Work occupies a significant part of the daily lives of many Singaporeans. According to a recent media report, increasing workplace connectivity and higher expectations are blurring the distinction between personal life and work. The report cites a 2011 Workplace Survey that reveals that 69 per cent of employees in Singapore tune in to work on weekends, when they are out office, and even while on holiday. Technological advancements have led to hyper-connectivity just as keener competition has resulted in higher expectations and unreasonable demands on the part of employers. Thus, 77 per cent employers expect their staff to be available and contactable during emergencies, 45 per cent bring their work along when they go on holiday, and 29 per cent of employees believe that they should be available at all times because they are using a company mobile phone. The survey concluded that employees here have a high level of ‘dedication’, which may be just a polite euphemism for ‘workaholism’.
Daily work matters to the Christian faith. According to the Bible, work is not the baneful consequence of sin but the original intention of God for human beings created in his image. In Genesis, after God had created the first humans he commanded them to be fruitful, to subdue the earth and to rule over it (Genesis 1:28). God placed the first human couple in the garden and immediately put them to work! In their work Adam and Eve were to serve as images of their Creator, a reflection of the God who is incessantly at work. Unlike the gods of Greek and Roman mythologies who absolve themselves from work, preferring to dine on nectar and ambrosia in a heaven of rest and contemplation, the God of the Bible is a consummate worker. After bringing the world into being, God continues to work, sustaining, governing and providing for his creation. Human work is therefore an expression of the divine will, and in carrying out their daily labours to the best of their abilities, human beings not only enter into a unique partnership with their Creator but also glorify him.
It was the primordial fall that turned human work from a blessing into a curse. To be sure, the fall has not altered the divine intention or the status of human work. But this activity, which is originally meant to be a blessing, has turned into a toilsome and burdensome experience. As Genesis 3 indicates, the fall introduces ‘labour pains’ to both the man and the woman – man in manipulating the accursed earth, now filled with ‘thorns and thistles’, and woman in the pains of childbirth. Tainted and corrupted by sin, human work is now shot through with profound contradictions and paradoxes. Work in many ways liberates us and provides us with the many conveniences that we take for granted, from cooking stoves to airplanes. But work also enslaves us, draining our mental and physical powers by its relentlessness. Work both enriches and impoverishes the worker. By working hard, the worker earns more and so becomes richer. But his wealth is often purchased at the price of the monotony and drudgery of work, which often alienates the worker.
Human sin has also introduced aberrations to the way in which we look at daily work. It was Karl Marx more than anyone else who hailed the importance of work for human self-actualisation. According to Marx, it is through work that human beings realise themselves and transform the world. The details of Marx’s philosophy of work and human society are obviously beyond the scope of this brief article. Suffice to say that the Marxist approach presents a serious distortion because it reduces persons to their work, just as it anoints human labour with the spurious power to save. In many respects capitalist economies do not fair much better. In such economies, work has very little to do with self-expression or the common good, being often reduced merely to a means of acquisition. Furthermore, in the capitalist system, someone’s work is almost always owned by and done for the profit of another. Work is deemed valuable only if it is able to generate income. As some theologians have pointed out, in the capitalist economy, ‘work becomes slavery under a new name’. Both Marxist and capitalist approaches to work demean the worker, but in different ways.
The Christian theology of work is radically different from the way in which secular ideologies and attitudes have portrayed it. From the biblical perspective, daily work is a calling, a vocation through which we serve God and glorify him (Ephesians 6:5-8). For the Christian then, both the janitor and the geneticist serve God and neighbour through the work they do. It was the Reformers who helped us to understand this when they argued that pastors, monks, nuns, and popes are no holier than famers, shopkeepers, dairymaids or latrine diggers because they are all serving God through the work that he has called them to do. According to the Christian perspective, therefore, human work can never be secularised. In similar vein, the work that we do is never solely or even primarily for our benefit – the attainment of wealth, power or prestige – but always for the common good. This means that work is always a form of ministry to God and to society. Needless to say, according to this understanding, any human enterprise that does not glorify God and edify human society – from loansharking to human trafficking – must necessarily be excluded as legitimate forms of work.
For the Christian, then, daily work is inextricably bound to worship. Here, it is perhaps important to point out that the Sunday worship should not be seen as a pause at the end of the week. Rather, for Christians worship on Sunday begins the workweek by pervading it with the good news of God’s love and salvation. Worship at the beginning of the week not only hallows the rest of the week, but also significantly transfigures our understanding of daily work. It enables us, firstly, to understand our proper relationship to work. It shows us that although work is important, the purpose human life must not be understood as work without end, but to exist in creative relationship with each other and with God. And secondly, worship helps us to see that our daily work is always a graced activity, infused by divine grace and animated by the Holy Spirit. Finally, Christian worship helps us to understand our work in relation to the work of God. As theologian David Jenson has brilliantly put it, ‘The work that we do is made possible through the work that does not belong to us alone’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands. This article was published in Word@Work, June 2012.