Reconsidering a Theology of Labor

Labor Day.

If you’re like me, the words tend to evoke either the carnival-barker cadences of retail advertisements or the last of summer recreation activities. As the last fleeting moments of summer erode into the frantic routine of fall activities, it’s worthwhile to consider the value of the holiday.

First, let’s put the day in context.

Consider that people rarely follow the official designations for the seasons. A few of us get excited about recognizing the vernal equinox as the start of spring, but the rest of us tend to use unofficial markers. We feel like fall begins when the leaves begin changing colors, or when the NFL season starts, or when retailers start injecting pumpkin spice into anything and everything. We may think winter starts at the first snowfall, or after Thanksgiving, or whenever the holiday decorations in stores show up.

In the United States, summer is marked by breaks from school and families traveling or having fun. It’s also bracketed by Memorial Day in late May and Labor Day in early September. Our most joyous, relaxing, or recreationally focused season both begins and ends with moments of solemnity. At Memorial Day, we honor the memories of those who have died in service to their country. And on Labor Day, we—at least in theory, anyway—observe the sacrifices of those who have participated in the American labor movement.

I like the balance. It’s a little like saying grace before a meal, and praying in gratitude while you clean up and do the dishes. Before and after your season of go-go-super-fun-time, you take a few moments to honor the people who helped to create conditions that made your fun possible.

Growing up evangelical, I heard plenty about the valiant sacrifices of women and men who served in our armed forces. But I heard almost nothing about the labor movement. It wasn’t part of the fabric of our consciousness in the same way the military was.

Ironically, however, I was in church when I found out what a strike was. I was in high school, and I was thinking about applying for a job at a local grocery store because there was a sign saying they needed temporary help. When I mentioned this to a friend, one adult lady barged in on our conversation. “Oh no, you don’t wanna do that,” she said. “You don’t wanna be a scab, ‘cause you’ll regret it.”

A scab? What is she talking about? Later, after talking to my parents and other trusted adults, I learned what a strike is and why some people might be upset if I crossed a picket line.

Labor disputes are complex. There are many sides to any negotiation that results in a work stoppage. I’m not a knee-jerk, pro-union guy. I’ve seen plenty of examples of labor leaders doing shady stuff and making things worse for the average worker. But I also know that many of the standards that workers in the US take for granted—like minimum wages, standardized work weeks, and workplace safety standards—happened because labor unions fought for them.

On a fundamental level, it’s worthwhile to consider the dignity and value we associate with labor, because it’s intrinsically tied to our value as human beings. The Bible has a lot to say about work—when we should do it, how we should do it, and what it should mean for how we live.

Take 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which includes a phrase I heard my mother quote a lot: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” She used to drop that one on my brother or me any time one of us took too long to help set the table before dinner. But in context, Paul is speaking more broadly about the problem of idleness. Idleness—some translators use the word lazinesswas a problem in the church of Thessalonica because it disrupted the community’s ability to take care of people. Remember the first century church model laid out in Acts 4:32 of everyone sharing what they had and existing in one heart and mind? This kind of idleness was a threat to that. If people just did what they felt like doing whenever they felt like it, with no consideration to how it would impact others, the selfishness would destroy the community Paul and others had worked so hard to build.

One way to find wisdom in Scripture on the topic of labor would be to use concordances or other Bible resources to search for the word “labor.” Even knowing the limitations of this approach—at the mercy of the interpretive choices of NIV translators—it still yields some interesting results.

The first mention is in Genesis, where labor is referred to both as the labor of childbirth (3:16) and of painful toil (5:29; 49:15). The connotation is all negative and continues into Exodus with narratives about the painful labor required of Israelites from the Egyptian pharaoh. With the exception of 34:21 (the commandment about taking the Sabbath), it’s almost all negative.

In 1 Kings the trend continues, with most mentions of labor preceded by “forced” or “slave” as modifiers. But by 2 Chronicles, a few mentions of labor have somewhat positive connotations, such as 34:12 where the workers labored “faithfully.” By the time we get to the Psalms and the wisdom books (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), we see labor used in both ways—as a positive description of dignified work and as a negative endowed with inherent pain and frustration. You even see the transition between the two in the same chapter, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says in 2:10, “my heart took delight in all of my labor” but by 2:20, they’re like, “my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor.”

I can relate to this ambivalence! I love that I get paid to create, but that doesn’t mean that writing isn’t work. Like any form of work, sometimes it can be good; other times, not so much. If work is an essential part of the human experience, it too is subject to the ups and downs of life.

The major and minor prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Micah, Habakkuk, Haggai and Malachi) generally stick to the pattern of labor being either negative or mostly neutral, with copious references to women in childbirth.

When we get to the New Testament, a cogent theology of work begins to come into focus. Consider Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27 where he asks his disciples to consider the simple beauty of flowers, which do not labor. In John 4, Jesus’s disciples remind him to eat something, and instead Jesus tells them that his food is to do the Father’s will and the proverbial fields are ready for harvesting.  

“Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37-38). Again, Jesus is speaking of labor not as something bad, but that much of the work has been already done for them.

In the Pauline epistles, the trend shifts. Paul begins to speak of labor in the context of ministry, and the labor is almost always referred to as a positive.

“The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:8).

“You know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

“I did not run or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:16).

These references are tinged with hope and a sense of optimism, even when they acknowledge the temporal reality that labor is still sometimes unpleasant.

“On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8).

“That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God” (1 Timothy 4:10).

And the final use of “labor” is in the Revelation from John:

“Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them’” (Revelation 14:13).

Labor is an essential part of the human experience in which we have the potential to experience every emotion—from the soaring highs of landmark achievement to crushing desolation and despair. God is capable of redeeming our labor just like any other experience we go through. God’s mission of bringing shalom to all creation does not somehow bypass the professional sphere—it includes it.

After all, God is also one who labors. This is the God who said, “Let us make humans in our image,” and probably said it with a smile. What is creation if not a labor of love? The things we work for, not just money to feed ourselves and families, but to be creative, to make a difference in the world, to connect with or help people—these things connect our hearts to God’s.

With God as our ultimate role model in enterprise, we are given a sustainable playbook for how to approach work in our own lives. We labor with joy and create room for rest. Don’t be overly consumed with the disappointments and setbacks. Give yourself a little grace when one of your projects goes sideways or belly up. And most of all, don’t give up.

All of theology begins and ends with God, so a theology of labor is no different. Keep joining God’s work to help make the wrong things right again, and trust God for the outcomes you cannot control.

And have a little fun out there, for God’s sake.


  • Jelani Greenidge

    Jelani Greenidge is the missional storyteller for the Evangelical Covenant Church and ministers in and around Portland, Oregon, as a worship musician, cultural consultant, and stand-up comic.

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