What is “Work?”

Outside of the strict dictionary definition of “work,” just what is my work, my task, my assignment in life right now?

Interestingly, the word “retirement” does not appear in the Bible, and the ancient peoples would never have understood the concept of “retirement” at the ripe old age of 65. Rarely did the ancient people live to that age, and if they did, they did not assume that the government would take care of them. Yet, here I am, in “retirement.” That is, in our time and place, retirement is an achievement. It is a precious time that feels like a reward; it is, in every way, a golden watch earned after so many years of loyal commitment – to something. So, if in “retirement,” I do not “work” anymore, what do I do??

Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, gives us her perception of “work”:

“I am a woman sixty years old and of no special courage.

Everyday – a little conversation with God, or his envoy the tall pine, or the grass-swimming cricket.

Everyday – I study the difference between water and stone.

Everyday – I stare at the world; I push the grass aside and stare at the world.

The spring pickerel in the burn and shine of the tight-packed water;

The sweetness of the child on the shore; also, its radiant temper;

The snail climbing the morning glories, carrying his heavy wheel;

The green throats of the lilies turning from the wind.

This is the world…..

Everyday – I have work to do:

I feel my body rising through the water not much more than a leaf;

and I feel like the child, crazed by beauty or filled to bursting with woe;

and I am the snail in the universe of the leaves trudging upward;

and I am the pale lily who believes in God, though she has no word for it…..

I am a woman sixty years old, and glory is my work.”      (The Leaf and the Cloud, pp. 9ff)

I love her words: “Glory is my work.”

No doubt the word “work” is used in various ways throughout the Bible, even as we would commonly use it as a task or assignment to perform. But in the beginning, God revealed his glory in his “work” of creation (Gen 2:2-3). He “rested” on the seventh day to commemorate his work, which was “very good.”  The good work of the Creator was passed on to all of his incredible creation – which includes us! Our work is to reflect his glory: “The heavens declare the glory of the God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps 19:1).

In John’s Gospel, the “crowd” misunderstood the words of Jesus. Jesus said, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (Jn 6:27). The people thought that eternal life was something that they earned through good “works,” so they missed the point that eternal life is a gift, and not something achieved by human actions (Jn 6:28). In this passage, Jesus reveals that he is “the work of God,” (more of God’s revelation), and that belief in Jesus as the Christ is what we need to do to receive the gift of eternal life. No other “works” are necessary. We should not work for material things, for fame or power; these things are temporal and fleeting. The most outstanding “work” that we can do is to reflect God’s glory in his creation and to believe in the “One he sent” (Jesus). That is our assignment.

Then, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes that, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Col 3:23). Eternal life is the “inheritance” we receive for belief in Christ and living a life that reflects God’s glory (see John 17:3-4).

The work of the world and the work of Christians in the world are often incompatible. Our work is not always easy, but we have Christ’s Spirit to aid us. We also have the help of God’s Word: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16).

To God be the glory in all our work. Amen.

Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

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