What does work have to do with the good life? James K.A. Smith addressed this question at Wisdom Forum: The Good Life. Here’s a transcript of his talk (edited for clarity).
I want to think for a few minutes with you about work and the good life. I want to dive into four themes.
1. Think about your work as the way that you bear God’s image in the world.
In Genesis, God talks about the fact that humanity is created in his image. When you look at the text of Genesis 1-2 you realize that bearing God’s image is actually a mission. The entire cosmos is the sanctuary – God’s temple. Like all of the other rival gods who have temples, they place dead, inert images in their temples. The true God has an entire cosmos that is his temple and inside he places living image bearers – us.
So, we are royal ambassadors, vice regents. We are called to bear God’s image in and to the world. In some ways there are many royal metaphors and imageries that are going on in Genesis 1-2 — so that in some sense, we, by being placed in creation with a mission and a task, are there to bear God’s image by extending in some way God’s rule on earth. That is the ultimate framework for thinking about our work. So, what does that look like? Well, it looks exactly, then, like the mission that is given to humanity in Genesis 1. We are called to unfurl, unpack and unfold the potential that God has packed into his creation. He deputizes us to be the ones to do that. In Genesis 1:28-30, our task as image bearers, is threefold.
- First, to be fruitful and multiply.
- Secondly, to cultivate the earth. When you hear that sense of cultivating, it is this imagery of unpacking – bringing out the potential that there is in the soil.
- Lastly, we have dominion over creation. We are responsible for its management and stewardship.
At the end of the creation account, God tells us that it is very good. One thing that we have to realize is that it is not done. Very good does not equate complete.
Creation is not called into existence with art museums, schools, hospitals and houses. All of these are things waiting to be realized by us in our work. So, our work is how we bear God’s image — how we extend God’s rule. It’s how we unfurl and unpack the good that God has packed into his creation. He is waiting for it to be unfolded. This is why Tolkein says in many ways we as creations are sub-creators. We are deputized with that task. Creation in scripture gives us the norms to know what it looks like to unfold that work well.
So, the first principle, then is, if you want to do good work, you have to become the kind of people who want what God wants. That is what will govern good work. We will be good workers and image bearers only to the extent that we want for creation the same thing that God wants.
If you want to do good work, you have to become the kind of people who want what God wants.
2. Because of this conviction, the biblical vision of good work also includes an expanded sense of what counts as work.
It is very important that we not fall prey to the consumerist, industrialist’s lie that says the only work that counts as work is work that earns a wage. There are all kinds of good work that is not waged. Indeed, I would wager that the most important and underappreciated work in our culture is the work of homemaking. Homemaking is hard work and good work.
There used to be a group of moms from Princeton who had a blog that was called Building Cathedrals. It was a blog about raising children. They realized that they had given themselves to a vocation – a calling. By investing in the formation of your children in managing a household, you are building cathedrals that bear witness to God’s glory. That, too is work.
So, we have an incredible sense of what we are doing when we work. We have an expanded sense of what counts as work.
We have to be careful what we worship. It will shape what we want.
3. We of all people, because of these convictions should be attuned to the tragedy of unemployment and the injustice of work that dehumanizes and degrades.
This expands beyond obviously blatantly sinful professions. We should be concerned about modes of work and work environments that reduce human image bearers to mindless cogs in a machine. Environments that fail to honor people’s creativity and intellectual rigor. Environments that fail to compensate worker’s justly.
The prophet Malachi is so stinging on this point. Listen to this pronouncement. He says,
Yahweh will put on trial those who defraud labors of their wages who oppress the widows or the fatherless or deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me. (Malachi 3:5)
That is a concern about good work. There is a buzz about a faith and work movement right now. It seems like this includes a lot of people in white collar, privileged jobs getting to think about why they are serving Jesus while they are in finance in Manhattan. There seem to hardly ever be people there in coveralls. Just to the extent that our concern with faith and work is equally attuned to the realities and injustices of unemployment which just grinds down the honor and dignity of being human — or the way that the modes of work degrade and dehumanize workers — then I’ll believe that we have a faith and work movement.
4. We all need to be attuned to how worship fuels our work.
Our work is generated as much by what we want as what we believe. We are made to be makers Genesis 1 tells us, but as makers we remain lovers. If you are what you love, then you make what you love. Your cultural labor (no matter if it is finance, fine arts, fireman or first grade teacher) is animated less by principles that you carry in your head and more by habits of desire and longing that you acquired and have given yourself to. This is why all of us as culture makers, meaning creators need to be attentive to the formation of our imagination and our wants. Whether you are an entrepreneur who is launching a tech startup or a first-time parent who is starting a family – your creative work as a human being made in the God’s image is pulled out of you by your attraction to some vision of the good life.
Imagine that our work bubbles up out of our imagination which is fueled by a story about what flourishing looks like. We all carry some governing story in our bones that shapes our work more than we might realize. This is another reason that we need to ask ourselves, “Whose story are we rehearsing in the rituals we give ourselves over to?” If you are what you love and you make what you want, then we need to be attentive to how our wants are formed. What do we want? Do we want what God wants for his world? We need to curate our loves which is at the storehouse of our governing stories. So, we have to be careful what we worship. It will shape what we want. It is why immersing yourself in the imagination station that is the church is an integral aspect of your professional development regardless of what your work is.
This article is a transcript of James K.A. Smith’s talk at Wisdom Forum: The Good Life.