Sharing In The Work Of God

From “Laborem Exercens”
by Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that people, created in the image of God, share by their work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, people in a sense continue to develop that activity and perfects it as they advance further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation. We find this truth at the very beginning of sacred scripture, in the “Book of Genesis,” where the creation activity itself is presented in the form of work done by God during six days, resting on the seventh day. Besides, the last book of sacred scripture echoes the same respect for what God has done through his creative “work” when it proclaims: “Great and wonderful are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty.” This is similar to the “Book of Genesis,” which concludes the description of each day of creation with the statement: “And God saw that it was good.”

This description of creation, which we find in the very first chapter of the “Book of Genesis,” is also in a sense the first gospel of work. For it shows what the dignity of work consists of: it teaches that people ought to imitate God, their Creator, in working because people alone have the unique characteristic of likeness to God. People ought to imitate God both in working and also in resting since God himself wished to present his own creative activity under the form of work and rest. This activity by God in the world always continues, as the words of Christ attest: “My Father is working still.” He works with creative power by sustaining in existence the world that he called into being from nothing, and he works with salvific power in the hearts of those whom from the beginning he has destined for rest in union with himself in his “Father’s house.” Therefore a person’s work too not only requires a rest every seventh day but also cannot consist in the mere exercise of human strength in external action; it must leave room for people to prepare themselves, by becoming more and more what in the will of God they ought to be, for the rest that the Lord reserves for his servants and friends.

Awareness that a person’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate even the most ordinary everyday activities. For, while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, men and women are performing their activities in a way which appropriately benefits society. They can justly consider that by their labour they are unfolding the Creator’s work, consulting the advantages of their brothers and sisters, and contributing by their personal industry to the realisation in history of the divine plan.

This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all. Especially in the modern age, the spirituality of work should show the maturity called for by the tensions and restlessness of mind and heart. Far from thinking that works produced by a person’s own talent and energy are in opposition to God’s power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness and the flowering of his own mysterious design. For the greater, a person’s power becomes, the farther his or her individual and community responsibility extends. People are not deterred by the Christian message from building up the world or impelled to neglect the welfare of their fellows. They are, rather, more stringently bound to do these very things.

The knowledge that by means of work people share in the work of creation constitutes the most profound motive for undertaking it in various sectors. “The faithful, therefore,” we read in the “Constitution Lumen Gentium,” “must learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, and its orientation to the praise of God. Even by their secular activity, they must assist one another to live holier lives. In this way, the world will be permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose in justice, charity and peace. Therefore, by their competence in secular fields and by their personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them work vigorously so that by human labour, technical skill and civil culture, created goods may be perfected according to the design of the Creator and the light of his Word.”

The truth that by means of work people participate in the activity of God himself, their Creator, was given particular prominence by Jesus Christ – the Jesus at whom many of his first listeners in Nazareth “were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? Is not this the carpenter?’” For Jesus not only proclaimed but first and foremost fulfilled by his deeds the gospel, the word of eternal wisdom, that had been entrusted to him. Therefore this was also the gospel of work because he who proclaimed it was himself a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth. And if we do not find in his words a special command to work, but rather on one occasion a prohibition against too much anxiety about work and life, at the same time the eloquence of the life of Christ is unequivocal: he belongs to the working world, he has appreciation and respect for human work. It can indeed be said that he looks with love upon human work and the different forms that it takes, seeing in each one of these forms a particular facet of a person’s likeness with God, the Creator and Father. Is it not he who says: “My Father is the vinedresser” and in various ways puts into his teaching the fundamental truth about work which is already expressed in the whole tradition of the “Old Testament,” beginning with the “Book of Genesis?”

The books of the “Old Testament” contain many references to human work and to the individual professions exercised by people: for example, the doctor, the pharmacist, the craftsman or artist, the blacksmith (we could apply these words to today’s foundry-workers), the potter, the farmer, the scholar, the sailor, the builder, the musician, the shepherd and the fisherman. The words of praise for the work of women are well known. In his parables on the Kingdom of God Jesus Christ constantly refers to human work: that of the shepherd, the farmer, the doctor, the sower, the householder, the servant, the steward, the fisherman, the merchant, the labourer. He also speaks of the various form of women’s work. He compares the apostolate to the manual work of harvesters or fishermen. He refers to the work of scholars too.

This teaching of Christ on work, based on the example of his life during his years in Nazareth, finds a particularly lively echo in the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Paul boasts of working at his trade (he was probably a tent-maker) and thanks to that work he was able, even as an Apostle, to earn his own bread.

“With toil and labour, we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you.”

Hence his instructions, in the form of exhortation and command, on the subject of work: “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living”, he writes to the Thessalonians. In fact, noting that some “are living in idleness … not doing any work,” the Apostle does not hesitate to say in the same context: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat.” In another passage he encourages his readers: “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not people, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”

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