achievements but to their created identity and their relationship with God. Still, the title of image bearer bestows a significant gravity to human action.
The kingly responsibility of all human beings is not to “dominate” the earth; it is understood in light of their priestly stewardship, their faithful cultivating and caring for creation (Gen 2:15). Extending God’s blessing over all the earth is a primary calling of humans as divine image bearers.
And human beings reflect God’s image by joining their creator’s work. In Genesis, we learn that God “created.” (This verb in Hebrew is never used to describe the efforts of human beings, only referring to God’s act of creation.). In this way, human beings model their own work after God’s. The calling to “be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it,” is an extension of the creator’s work, a part in sustaining the order of God’s very good creation. So we care for what was entrusted to us, just as the creator cared lovingly for creation.
Moreover, this calling to work exists before what Christian tradition calls the Fall — the origin of death, division, and toil. In other words, work is part of God’s perfect design, not a curse inflicted on human beings.
Work Fallen and Redeemed
Although work is part of God’s design, the first humans fall short of their responsibility, therefore work becomes marked with struggle and fatigue. And so our experience with work remains difficult, which does reflect the curse in Genesis 3 placing toil on human effort. What this means is that, though work can be further corrupted by individual and social forces, work can also be restored to its proper order with the hope of deliverance.
In Scripture, we see this contrast clearly between two types of work in Exodus, which immediately follows Genesis. Exodus opens with Israel’s enslavement in the nation of Egypt. The God of Israel, Yahweh, sends Moses to liberate them and guide them to the land of promise. Exodus contains two bookends. The first 13 chapters follow Israel’s enslavement building storehouses in the temples to offer food to the Egyptian gods and the pharaoh, who was the image of the gods. The final 13 chapters of Exodus detail Israel’s building of a Tabernacle for Yahweh, using not hard labor but their skills, talents, and creativity. We also see Yahweh’s provision of food and security for all God’s people, the opposite of the divine-human relationship in Egypt.
The contrast we see in the Book of Exodus is that while Pharaoh reduced work to something beneath humans, Yahweh elevated human work to imitate God, the creator of life. When Moses first appealed to the Pharaoh to let Israel go just to worship, Pharaoh decries this attempt to “make them rest [shabath] from their burdens” (Exod 5:5). This is actually a form of the Hebrew verb for “rest/cease” that is mentioned in Genesis 2:2–3 when God rested on the seventh day. In response, Pharaoh increased the workload of the Hebrew slaves and decreased the supply of their building materials; thus making his demands impossible to fulfill and their hope of rest from work unattainable. In contrast, at the end of Exodus, Yahweh used the skills and talents of the freed people and provided them with the materials to build the divine dwelling place, the Tabernacle. And as a further reflection of how their work imitates God’s, Yahweh gifted them with the Sabbath day of rest, a sign of their freedom from enslavement and their pursuit of holiness and likeness to God.
Work is, and has been since its creation, inseparable from worship. And inseparable from humans’ relationship with God. Therefore, there is no secular sphere of activity for Christians. I would add there’s no secular sphere for anyone, as even in the absence of faithfulness to God, work may also reveal what we worship.
In Christian theology, the moment that God declares creation “very good” after he creates humans in the divine image, is called the divine affirmation, concluding that God delights in us as part of his very good creation and is satisfied to rest because, with his divine image on earth, his work of creation is now complete. Wherever and however we are called to work, this affirmation is with us.
Finally, on the seventh day, the only day of creation deemed holy and the only one that does not end with an evening and morning, God reigns supreme, with no limits to his term or jurisdiction. He rests. And he invites image bearers to, prior to and at the conclusion of their work, imitate him in that rest. By God’s work alone we were given life, given work, and given rest.