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Work and the Two Great Love Commandments

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One of this week’s contributions to Acton Commentary, in honor of the upcoming American Labor Day holiday is titled, “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments.”

In this piece I focus on how we can view work as a means to express our love for our neighbor and for God. I say a bit about what work does for us as individuals as well.

There’s a great deal that could be said on this very important topic. Work is a huge area of our lives. Lester DeKoster, whom I refer to in the commentary, goes so far as to call work the “basic form of stewardship.” (You can find out more about DeKoster’s view of work in his little book of the same name, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective.)

He has another important perspective on work related to its formation of our souls and thereby the formation of civilization.

He writes, along with Gerard Berghoef,

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about work and civilization.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Peter Swanson

    (I accidentally posted this on an older but related link so I’m pasting it here too)

    What about that whole curse thing? Where does that fit in? Your related “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments” article did not have a comment box so Ill place my comments here. You quote:

    …at its core “work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” It is in putting ourselves in the service of others that our work also finds meaning. For in making ourselves useful to others, we do for them as we would have them do for us.

    What I ultimately want from my wife, my family, and my friends, (and if I were a saint, strangers too) is not “service”, it is not for them to be useful to me, to mow my lawn or build me a pacemaker–-it is their presence. Use is secondary. Useful for what? What is the telos of work itself? It is leisure, where others (primarily God) can simply be enjoyed, without any care for “use” and “work” since use and work are oriented towards creating the very freedom to enjoy others without concern for tomorrow. God doesn’t love us through being useful to us–-how ugly is that thought? God isn’t useful. God transcends the order of use, and rather is in an opposing order I do not know what to call–maybe rest or actuality or abundance? We are to emulate God’s love. Yes mowing someone’s lawn can be an expression of love, but we are capable of love of an infinitely higher order than material service. If my wife provided me the service of 10 workers, that is not enough; I want her, not her work. I do not think your writings on work and love and so forth puts these issues in proper order. What is your take on Pieper’s “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”? Important issues, thanks for considering them!

  • There are a number of complex and interrelated issues here.

    On the question of the curse, obviously the reality of sin is what makes our work difficult in itself, as well as what creates our confusion and dissatisfaction. Our work isn’t the way it is supposed to be in these ways.

    In terms of the relationship between work and leisure, ultimately I’m not convinced by Pieper’s thesis. I don’t think in order to properly value work we need to place its value in something else (i.e. rest from work).

    There is an important dynamic of work and rest and how that relates to Sabbath observance. In the short piece I didn’t touch on that either, but I was planning next week on pointing to the limits of work in this sense.

    With regard to use and enjoyment, uti and frui, I think you are right to point to God as the one in whom we are to enjoy without regard for use. But, as my citation of Augustine alludes, I think the grander tradition has everything creaturely to be “utilized” in some sense (I don’t mean this in any vulgar way). Granted, people are also ends and are to be “enjoyed” in themselves in some sense as well, but ultimately I think that Augustine gets it right on this point. Here’s the broader quote:

    “No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account, God though on his own. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, we all ought to love God more than ourselves” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.27.28).

    At the beginning De Doctrina he also sets up the uti/frui distinction (which continues to be “used” as a formative initial distinction up through Lombard’s Sentences).

    To wit:

    “If a man is to be loved [diligendus est] for his own sake, we enjoy him; if for the sake of another, we use him: but it seems to me that he (is) to be loved for the sake of another. For what is to be loved for its own sake, in this is constituted the blessed life, hope for which consoles us even at this time. But in man hope is not to be placed, because accursed is he who does this. Therefore if you clearly advert, no one ought to enjoy his very self, because he ought not love himself for his own sake, but for the sake of that, which one is to enjoy.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Good points! And keep in mind that Adam worked in the Garden before his fall, and God worked six days then rested, and still works to sustain the universe. I think God created us to work. Our sinfulness (laziness) makes us dislike work and the curse makes it hard.

  • Great post, and timely in my own life. In my current work, I am parting with a colleague who shared my vision and we had developed a creative collaboration that I didn’t even fully realize until his departure. True, his work will be replaced, but the individual attributes he brought to production are, in my opinion, irreplaceable.

    With his departure there comes a sense of “what was this all for anyway?” In the end, the collaborative stretching of our imaginations will last far beyond the products.

    On a related note, creative destruction is positive in efficient allocation, but it seems as though what is “destroyed” may live on more than we typically assume.

  • Peter Swanson

    Lets pretend that every human on Earth has all the shelter, food, clothing, etc they need. A totally comfortable life has been secured for all. What then? How will we love each other? How will our love translate into concrete action in such a circumstance? I simply suggest that whatever those actions would be in that pretend circumstance, they are relevantly/significantly qualitatively different from all of our action that is in some way oriented to such a state of things that the two kinds should be called by different names. Thus we have “love translated into concrete action” of two kinds: one (1) that is meant to “work itself out of a job” such that it becomes unnecesary (trimming someone’s tree) and another (2) that is permanently valuable, that would never lose its value (writing someone a song).

    Both these kinds of “love translated into concrete action” are in play in daily life, but they are as radically different as time and eternity, and therefore it seems confusing to call them by the same name. To think clearly about this, we need two terms. I tend to think “work” is good for the first kind, but I don’t think the second has a good, clear term.

  • Peter Swanson

    and about the curse…

    Somehow putting bolts together on an assembly line wasn’t “difficult in itself” before the fall? Somehow the intrinsic nature of every possible task changed?

    I think a more plausible view is that the curse made work necessary whereas before the fall it wasn’t. God is letting us “be gods” as we chose in eating the fruit, that is, He is letting us attempt to provide for our own life, whereas before he took care of everything and we simply worshiped and obeyed, like the Cherubim still do. We need to learn to recieve life from God, not from our own hands, and the present punishment of needing to work is remedial.

    It is a logical possibility in dealing with a curse to convince yourself it is normal!

  • JohnElfering

    A few days before reading DeKoster’s ebook, “Work: The Meaning of Your Life — A Christian Perspective”, I ran across a complimentary article on Josef Pieper (unfortunately I can’t seem to recall where). I had not heard of him before, but remembered the name when DeKoster briefly mentioned his name in an uncomplimentary way.

    I have not yet Pieper’s book, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”, but I sense he may have a perspective that fills in the gaps, which you allude to in mentioning the rest from work on the Sabbath. This day of rest (leisure?) is prefigured by God’s rest and also his purpose for leading the Israelites out of slavery — that they might offer worship.

    However, I am confused. The word “liturgy” derives from “work” and the word “culture” (“cult” which has religious connotations) derives from “cultivation” or “labor”. So what does that mean if worship is something that is done on Sunday, the day of rest or leisure? Leisure seems to be more than purposeless idleness or entertainment, but is also distinct from work. Or is leisure a particular form of work?

  • JohnElfering

    I was also reminded of the story of Martha and Mary in the bible — Martha complaining that Mary was not helping her with the work, but was instead resting at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part.

  • Roger McKinney

    Peter, what is the point of fixating on life before the fall or life in eternity? We don’t have enough information on either to make a reasonable judgment. Adam clearly had some kind of work to do in the Garden and yes it was qualitatively different from work we do today. So?

    Until the Lord returns we will have to work to provide for ourselves and our families. Yes, the curse qualitatively changed the nature of work, but God extols in Proverbs and commands it in the NT. God’s curses (judgments) are always two-faced: they are punishment on one side and mercy on the other. The are intended to direct us toward a right relationship with God.

    The curse made work hard and leisure a necessity, but God also made us for work in that God uses work to transform us and make our cursed lives meaningful.

  • phocion

    By means of work, man governs the world with God; together with God he is its lord and accomplishes good things for himself and for others. Idleness is harmful to man’s being, whereas activity is good for his body and soul [Saint John Chrysostom].

  • Peter Swanson

    Read Pieper for the third way between work and idleness–and that is a good way to frame the problem it seems to me. I always forget about the Mary and Martha scene when trying to explain this point, which is stupid because it is the perfect, dense fact around which I try to adjust my theoretical understanding of the issue. Was Mary working or being idle or something else?

  • Peter Swanson

    “but God also made us for work in that God uses work to transform us and make our cursed lives meaningful.”

    Somehow I doubt St. Paul would find the meaning of his life in the tents he made. “To live is tents, to die is gain!!”

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