Labor Day: The Bible and Honor in Work

On the first Monday in September (September 1), Labor Day, our nation will once again celebrate the dignity of labor. There will be parades, picnics, and various special observances. Politicians will make their speeches. This nation will, as it always has, recognize the importance of hard work.

The Bible teaches Jesus honored labor and the rights of the worker. In Luke 10:7, he said, "The laborer is worthy of his hire." In many places throughout the Scriptures there are verses that apply to the employer and the employee. James chapter 5 warns of God's judgment upon employers who are rich and satisfy their every whim, while ignoring the needs of those who work for them. In this same passage, James says God hears the cry of the worker who is cheated or defrauded and He will judge. But the Bible also says in other passages that God's eyes are on the laborer who loafs on the job and doesn't provide an honest day's work.

Although work is good, it can be quite toilsome and painful. In his famous poem, "The Man with the Hoe," Edwin Markham depicted the heavy load the laborer bears. He wrote:

"Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world." [1]

Yet, labor is life, as Thomas Carlyle once wrote. In fact, Christian doctrine teaches that man, who is made in God's image, is like God in that he is also a creator. Work is the chief means one can make a difference in the world. By our labors we can leave the world a better place than we found it.

There is, however, still another intriguing dynamic about work revealed in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21:4 says "the plowing of the wicked is sin." The late Dr. D. James Kennedy explains the meaning of this devastating verse about work. He writes:

"This means a non-Christian farmer who rises before sunrise and goes about his duties, working in the fields while the blazing sun beats down upon his perspiring back, is sinning in the sight of God. Why? Because, even though God commanded man to work with his hands and earn his daily bread, his motive for working does not proceed from a heart cleansed and made holy. Therefore, his work is sin.

"The same situation would apply to pirates who infested the islands off the Florida coast. A search into their activities might reveal many commendable things. They might have been nice to their wives and cared for their children. They might have been generous and worked diligently at their boats. They might have worked hard to plant and raise crops. Yet every seed they planted, every ear of corn they harvested, was part of their effort to gain more food, to gather more strength, to continue their willful rebellion against the authority of the United States. Therefore, they were guilty and the government could only ask them to surrender.

"So the plowing of the wicked man [the unredeemed] is merely an effort to gain food, to gain strength, to continue his willful rebellion against the rightful sovereign authority of Jesus Christ." [2]

Labor in itself is commendable and worthy of honor, but from God's perspective if a person goes through the daily grind and ignores Christ's lordship, refuses God's offer of grace and forgiveness, then all of what's done, no matter how praiseworthy it may seem, is rejected of God. Work that delights the heart of God must come from a heart transformed by faith and renewed by the Spirit. If an individual's labors are to have any eternal significance, he has to first lay down his weapons against God and yield to him.

When a person submits to Christ, then one's entire perspective in life is changed. Even work takes on a new meaning. Work is transformed from the mundane to the majestic. Work is no longer simply about the wage, but commitment to good workmanship for Christ's sake is elevated as supreme. Life is lifted above the common to a calling.

Klaas Runia rightly notes that not all occupations should be pursued by the Christian. He writes:

 "There are at least three classes of occupation which a Christian may hesitate to enter: (a) occupations dealing with matters that are likely to hurt others; (b) occupations not providing any useful service to society, and (c) occupations which, though permissible in themselves, are harmful for the particular Christian." [3]

The point here is that in God's economy labor is never truly laudable unless done out love for God and his ways. Thus, the many admonitions of the Word of God:

"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17); "Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men" (Colossians 3:27); "Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take" (Proverbs 3:6); "He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord…" (Roman 14:6); "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God's glory" (I Corinthians 10:31).

Nothing could do more for America's labor force than for there to be a wholesale turning of its workers to Jesus Christ. Moreover, nothing would add more to the celebration of Labor Day than for the dignity of labor to be wed to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Rev. Mark H. Creech is executive director of the Raleigh-based Christian Action League of North Carolina Inc.

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