Vocation: Work Quietly with Your Hands

T. David Gordon
Tuesday, November 1st 2011
Nov/Dec 2011

In the 1980s, many evangelicals spoke about winning the world to Christ by the year 2000, and there were a number of conversations about the matter, all of which, in hindsight, appear to have been a tad ambitious. It was not uncommon in those days for a Gordon-Conwell Seminary student to raise a hand in class and say, “Dr. Gordon, what do we need to do to win the world to Christ by the year 2000?” My standard reply was, “Well, if we’re going to have a fighting chance, we evangelical Christians will have to shut up until 1999.” This may sound like poor advice, and perhaps it was, but note this: Evangelicals did not shut up, and the world was not won to Christ by the year 2000 (I rest my case).

I was convinced in those years that there was entirely too much of what I sometimes uncharitably referred to as “babbling for Jesus.” My advice regarding world evangelization was probably partly wrong. Indeed, nearly everyone else thought it was entirely wrong, but I disagree; I think it was at least partly right, albeit inelegantly expressed. Evangelicals then (and probably now) had become annoyingly officious, entirely too prone to offer unsolicited religious counsel to people who had expressed no confidence in such counsel or in the counselors who proffered it. Many in our culture regarded evangelicals just as they did the Jehovah’s Witnesses; they did not answer the door when we rang the doorbell, but hid behind the curtains, whispering, “Honey, have they gone yet?”

I occasionally buttressed my counsel with the Westminster Larger Catechism, whose 145th answer lists among the violations of the ninth commandment, “speaking the truth unseasonably.” My critics suggested that I had misinterpreted the catechism, so I asked them what the clause meant and they said they did not know, to which I asked, “Can you think of any occasion that might qualify as ‘unseasonable’?” Petulant silence ordinarily followed, until they would murmur something about “manmade creeds,” which drove me to cite biblical texts such as the following:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Tim. 2:1-2)

For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess. 3:11-12)

Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess. 4:9-12)

The last of these I regarded as especially pertinent, because Paul described “living quietly” as necessary to living “properly before outsiders.” My critics assured me that “quiet” and “quietly” did not mean “quiet” or “quietly” in these passages; but I was unpersuaded, because that is what these words mean in other uses in the New Testament, such as: “And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’ But they remained silent” (Luke 14:3-4, cf. also 1 Tim. 2:11-12). What could this have meant here other than that the lawyers and Pharisees did not respond verbally to Jesus’ question? My counsel, however, was not based merely on the Larger Catechism or on several Pauline texts; rather, I believe these religious texts were themselves based on two larger creational realities.

First Important Reality: Talk Is Cheap

The first reality upon which these texts are based is this: people are ordinarily far more impressed by how others live than by what they say. That is, noble behavior is more winning or winsome than speech. This, I suggest, is the reality behind Peter’s counsel: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives” (1 Pet. 3:1). I don’t know how successful his counsel was, but Peter’s insight was almost surely correct; religious faith commends itself when its adherents quietly go about their business as cooperative people. At a minimum, Peter’s counsel teaches that in some circumstances conduct is more likely to win people than speech. Talk is cheap, our culture rightly reminds us.

Second Important Reality: The Dignity of Human Labor

The second reality upon which these texts are based is even larger: the importance of productive labor, even manual/physical labor, in God’s ordering of our lives. Some ancient worldviews differed from biblical religion by teaching that the material order is either evil or undignified; the material order was regarded by many with contempt. The biblical account of the material order is quite different; at the end of each day of material creation, God observed that what he had made was “good.” And when he crowned this material order on the sixth day with a material creature made in his image, he observed that all that he had made was “very good.” Therefore, when the image of the God who made the material world labors himself in that world, he is doing exactly what an imitator of God ought to do—what we commonly call the “cultural mandate,” or from Genesis 1:26-31 the divine mandate to the human race to exercise responsible dominion over all aspects of the created order. Working productively in this arena is essential to our very nature and dignity as human beings. After the Fall, our labor became more laborious, but labor is still essentially human, as Pope John Paul II rightly observed:

And yet, in spite of all this toil—perhaps, in a sense, because of it—work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas’, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being.” (Laborem exercens, Section 9)

Even the Sabbath institution reflects the great significance of human labor. While we commonly regard the Sabbath command as requiring us to rest from labor, in actual fact the Sabbath command requires us to work for 6/7 of the time and to rest 1/7: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Exod. 20:9-10). The six days of labor are prescribed by the same Hebrew grammar as the prescription of rest. Indeed, perhaps we should occasionally refer to this as “the labor command” rather than “the Sabbath command” to make the point. We also observe that this labor/rest command is not a mere necessity of the fallen order; Moses grounded the command in God’s own labor and our imitation of him: “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exod. 20:12). Even our day of nonlabor dignifies and commends the six other days of labor. We imitate God both in our labor and in our rest therefrom.

Since appropriate and productive labor is so central to what it means to be the Imago Dei, it is not surprising that such labor is viewed so highly by the author of Ecclesiastes:

What gain has the worker from his toil?…I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man….So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? (Eccl. 3:9, 12, 13, 22)

This exuberant celebration of human labor partly explains the role of physical labor in Paul’s apostolic defense. Although Paul taught that he and the other apostles had a right to make their living from preaching the gospel (2 Thess. 3:9; 1 Cor. 9:6), Paul also frequently reminded the churches that he did not avail himself of that right but rather worked with his own hands:

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. (1 Cor. 4:10-11)

What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:18) For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. (2 Thess. 3:7-9)

Returning to two of the texts earlier cited as teaching us to live quietly, note the relationship in each between living quietly on the one hand and laboring productively on the other:

For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess. 3:11-12)

But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you. (1 Thess. 4:10-11)

Paul’s reasoning appears to be something like this: The best way for Christians to present a winsome witness to their culture is to pursue their vocations competently and quietly. If they labor productively, they will reflect the image of God, become dignified humans, and provide an example that will (ordinarily) cause others to admire them.

Practical Thoughts

Those who live in industrial and postindustrial cultures may have difficulty understanding the exuberant celebration of human labor we observed earlier in Ecclesiastes 3, and this is understandable. Marxists, Romanticists, and Agrarians have all called attention to the (ordinarily) dehumanizing nature of the factory. Instead of humans making all the varied decisions necessary to imagine, design, and create something from scratch, humans stand in line doing the same monotonous activities all day long. Indeed, proof of the justness of this critique of industrialization’s dehumanizing labor is that humans have been largely replaced by robotic assembly in the last two decades, proving that the labor done in many factories was never very humane.

Regardless of our environment—whether preindustrial, industrial, or postindustrial—it is important to affirm and celebrate the dignity of human labor in the material arena as a means of affirming and celebrating the Imago Dei. Perhaps several suggestions may aid in recovering a healthy, biblical affirmation of human labor.

Doing a Job or Pursuing a Vocation

Sometimes the word “vocation” has been employed too narrowly, covering only certain professions, such as medicine, clergy, law, and so forth. But any particular vocation is part of the divine vocation that we labor in and exercise dominion over God’s created order. Thus all lawful work is part of the divine calling (vocatio) on the human as Imago Dei. All such lawful work is more than merely “doing my job”; it is a fulfilling of God’s creational purpose for humans.

Perceiving our labor as a vocation can have a substantial impact on how we go about our labor. I worked as a greenskeeper in the summer when I was in school. I knew I had no intention to mow greens and fairways for my “career.” But for the nine summers that I was a greenskeeper, I regarded it as my calling for the time. I was ordinarily one of the first to arrive and the last to leave; I routinely volunteered for the most unpleasant or demanding work; and I could run any piece of equipment in the shop, which made me a “utility infielder” for my superintendents. In my judgment, there is far too much Christian conversation about “finding” our calling, and too little about “pursuing” the one we have. Consider Paul’s counsel: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24). Note Paul’s wide-open, generic “whatever you do.” The joy that Ecclesiastes referred to regarding labor has everything to do with how heartily we pursue it, and almost nothing to do with “finding the right job.” Human life is never “on hold”; it does not begin when we find “the right job” or the ideal job. It begins when we imitate God; and if we labor productively in his created order (and this would include intellectual and artistic labor, as well as industrial and agricultural labor, as Pope John Paul II rightly observed), we are doing what we were created to do. But if we regard the same labor as something apart from “who I really am,” as something disconnected from ourselves, we will not find the joy that Ecclesiastes calls us to (and we will not be the witness to our culture Paul called us to be).

Labor and Leisure

Both before the Fall and after, God designed the human experience to consist of both labor and leisure. God paused at each moment in creation to observe what he had made (“and God saw that it was good”). He also ceased from all his creative labor on the unending seventh day—which is the only day in the creation narrative that does not say afterward, “And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” It is presented as a day that begins and never ends. For the human also, as a bearer of the divine image, we properly labor in the created order and also pause from that labor to enjoy the creation. A wise use of leisure can complement our labor and permit us to experience a richer humanity. If our labor draws us away from others—for instance, cataloging books in a library—we may wish to employ our leisure in more socially oriented activity. If our labor calls us to very practical tasks, we may employ our leisure for more artistic enjoyment. Part of the dissatisfaction that some individuals find in their labor would disappear if they did not expect their labor to fulfill every aspect of their humanity and if, instead, they pursued leisure more intentionally as a supplement to their labor (a matter discussed extremely helpfully by Leland Ryken in Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure).


Due to the present economic environment, my employer had to make some changes to the institution’s retirement program recently. The change has been the topic of considerable conversation around the college. Though I am sometimes regarded by some as a little outspoken, on this particular matter I have expressed no opinion at all, and I haven’t worried about the matter for even five seconds. As I put it to a colleague yesterday: “While this isn’t written in stone, and I’m willing to keep an open mind, I have no intention of retiring. Retirement may appear ‘normal’ in our culture, but I do not find it to be ‘normal’ in the Scriptures. It is normal for us to labor in God’s created order productively.”

I don’t expect anyone to agree with this sentiment, nor do I express it with any zeal. But I do believe we should at least reconsider whether our cultural norm of retiring at sixty-five (or sooner) is really all that “normal.” Is it normal for the Imago Dei to do nothing productive for the last fifteen or twenty years of earthly life? There may be a host of public-policy considerations that necessitate people leaving the workforce to make room for others; I have no opinion on that. But I do have an opinion about labor. Labor is not just a necessity of a fallen world nor a pragmatic need; it is an expression of the image of God, and therefore an opportunity to be human in the fullest sense. When we “retire” from labor, we “retire” from being human; and I’m in no hurry to retire from that.

Photo of T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon (PhD) is a retired professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles, published scholarly reviews and articles in various journals and periodicals, and his books include Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019).
Tuesday, November 1st 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church