North American society seems to be in the midst of a first world problem: the great reevaluation of work. Work used to be Mr. Incredible, pushing paper in a job literally too small for him. Then it became work from home, then the Great Resignation, then Quiet Quitting, and then Quiet Firing. We have some folks who need to work less, some who need to work far more. We have Toxic bosses and Toxic work environments, and we have checked out employees or workaholics. What will be left when all this settles down? Maybe better put, what should be left when all this settles down?
More immediately, though, and less reflectively, we have the ever-present feature of modern work, the to do list. Technology has provided new and creative ways to keep the classic to do list. You may use Slack. You may use Asana. You may use your Day-Timer, or you may use 600 sticky notes scattered all over your home. Whatever your method, most of us feel a whole lot of pressure to get a whole lot done, particularly when we remember that work isn’t just paid employment. And most of us aren’t anywhere close to getting done what we feel we should.
And these dynamics end up pushing us one of two ways: we either detach entirely from work, or we just push harder and harder. Some deal with this by checking out and only wanting rest; others by checking in and never clocking out, only wanting to work.
Way back in the 1970’s, the radio personality Studs Terkel—tell me that’s not the best name ever, by the way— Studs Terkel did a series of interviews with ordinary Americans about their work. One woman, Norah Watson, said this: “Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know. A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So, you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.” Some folks, like Norah Watson, find survival by checking out.
On the other hand, if you want a more recent commentary that shows the opposite side of the equation, as Jordan Calhoun suggests over at The Atlantic, watch the Emmy award winning HBO Max show Hacks. It centers on a young comedy writer and a legend much further on in her career. In one episode, Ava, the younger of the two, is forced to kill a little time at a county fair and ends up having her caricature drawn. The artist asks what she does for a living. “I write,” she replies. Okay, “What do you do for fun, he asks?” “I write,” she answers. “Wait, isn’t that your job?” “Yeah. I guess you need to make up something I do for fun.” Later, reflecting on this, she realizes she can’t stop. She says, “I can’t turn it off. And nothing matters more, even if it should.” She can work, but she can’t rest.
If you’re talking about Quiet Quitting, you’re just the grandchild of Norah Watson absenting her life from work. If you’re talking about getting more efficiency because you can now work from home and not commute, you’re likely on Hacks. Now it’s quiet quitting or getting back to the grind, but either way, we keep missing the biblical understanding and balance of work, making it everything or making it nothing. Neither of those is the right way God would have for us to approach our work.
Proverbs is an immensely practical biblical book, if we know how to use it. Proverbs helps us see what work should be, is, and will be. And in so doing, it helps us work with both hope and realism.
Work should be something good, even great. Consider a subtly different, but crucially different, example than Ava on Hacks. Many years back, when I was a teenager, my dad somehow arranged to get 4 weeks off work and the family did a summer driving tour of the American southwest. Dad and I were out in the motel parking lot one Saturday morning loading up the car for the family, and next to us were a bunch of University of Arizona (I think; it was a long time back.) archaeologists loading their gear into the back of a couple of pickups. Now if you know my dad, the chance to chat with them was too much to pass up—both just to be polite but also because he’s just wonderfully interested in expertise on almost anything. So, he asked them what they did, and they explained they were archaeologists for the University of Arizona, and they were heading out to a dig. Dad said, “Wait—it’s Saturday, is this work or play?” And one replied with a wonderful line. He said, “Sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference.”
That’s a little picture of what work, biblically, should be. There are many things Proverbs says work should be:
Work should be a way to earn a good living:
“In all work there is profit.” (Prov. 14:23)
“The work of a man’s hand comes back to him.” (Prov. 12:14)
Work should be a place of integrity:
“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” (Prov. 11:1)
“A just balance and scales are the Lord’s; all the weights in the bag are his work.” (Prov. 16:11)
Work should be a place of excellence:
“Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to whom who destroys.” (Prov. 18:9)
“The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to work.” (Prov. 21:25)
Work should be a place of justice:
“Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.” (Prov. 22:28)
“Do not rob the poor because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.” (Prov. 22:22-23)
And work should be in balance:
“The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied.” (Prov. 19:23)
“Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist.” (Prov. 23:4)
Why should work be all these things? It should because work was established in Genesis 2, before there was any fall of the world into sin and struggle. It is in Genesis chapter 2, verse 15, that the Bible says God established work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
Seeing work as a creation ordinance is essential to understand how the whole Bible—and the book of Proverbs— approaches work and rest. Work is something that was given before sin existed, given when the world was still the way God had made it, when God said it was good, good, good, good…very good. Work is therefore not a punishment, nor is it a terror. It is a good thing, not something we are stuck doing, but something we were made to do.
And work is established after a creation rhythm— that just like the creation is reported as 6 days of God’s work and then a seventh of rest, so we both work and rest, because both of them are part of who we were made to be, before there was ever such a thing as sin. Work should be a way to earn a living, a place of integrity, excellence, justice, and balanced with rest. And that’s just from Proverbs. If we had time to mine the rest of the bible, we could even say more.
Okay. It should be. But work is something quite different. I probably don’t even need to convince you of this point. But just in case I do, let me ask you to think about the very best sitcom about work. I know, you’re thinking The Office, and it was great, at its best moments, stellar. But hidden in the middle of The Office’s wonderful and hysterical 9-year run might have been an even better one. For 2 seasons right in the middle of The Office’s dominance, ABC ran a delightful show, Better Off Ted, one I found courtesy again of The Atlantic, but this time by Yair Rosenberg.
As Rosenberg notes, sitcoms often don’t age that well, but Better Off Ted almost seems like it was ripped from today’s headlines, not 2009, when it aired. Ted Crisp works as the head of development for the fictional Veridian Dynamics, a huge corporation that builds both bombs and pharmaceuticals, one that sells consumer products that seem to have a remarkable number of disturbing side effects.
As Rosenberg puts it, “Ted clearly means well, but he’s caught in the impossible position of serving a company that decidedly doesn’t.” The company tries to work employees past human endurance, to experiment on them with its new products. It creates facial recognition technology that makes everyone’s life searchable on the internet, effectively abolishing any vestige of privacy. It installs energy-saving sensors on the lights and even the toilets, only to discover that they detect white skin and not darker skin. It creates jet packs to sell knowing that many people who use them will die.
And Ted has to try to navigate all of this while trying to protect his employees and dealing with a boss who clearly loves everything about it. And yes, it’s a sitcom. It’s not perfectly true. But a lot of it sticks the landing disturbingly close to modern headlines. And of course, you do have the juggernaut of The Office. And many other shows. The mess of the modern workplace is about as evergreen a topic as they come, because work is a mess.
Work should be many things, but our work— again, paid or unpaid—often doesn’t seem like many, if any, of them. And the book of Proverbs is aware of that fact. It isn’t a book about living in an imaginary world. It’s a book about living in the real world, the one we actually inhabit. Think back to many of the same verses just noted.
Work is often unjust:
“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight” (Prov. 11:1, again). This means false balances were a thing in Israel. In fact, if we read the Old Testament prophets, false balances weren’t an occasional thing; they were practically the norm. Work ought to be just, but it’s often unjust.
“Do not rob the poor because he is poor or crush the afflicted at the gate.” (Prov. 22:22, again). The gate was the place of both legal and commercial transactions, and the afflicted and poor were often robbed and crushed.
Work is often unfair:
“Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” (Prov. 18:9, again). So, people were—and are—lazy, and it makes things fall apart.
“The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (Prov. 21:25, again). In other words, like every group project you ever did in school, you may work hard, and others will freeload off it.
Work is even sometimes disastrous:
“Be not one of those who give pledges, who put up security for debts. If you have nothing with which to pay, why should your bed be taken from under you?” (Prov. 22:26-27). Sometimes it all goes wrong, and you lose everything.
Work is often dehumanizing, often boring. Work can be anything but what it should be. It is difficult and rarely what it should be.
Why? Work was given to us as a gift in Genesis 2, but our work labors under the curse of Genesis 3. Work is a pre-fall gift from God, but our work labors under the fact that mankind is not as we ought, and as a result, the world— and our work— they are not as they ought.
God made work to be good and perfect, but because of our sin—because we, both corporately and individually—turn away from God, our work is hard, a struggle, a trouble. Proverbs recognizes this. It is a book fully aware of the injustices and wrongs of the world, and it calls us to live wisely in the world the way it is.
But Proverbs also does one more thing: it hints at what work will be. We must recognize that the book of Proverbs gives a hint, not a full-fledged teaching of this, because Proverbs is largely a book about the here and now. But Proverbs has a little thread hanging out there, and when we pull on it and follow it, it leads to great places.
Prov. 22:9, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” In other words, the world may be fallen, work may seemingly be almost always a mess, but that fall hasn’t eliminated the good that God originally made into work. Work can still be glorious, bringing you before a king.
And the promise of the broader Bible is that our work will someday again be everything it was made to be— good, perfect, and right—a joy, not a burden. Most Christians think of eternity, of heaven, as “Great, I won’t have to work anymore. I can just play all day.” But if work is a creation ordinance, something God gave us before sin existed, then it is something we were made to do, something that is good, not something that will be abolished. Work is part of a rightly ordered world in Genesis 2, before sin. So, in the end, after sin, itself has been destroyed, we should expect work to still be there – perfected, cleansed, now perfectly good, but still there.
We see little hints of this in the New Testament, though it’s not the primary focus of the text. The parable of the talents, as it’s called, in Matthew 25, ends with “you have been faithful with little things; I will put you over much.” As Dan Doriani states, “That sure sounds like work.”
Even more, the Old Testament prophets also give a vision of the end of times, what John picks up and develops in the book of Revelation, and their vision of the end of times includes farming and agriculture and creating and building—the things of work. That vision is all over the second part of Isaiah, the end of Amos, and many other places.
Therefore, when we flip to the very end of our Bibles, the story of Revelation 21 is not a story of the abolishing of the physical earth, but the story of a new heaven and a new earth. As Tim Keller puts it, “In Revelation 21 we do not see human beings being taken out of this world into heaven, but rather heaven coming down and cleansing, renewing, and perfecting this material world.” And if this world is perfected, that would be not the elimination of Genesis 2— man in the Garden to work it— but instead the perfection of Genesis 2. Work will be, someday, a source of fulfillment and joy.
Yet the Bible also talks about eternity not as work, but as a rest. Hebrews 4:9 says, “So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God.” The Bible images the end as an eternal rest, a sabbath. Even though there will, it seems, still be work to do.
How can those both be true? How can eternity, after Jesus has returned and made all things new, after the world has finally become what it was always meant to be—how can it be both work and an eternal rest? Because work and rest will no longer be antonyms. They will no longer fight each other. The balance that we lost with the fall in Genesis 3 will be restored when Jesus returns.
Is it hard to believe a world like that could ever come, a world where we all have work, but it’s a joy, a fulfillment, a pleasure, and a blessing? Is it hard, when dealing with the way work is in this world, to even imagine such a world could exist? Proverbs doesn’t show us that world, except a tiny hint, because it’s focused on this world.
How and why should we ever believe that such a vision of work could come to pass? Because Jesus finished the work God gave to him. Jesus had a particular calling. He spent much of his earthly life as a carpenter, building things, doing manual labor in a backwater town. And that alone tells us how much work must matter, that God, himself, incarnate, would work.
But Jesus also had other work to do. And he did that, fully and perfectly. In John 17 Jesus is praying just before he will go to the cross, a stunning and amazing chapter, because we get to listen in on a conversation between Jesus, God the Son, and God the Father. We get to hear a conversation within the Trinity, so to speak, between God the Son incarnate and God the Father.
Jesus says in verse 4: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” And only a day later, hung on the cross, he bowed his head as he died and proclaimed, “It is finished.”
Now would you, if you’d been watching Jesus, the son of God, die on the cross, would you have ever said, in that moment on Good Friday, “All has just been made right!”? No! You’d have said, as the Roman centurion did, “This was a terrible injustice.”
But it wasn’t a tragic injustice; it was a rescue mission, one in which Jesus gave up his life to pay for sin, one in which he ushered in a new world to come, starting to right all the wrongs. He had already been counteracting all that was wrong in the world, healing diseases, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, proclaiming God’s word. Now he went further, paying for your and my sins on the cross. And having died for us, three days later we learned what he really meant – that he really would make all things new. And because he didn’t just die, but rose from the dead, then we can trust him that he will give us new lives, new bodies, and new work.
This lets us live with the biblical balance. We know that work ought to be great, but that it is hard, but that it will be perfect. And knowing those things helps us live and work with wisdom right now. Consider Proverbs 22:29 one more time: “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” Realize, when you and I work, we do stand before kings. Even more, we stand before the king.
And when we do that, it changes everything about our attitude. We no longer work for the attention of others, even our own success. We work for Jesus, our King. That means we can work hard, working the way Proverbs would have us work, the way we should: with ethics and integrity, mercy, justice, and diligence. We can work as we ought. Yet we can do that without expecting too much from our work, because Proverbs has told us how work is now, in a fallen world.
And we can rest well, leaving work when it’s time to leave it, putting it down and keeping perspective. Yet we can do that without expecting too much from our rest, either, because Proverbs has reminded us what work will be, and we realize that even the best rest we have now isn’t that great sabbath rest for which our souls long.
We can neither run from our work to laziness nor dive into our work with addiction. Instead, we can work with wisdom.
 Dan Doriani, Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019) 55.
 Quoted in J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014) 311-12.