It’s easy to get trapped by the tyranny of the present, where contemporary problems seem to be unlike any others. With temporal blinders on, we assume that these new problems require new answers.
C. S. Lewis calls this attitude “chronological snobbery.” He recommends reading books from other centuries to break out of the trap of your own context.
Being concerned about the nature of work has recently come into vogue. There has been a relative explosion of books, conferences and blogs (like this one) about vocation and work. Is concern about work a new problem that requires new answers?
Not really. In fact, the nature, importance and reason for doing work have been discussed for centuries by pastors, theologians, and others — including Richard Baxter.
Help from the 17th Century
Richard Baxter was a 17th century pastor and political activist. He was active in the English Civil War against the monarchy, but was critical of Oliver Cromwell’s government. He began his life within the Church of England, but ended his life as a non-conformist.
In his life, as he tried to negotiate the tense religious and political climate, he was known for his moderation and common sense. These attitudes permeated his theological writing, including his practical instruction on the subject of work.
According to Richard Baxter, everyone who can work should. He recognizes differences in callings. But unless there is a physical or mental reason why one cannot work, then one should regularly be involved in work.
Work is for the Benefit of Others
Baxter recognizes there is more to work than earning a paycheck. For example, he argued that being wealthy should not excuse someone from work. Instead, Baxter writes that riches should
bind them to [work] the more, for he that has the most wages from God should do him most work. Though they have no outward want to urge them, they have as great a necessity of obeying God and doing good to others as any other men have that are poor.
This was not a purely rhetorical question. In Baxter’s day it was common for the rich not to work. Instead, they lived off the rent of their land and found various ways of whiling away the time. Many people aspired to be part of this wealthy “middle class” that didn’t have to work for a living.
Baxter does not criticize the rich for having wealth, but for not using their resources and abilities to do good for others. In other words, work should not be driven by necessity but by opportunity.
Work should not be driven by necessity but by opportunity.
Later in the same essay, Baxter gives a number of reasons why everyone should work. One of the most compelling was the good of others:
The public welfare of the good of many is to be valued above our own. Every man therefore is bound to do all the good he can to others, especially for the church and commonwealth. And this is not done by idleness, but by labor!
So, for Baxter, working for the good of others was far more significant than earning wages. In fact, in his list of reasons why everyone should work, earning one’s daily bread is the very last.
For Baxter, working for the good of others was far more significant than earning wages.
Aside from contributing to the common good and earning a wage, Baxter finds several other reasons for working.
He argues that God commands humans to work (e.g. 2 Thess. 3:10-11) and provides us with the means to do so:
It is for action that God maintains us and our abilities: work is the moral as well as the natural end of power.
By doing work, then, we are being obedient to God’s command and properly stewarding the resources God has provided.
But there are also present, personal rewards of work. Simply put, work keeps us sharp. He writes that unless someone engages in the labor of the mind, “unexercised abilities will decay, iron not used will consume with rust. Idleness makes men fools and dullards, and spoils that little ability which they have.” Baxter argues similarly about physical labor, with the benefits going to the body.
Baxter did not develop the theology of work fully, nor did his view anticipate the challenges of working with mega-corporations and modern technology. However, finding common ground with saints from previous eras helps reassure us that we aren’t inventing a new concern for Christians.
After all, if in the 21st century, we are to believe we are holding to “the faith that once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), we should be able to find places they’ve dealt with the questions we are facing.
Reading the wisdom of thinkers from another age helps us break out of our own cultural and temporal prejudices. It can helps us arrive at better answers than we could have on our own.
And, in this case, it can help us work for the glory of God.