*First published by The Gospel Coalition Africa (TGC) on 30 July 2021
Batseba Seifu lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She is a Business Development Manager for an HR Company, and earned her Masters Degree in Public Administration from New York University.
In Ethiopia, as is sadly the case throughout Africa, joblessness is a serious problem. However, in my own personal experience laziness is an issue too. For in some cases it is lack of drive rather than opportunity that leads to unemployment. This should never be the case among Christians, since God regularly rebukes the lazy, even calling laziness a sin. From Proverbs to Paul, the Bible opposes laziness while describing secular work as service to God.
Why I needed a fresh perspective
I remember a time when I hated my job. I desired, rather, to stay at home, preferring to write theological essays and read theological books. In a way, what I displayed was laziness. In Crazy Lazy, Alistair Begg has some great lines. One of them reads: “We need to be aware of looking at laziness as an infirmity, as a condition, as some psychological disturbance that you need to see somebody about… It is more a matter of you needing to get a kick in the pants in order to get the laundry done”.
Understanding secular work as service to God changed my attitude towards work. These days, I even pray before going to work. I ask the Lord to help me serve him well in the workplace. Even now, I don’t always work as he expects me to. But I am an imperfect Christian growing daily.
6 Reasons why secular work is worship
In this article, I will give six reasons why working is serving God. These, I hope, will cut against the idea that laziness is permissible.
1) God commands us to work
It’s difficult to know the exact historical situation or theological misunderstanding that had led to the Thessalonians’ view of work. They may have been overwhelmed by grief as they mourned the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13). But whatever the issue, Paul refuses to excuse laziness and commands that they work. Noticeably, this isn’t done insensitively.
But work is a commandment from God. In 1 Thessalonians 4:10–12, Paul commands believers to work. “We urge you, brothers… to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one”. Paul instructs them to work, urging believers to imitate the example he himself set.
2) God calls all work a blessing
Some people mistakenly think that work was given by God after the fall. I remember hearing a prosperity gospel preacher on television saying that we shouldn’t labour because it is a curse. However, work is mentioned before the curse was given in the garden of Eden. “God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:28). We – both men and women – are instructed to resemble God through dominion, which includes secular work. Just as God is a worker, he created mankind to work.
Adam was busy with work before the fall, keeping the garden and naming the animals. But some claim that work is not a blessing that God shared with women. However, the wise woman of Proverbs 31 challenges this idea. For she is a very hardworking woman. She works with willing hands, brings food from afar, and she rises while it is yet night (Proverbs 31:13–15).
In Genesis 3 all of creation was cursed, including work, making the outcomes elusive and requiring more effort. But work itself remains a blessing, whether it’s ministry or secular work. The curse might mean many things, like a superior at work who has unrealistic expectations or being passed over for a promotion despite earning it. It could also mean a difficult to get along work colleague, or being cheated out of our wages. Thus work is different from what it was created to be. However, work remains a blessing since it’s a way in which we resemble God.
3) Secular work is a means of witness
As we saw in 1 Thessalonians 4, walking – and working – properly among outsiders is a key part of any gospel witness. Christ’s lordship is practical, extending to all of life. Therefore we can be ambassadors for the kingdom simply in how we work. People may not initially understand what we are portraying. However, they will hopefully say: ‘Those Christians, they work hard!’.
In addition, work is profitable for everyone, for we are doing our part in society. Though written broadly about “good works”, Titus 3:8 indicates that allowing our faith to shape our work is excellent and profitable for everyone. The opposite is laziness in our vocations, which brings Christ’s name into disrepute. As Proverbs 10:26 says, the lazy person is a pain to others. They are not good workers, co-workers, or team players. Therefore they are a nuisance and frustration in the workplace.
4) Working preserves Christian unity
In 2 Thessalonians 3:6–7 we are told to separate from other believers who are idle. The context shows that this idleness refers to not working. Although Paul had the right not to work, he worked. So he says: follow my example. This gets to the fact that laziness is sin. But more than merely being a private sin, it is a threat to Christian unity.
Of course, particularly in our continent, we can be in a position where we lack job opportunities, or our work situations can be unstable or precarious. However, when we do have opportunities, let’s work and do so in a right way. Let’s work with excellence as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23). For even our secular work may be a means of creating greater Christianity unity, building up the Church, and encouraging other believers.
5) Employment guards against poverty
Proverbs has plenty to say regarding poverty and laziness. Sluggishness or laziness leads to poverty. Proverbs 13:4 then goes on to say that the lazy have unsatisfied needs because they fail to work. Without advocating for an individualistic society, work is a means of fulfilling our basic needs. That we are not dependant on anyone is desirable and good. Paul is actually quite strident on this point. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10 he says, “let him not eat who does not desire to work”.
You may very likely have good reasons to depend on your family or the church family for your basic needs. But if that isn’t the case your dependance may very well be laziness. Working to earn is a way for us to love others by easing their financial burdens. Furthermore, by working we can support others and set an example of obedience to God. This brings us to our final point.
6) By secular work we can serve others
Paul writes, “Let him not steal anymore. Instead, let’s work hard so that we may have something to share with others” (Ephesians 4:28). This generosity is not necessarily about having a lot to give, but it means giving what we have even from our meagre resources. Therefore secular work can become selfless worship. By working we can help those who cannot work or lack what they need.
Our first responsibility is to our family. The Bible says that those who don’t support their own families are to be regarded as unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:8). Here we see the prime responsibility for the individual is his or her own family, even before the church is called to help. As Christians, loving and sharing with our own family is being thankful for it and obeying God.
But we should not stop there. By working we can support gospel ministry. Earning will also enable us to bear others’ burdens, from our local church to our cities (Galatians 6:1–10). As James says, true religion visits the orphans and widows in their afflictions (James 1:27). All of this requires discernment. But we should not let the need for discernment nullify God’s call to be generous.