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When we meet someone for the first time, we usually ask him or her three questions: What is your name? Where do you live? What do you do?

The last question inquires about vocation. We are asking what the person “does for a living.” In a word, we are asking about his or her work.

For most of our adult lives, we are engaged in some type of labor. What we do often defines for ourselves and/or for others who we are. Our personhood is tied up with our work. And this is not an improper thing. For instance, in the study of Christology, we distinguish between the person of Christ and the work of Christ. Yet the more we understand the person of Christ, the deeper we can understand the significance of His work. Likewise, the more we probe the meaning of the work, the greater understanding we gain of His person. So person and work go together. To some degree, we are what we do.

It was Karl Marx who challenged man’s intellectual capacity as the defining characteristic of human existence. He argued that instead of describing humanity as homo sapiens, we should use the term homo faber—”man the maker.” It is the making of tools and goods that defines world history, he said. Marx further theorized that the dialectical pattern of the development of history is determined by the conflict of economic forces. At root, these forces are inseparably related to our labor.

Marx saw the industrial revolution and the triumph of capitalism as bringing on a crisis that touched the very core of human existence. The crisis was one of alienation—chiefly alienation of a person from his labor. In agrarian societies, people were more or less self-sufficient. They produced the goods they consumed. They owned their tools, the means of production, and, most important, the fruit of their own labor. But with the advent of the factory and the forces of mass production, the dilemma became, “How are we going to keep them down on the farm (after they’ve been to Paris)?” The constancy of regular weekly income that was not dependent on the vicissitudes of the weather or other vagaries of nature enticed many to seek the “security” of being wage earners.

Marx saw this shift as a seduction of free people into slavery. The wage-earner, though he can go home at night, is a virtual slave to the factory owner. He no longer owns the fruit of his labor; instead, he works for someone else who owns the fruit. Marx further understood that whoever owns the tools (the means of production) controls the game.

I learned this lesson as a child while playing baseball in the sandlot. Without the benefit of umpires, we had to monitor our own games. Sometimes disputes were negotiated—”You’re out!” “I’m safe!” “You’re out!” “I’m safe!”—until one player would say: “It’s my ball and my bat. I’m safe!” There could be no more game without the necessary tools of bat and ball, so the argument was settled via political expediency.

Marx’s complaint was that when a person was alienated from his labor he became alienated from others, from nature, and from himself. Thus, he called for the overthrow of capitalist society, the end of private ownership (which leads to the enslavement of the proletariat), and the creation of a classless society wherein everybody owns everything.

What he failed so miserably to understand was that when everybody owns everything, then nobody owns anything. The classless society was a fantasy that never materialized because bureaucrats became the new ruling class and production fell so steeply that the human standard of living dropped with it. A real slavery emerged with iron curtains and brick walls.

Marx’s dream became a monstrous evil, a monumental failure. Yet he had genuine insights about the makeup of human beings. He also understood that ownership is liberating. This truth is the genius of capitalism—every person, no matter how poor, can become an owner via investment.

Our work is a vital part of our identity. It is not the curse of humanity but the sacred vocation of the human race. It is not work that makes us free, but it is work that makes us obedient.

As creatures made in the image of God, we are to imitate God in certain ways. One such way involves work. God is a working God—a Creator. In His work of Creation, He formed the cosmos, then assigned tasks to His creatures:

“Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth'” (Gen. 1:28).

We were created to dress, till, and keep the earth. We were made to be fruitful—to be productive as God is productive. And God assigned us these tasks before the Fall. Thus, labor is not a curse; it is a blessing that goes with Creation. The sanctity of human labor is rooted in the work of God Himself and in His call to us to imitate Him.

God’s labor did not cease on the seventh day. Though He “rested” from the labor of Creation, He continued to sustain and govern what He had made. Jesus called attention to this truth in one of His disputes with the Pharisees:

“For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has been working until now, and I have been working'” (John 5:16–17).

In an agrarian society, as “self-sufficient” as people seemed to be, no one was completely self-sufficient. From creation itself we see a division of labor that makes community not only possible, but necessary. When we are hired as part of a work force, we can be productive and fulfilled—if our skills and performance match the corporate needs. When our skills and desires collide with the purposes of the group, then we experience alienation.

For the individual’s benefit and the good of the corporation, the alienated person, whether the chief executive or an entry-level clerk, should seek employment elsewhere. A person’s labor is sacred. It cannot prosper if mismatched with corporate goals or missions. Blessed is the person whose personal mission is in harmony with the mission of the group. In this situation, both the individual and the group can work together for the glory of God, and escape alienation from labor.

The Gift of Work

By the Sweat of Your Brow

Keep Reading The Sanctity of Work: A Biblical Perspective on Labor

From the July 2003 Issue
Jul 2003 Issue