The True Purpose of Work

By Reverend John C. Lin, Theologian-in-Residence

 My daughter has recently studied the creation story, told through different religious and cultural traditions, including the Hebrew Bible, which has given me an occasion to reread those narratives. What’s striking about the Bible is that there always seem to be new insights from the same texts, specific to our current moment in life. When I was a new Christian in college, I was a biology major and was drawn to anything that offered details about human origins. How were we made? What process did God use? How did the moving pieces connect? This time around, I was struck by insights that are pertinent to me today, as one who has ministered for 20 years to high-powered, often dysfunctional, fiercely ambitious New York professionals, namely, what is the purpose and meaning of work? Why am I in New York to begin with? Why does work not deliver the joys that I thought it should? How can I continue to hope when I’ve worked 12 hours a day for three weeks straight?

Work is not instrumental but integral to us. It’s not merely a means to acquire what we want (status, respect, or material comfort, even if they are often the outcome of successful work) but a way to express fully who we are, namely children in the image of the Creator (“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27–NIV).

As a father, I’ve seen this dynamic at play with my daughter who has learned so many things simply by emulating me (some of which, I wish she would unlearn!). The way that she uses a knife in the kitchen, the wry and sardonic humor that creeps up at unexpected moments, the way she wrinkles her nose when her eyeglasses are slipping off her face. Each of these was acquired after extensive time together, preparing meals, sitting at the table, or riding the subway together. All of these are a reminder that she is made in my image, in her manner, outlook, and even appearance. I cut, she cuts. I joke, she jokes. I wrinkle, she wrinkles. And so it goes.

In the creation story we read about a God who calls the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Adam is later tasked with naming the animals. God separates and orders the universe. Adam is tasked with naming the animals according to their manifold kinds. God plants a garden. Adam is tasked with tending, protecting, and cultivating it. God calls; Adam names. God orders; Adam organizes. God plants; Adam tends, waters, and grows. And so it goes.

And this is why we work. It’s not simply to achieve or accumulate resources we can consume. The goal of Adam and Eve’s work was never a first home or the ability to support their child’s education. The purpose of their work was simply to follow, emulate, and connect to the One in whose image they were made. To create, because God does and has. To exhibit to the world, a God who creates life out of nothing, order out of chaos, a fruitful garden in the middle of a desert. The purpose of work–for law students, lawyers, everyone–was never to be gods of a world for our comfort and entertainment, but to be like God and display to the world, through our work, a God who creates, calls, orders, and brings fruit to our world.

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. . . . The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. . . . Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. Genesis 2:8,15,19 (NIV).

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