Do you want to know who are some of the most dangerous people in the world? Who comes to your mind when I talk about dangerous people—people that can do great harm? Here’s who I have in mind:  toddlers. Yes, toddlers. Here’s why I say so: toddlers have newfound mobility, ability, and autonomy, and yet they have no idea how the world works; they have no idea of the proper place for things. Toddlers do not know that the proper place for the fork is not the electrical outlet; they do not know that the proper place for paper clips is not their baby brothers’ mouth. Forks and paper clips, usually benign and harmless objects, turn into weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a toddler that does not know their proper place.

When it comes to work, many of us are toddlers, sticking the fork into the outlet, putting work in the wrong place—leading to mass destruction. Putting work in the wrong place destroys our friendships and our finances. Putting work in the wrong place wreaks havoc on our mental health and our families. After 25 years of ministry to people who work, I would contend with you that work has wreaked just as much havoc in people’s lives as any other topic in our culture—including all the hot button topics I could raise. But just as there is a right place for forks (preferably for delivering biscuits and gravy to our mouths), there is also a right place for work. Work in its correct place leads to health and flourishing for ourselves and those around us. Getting the story of work wrong has massive consequences and getting it right leads to the flourishing for which we all long.

Work is where most of us spend most of our days—students in school and schoolwork, stay-at-home parents in childcare, adults in the marketplace, even retirees still with their days full—we spend most of our days working, whether paid for it or not, so we probably want to get this one right. Here’s what we must see to get work right: we must see the place of work, the problem with work, and the power of work.

If we see the place of work in God’s design, we can rightly place our work in our lives. God speaks of work as shaping and forming disorder in a way that brings flourishing for both ourselves and others. Where does work enter the true and better story? We often summarize the Bible’s story of the world in four “chapters”: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Immediately upon creating men and women in his image, God gives us work:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Genesis 1:28)

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Gen. 2:15)

Some things—fear, shame, hiding, illness, death…sin—begin only in chapter two, the fall. But not work. Work existed before the fall.

For many of us, our experience with work is so broken and burdensome that we instinctively link work with the fall of mankind. We think work exists because something is wrong with the world: “In a perfect world I would not have to work.” Agree or disagree? Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis show us a perfect world, a world the creator declares good, and lo and behold work is there. Work is a pre-fall creation reality, part of our image bearing. Where does work come into the story of our world? Chapter one.

The setting of the Garden is instructive. God himself engages with the material world, takes chaos and shapes it into the cosmos, takes dust and designs women and men with inherent dignity and beauty in his image. Then he says to man and woman, “Go and do likewise.” God commands Adam and Eve to carry on this work in the world he created, to carry on shaping it: Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. Subdue the chaos and exercise dominion. Work. And keep the garden—creation—the world. Neither Adam and Eve nor we are to simply walk the land, protecting it and leaving it unchanged. God’s call is to be gardeners and farmers, working and subduing, shaping chaos into order and bringing flourishing for ourselves and for others who will come.

The novelist Dorothy Sayers defines work as “the gracious expression of creative energy in the service of others.” Work is bringing our gifts, strengths, and creativity as the image of God to the raw materials of this world and combining them to bring a flourishing society and world. Musicians take the raw material of sound and shape it to bring meaning and beauty into people’s lives. Educators engage God’s world, his creation and design, the mathematical orderliness, the physical universe, linguistic developments, and unfolding histories—all those and more—along with the developing bodies and minds of elementary and middle and high school students—to help shape chaos into order for flourishing. Finance, IT, the Department of Defense, house cleaners, landscapers, stay-at-home parents, economists—if time allowed, one could walk through all of these to see how all humans garden and farm, working and subduing in a way that shapes chaos into order and brings about flourishing for ourselves and others.

And yet, that is rarely our experience with work. The problem with work is that we seem unable to put work in its proper place. Work itself is not the problem. Work, like our bodies, like our relationships with each other and with God, is stained by sin. Brokenness enters and work goes from a perfect world and perfect relationships to the consequences laid out by God in his conversation with Adam in Genesis 3: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The ground is broken, the people with whom we work are broken. Thorns and thistles, frustrations and futility, have entered the scene. Our problems today have ancient roots.

And so, we often work for the wrong reasons. Instead of working to glorify and obey our creator, instead of working to serve others, we work to be known, to make a name for ourselves. Work becomes a way to gain status, to achieve control, to acquire more and more, not simply to provide for ourselves and others, but to ascend over them, gaining power, status, and comfort. All our problems start in Genesis 3, and the effect on work is clear by Genesis 11. The builders of the Tower of Babel are clear concerning not just their means but also their motive: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”

Our discussions about school, about schoolwork, about if we go to college or what college to go to—where is God in those conversations—his glory? Where is serving others in those conversations, or are they only about good jobs and success and security and status? Good jobs (however we wish to define “good”) are fine if our approach to them is centered on God’s vision for work, but if our “good job” is centered on making a name for ourselves or some other lesser reason, it will not lead to the flourishing for which we were created.

And as we work for those wrong reasons, we begin to work without ethical limits. The Bible makes the case that in this life and in this world there are some things that are off-limits—and ground zero for limits in the Bible follows immediately upon God giving Adam and Eve work:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Gen. 2:15)

And LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2:16-17)

Work without limits leads to destruction, not human flourishing.

About ten years back, Hugh Heclo, professor of policy studies at George Mason University, wrote On Thinking Institutionally. In it, he speaks of Western society at a crisis point. There has never been a time in Western societies in which there has been lower trust in public institutions and vocations. A list from ten years ago is necessarily dated, but he points to Enron, Bernie Madoff, Halliburton, and the subprime mortgage crisis. Limits and boundaries ignored. And yet ten years later, the list looks mild.

Almost every MBA program has an ethics course, and more often than not the ethical reasoning goes like this: “Don’t lie because…it will hurt your business—it will cost you money—it will create a toxic work culture and staffing will be hard.” Business schools often try to make ethics a cost-benefit discussion. But in a cost-benefit analysis, the risk versus reward equation often indicates we should lie: the risk of getting caught living or cheating is so small and the reward so big.

Limits, moral absolutes, boundaries, guardrails…  The Scriptures make it plain, our promises should not be broken; we should not take bribes; we should not use false weights. Most of us no longer live in an agrarian context, so here is the 2024 version: do not be underhanded in your government contracting dealings; do not mislead in your marketing; do not hide the reality from your shareholders; do not mistreat or exploit your employees.

How could we do so? How could we reset our narrative of work? The power for work comes in encountering Jesus, the true and better worker. Is this an obligatory stretch to conclude an article for a Christian institute? No. We validly can call Jesus the true and better worker.

John 17 is one of the most remarkable chapters of the Bible because we get to overhear a conversation within the Godhead, a conversation between God, the Son and God, the Father. In verse four, Jesus says, Father, I have “accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” What work? Jesus is the second Adam. He came and succeeded where Adam failed. Yes, Adam failed. He listened to the lies of the tempter about how he was supposed to live his life. The evil one came to Jesus too in Matthew 4 and tried to tempt him to do the same thing. Satan came to Jesus and called, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Remember that Jesus was hungry. So, the devil tempted: do your work in a way that takes care of yourself. But Jesus replied no. Satan took Jesus up to the top of the temple and said, “throw yourself down” so that God will catch you and people will give you glory. But Jesus replied no. Satan took Jesus up the mountain and showed him the whole world, offering him everything in it, all to be his if he would just worship the devil. And Jesus again replied, no.

Matthew 4 reminds us that the whole world was not enough to tempt Jesus to live and work for a lesser story than God’s story. Jesus is the true and better worker. He succeeded where Adam failed. He succeeded where we fail.  And then he takes the punishment and the wrath that we deserve. That is our hope to have the power to enter our workplaces and work the way that God calls us to. This gospel story provides us a better identity, one that frees us from getting our identity from our work.

Here in Washington, D.C., where I am a minister, there is always the “second question.” What’s the second question in the D.C. context? The first question is usually “What’s your name?” The second question? “What do you do?”

That’s not the second question everywhere. When I go back to my home, the second question is probably going to be, “Where are you from?” And if you are from here, the follow up is, “Who are your people?” What do both second questions have in common? They are a means of calculating value and status.

The true and better story of the gospel frees us from the second question. If we wrap our identity up in the gospel, we realize that because of the true and better worker, we have all we need in him. We don’t need the approval of success. Our failures here do not define us. Our successes do not go to our heads. We are free to work rightly because of the true and better worker. We have a better story for work, one that frees us from the success narrative.

Some Christians have the spiritual challenge of vocations that have made them very important people. We should be thankful for that. We want believers in critical roles for society. But we also regularly see those realities used to justify all kinds of unhealthy behaviors and lives. There is no position that justifies addiction. If our position leaves us relying on substances or pornography, alcohol, or prescription meds, if our position is causing us to mistreat our families, there is no position worth it. If we are ignoring limits, we are probably driven by the wrong reasons. If we don’t understand God’s true and better purpose for work, it will destroy us.

The true and better worker gives us a better identity. Jesus gives us a freedom from failure and success. He positions us to be radically other-oriented instead of self-oriented in our work. So, when we walk into the office or the classroom, we don’t have to be obsessed with what everyone’s thinking about us. When we show up at whatever mom group we attend, we don’t have to be obsessed about how we are measuring up. We can be other-oriented because we have all we need in Christ.

Rob Yancey is the lead pastor of Capital Presbyterian Fairfax in Fairfax, Virginia. He has served previous churches in family ministries, missions, and outreach. He and his wife, Liz, also spent 8 years serving in South Africa where he was an Area Director for Campus Outreach Johannesburg. Originally from North Carolina, Rob earned his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and completed his Masters of Divinity with Reformed Theological Seminary in 2014. Outside of church, Rob enjoys concerts at the 9:30 Club, fly fishing, cheering on his North Carolina Tar Heels, and relaxing with a game night with Liz and their two boys, Ben and Will.

Meet Rev. Rob Yancey