What is a Christian work ethic?

A work ethic is the set of values or principles a person holds regarding work, such as: the importance one places on doing work, the morals one engages while working, and how one decides the amount of time or effort to devote to work. The Bible has much to say about the topic of work and should be the foundation for any Christian's work ethic.

The first mention of the word "work" in the Bible occurs in Genesis chapter two after God created the world and everything in it. Genesis 2:2 says, "And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done." The "work" here can be understood as something that is done or made. The Hebrew word also refers to a ministry or occupation (see Strong's H4399 definition at https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h4399/esv/wlc/0-1/; retrieved February 2, 2023). Here we see that God Himself engages in work. We also see the pattern of work followed by rest, or cessation, from work.

A few verses later, using a different Hebrew word for "work," Genesis records, "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). Before sin entered the world, when things were exactly as God designed them to be, the human had work to do. So work is not a punishment; it is not inherently part of the curse; but rather, work is part of God's good design for mankind.

The Hebrew word for "work" in Genesis 2:15 is the same word for "worship" in Exodus 3:12 (and elsewhere throughout the Old Testament) when God promised Moses, "you shall worship God at this mountain" (NASB) (see Strong's H5647 definition at https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h5647/esv/wlc/0-1/; retrieved February 2, 2023). So work, like the human working in the garden exactly as God intended, can actually be a form of worship when we work according to God's will. Recognizing that work is part of God's good design for mankind and one of the ways in which we reflect God's image in creation, thereby bringing Him glory and honor, can transform our mindset. When we understand that God Himself works, that He has given mankind work to do, and that it glorifies Him when we do so, work becomes a way to worship and a great blessing in the lives of those who love Him.

Work brings blessing in many ways. Satan pointed out to God when discussing Job, "You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land" (Job 1:10). Job's work resulted in increased wealth that he used to care for his children and aid those in need (Job 29:12). The writer of Proverbs noted that "Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread" (Proverbs 28:19). Isaiah 65:22 describes a time when, "They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands." Ephesians 4:28 says, "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." In these passages, we see that work results in material provision for basic human needs and that work and its results are meant to be enjoyed.

Another blessing of work is the opportunity to collaborate with others. In Zephaniah 3:9 God promised that His people will "serve Him shoulder to shoulder" (NASB). The Hebrew word for "serve" in this verse is the same one for "work" and "worship" in other passages, so this is a picture of people working, worshipping, and serving God side by side. Solomon observed in Ecclesiastes 4:9–10, "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!" People working together are often more efficient and productive than those same people would be if they worked independently.

We often forget, however, that our most important collaborator is God Himself. In Exodus, God told Moses, "See, I have called by name Bezalel … and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship… to work in every craft… And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you" (Exodus 31:2–6). The intelligence, knowledge, skill, and physical ability we use to do our work are all gifts from God. It is He who enables us to work. Hundreds of years later, when Nehemiah and his men had completed building a wall around Jerusalem, the surrounding nations "perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God" (Nehemiah 6:16). It is only by God's grace that we are able to accomplish any work.

Knowing that God has empowered us to work and that our work can be a way of worshipping Him, Paul encouraged the Colossians, "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:23–24; cf. Ephesians 6:5–9). Because our work is ultimately in service to our God, we should put forth effort, doing our work with great care. The prophet Jeremiah warned, "Cursed is he who does the work of the LORD with slackness" (Jeremiah 48:10), using the same word for "work" as in Genesis 2:2. The NASB uses the word "negligently" to describe this "slackness." Instead, we should be like the Israelites under Ezra's command. When he sent back a report to king Darius, he said, "This work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands" (Ezra 5:8). The NASB says, "this work is being performed with great care and is succeeding in their hands." Our work should be careful and correct, always with an eye toward glorifying God.

Working hard is also valuable. King Solomon noted, "Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much" (Ecclesiastes 5:12). The NLT puts it more plainly, "People who work hard sleep well." When the Levites worked in the temple, "they were on duty day and night" (1 Chronicles 9:33). Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, "For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living" (2 Thessalonians 3:10–12). Here we see that idleness is to be avoided and replaced with consistent, regular, diligent work.

While working hard and with great care is important, God did warn against forcing ourselves or others to work without also taking time to rest. God commanded the Israelites in Exodus 34:21, "Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest." This pattern of work and rest was year-round, not just when the workload seemed light. In Exodus 20:10 God told the Israelites that on the seventh day "you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates." That day was to be a "Sabbath to the LORD your God" and was meant to include everyone in their midst, even the animals.

When God gave these commands to the burgeoning nation of Israel, He made clear that He was not like Pharaoh and that His people were not to be like the Egyptians. The Egyptians had "ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field" (Exodus 1:13–14). The Israelites' "cry for rescue from slavery came up to God" (Exodus 2:23). God told Moses, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians" (Exodus 3:7–8). God stands against harsh labor and forced service (Deuteronomy 24:14–15; James 5:4). In modern society, slavery is considered repugnant, but how often do we look the other way when our goods are made with slave labor in another country, or when our neighbor is working two or three jobs with no day of rest, or when we ourselves work non-stop to try to get ahead in our own industry? God declared this kind of non-stop labor as antithetical to His design for mankind.

God also never intended for people to try to find their self-worth or identity in the work they do. Solomon said, "So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was unhappy to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 2:17 NASB). When we expect the work we do to bring us happiness, fulfillment, or meaning, we will find ourselves disappointed just like Solomon. Instead, our identity should be found in being a creature designed and loved by God (Psalm 139:13–17, Psalm 136:25–26). Paul pointed out to Titus how God's love for us is not tied to the work we do when he wrote, "But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:4–5). Paul more succinctly also wrote, "but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). In that one act of sacrificing His own Son, God showed the value and worth of every human, and it has nothing to do with the work one accomplishes.

The work we do should be done with a motivation toward things of eternal significance. Jesus warned, "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal" (John 6:27). He elaborated "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:29). Work that increases our own faith in God or inspires others to recognize and trust our Lord is work that endures. The Israelites building a wall when the odds were against them helped the surrounding nations recognize God's hand at work. Craftsmen working skillfully with metal, wood, and yarn to furnish the tabernacle helped God's people worship appropriately. Paul's work of making tents helped financially support his missionary work (Acts 18:3). Builders help provide shelter, farmers help provide food, healthcare workers help restore brokenness in a fallen world, artists point to the beauty of God. Our work need not be limited to the "spiritual" or official "ministry" in order to have eternal significance. We just need to be working in such a way and with such a motivation that God will be glorified. Jesus summed it up by saying, "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

When we have this biblical mindset that work is a blessing to be enjoyed as we worship God in our work by glorifying Him to others, we will be able to live out the truth of Ephesians 2:10. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

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