Illustration by Eleni Debo
These days, restaurants, retailers, and hotels are pleading for our patience. They’re short-staffed, service is slow, and it might be a while before things get better. In April 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that roughly half of all U.S. workers would earn more in unemployment benefits than they did at their jobs before the pandemic shut down so much of the country’s economy. That’s part of the problem, but it’s only one factor.
Another Journal article, written months later, observed, “The Covid economic shock has unleashed unprecedented creative destruction, sharply accelerating the transformation that we once quaintly called the ‘future of work.’” Others suggest that this new normal “Work 2.0” was inevitable.
With millennials contributing most of today’s workforce, the demand for relaxed office environments and flexible schedules is forcing businesses to reorganize and restructure to attract and retain workers. The traditional corporate ladder has collapsed, leaving employees with little career progression without changing employers — career change seeming to have become the new normal. A good retirement seems out of reach for many workers.
Most of us, if asked, “Why work?” would answer pragmatically “to pay our bills.” Yet our culture has promoted the long-term idea that we work so someday we can retire. The concept of retirement revolves around withdrawing from one’s work or labor to enjoy life to the fullest without obligation, commitment, or worry. In other words, we work so that at some point, we do not have to work.
Why wait for retirement? One alternative to work is something called the universal basic income (UBI). UBI is simply the idea that the government gives all citizens or residents of the country a regular, unconditional sum of money independent of any other source of income, freeing them from the necessity to work. Advocates argue that the UBI has the potential to reduce poverty and expand individual freedom.
UBI is not a new idea. Thomas More mentions it in his 1516 book “Utopia.” And during the last 500 years, different versions of this idea have been proposed by Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Milton Friedman, Martin Luther King Jr., Friedrich Hayek, and Richard Nixon. In the late 1960s, the Nixon administration not only studied the idea but unsuccessfully tried to get it through Congress. Even in today’s polarized political climate, UBI has support on both sides of the political spectrum.
Work and the Purpose of Life
Both retirement and UBI stem from the old Greek idea that leisure is good, work is bad — but is that true? This brings us back to the question “Why work?” In “Creed or Chaos?” Dorothy Sayers suggests we have it backward: “… work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties … the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
We were created by God to work. We read in the second chapter of Genesis, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). As Christians, we must realize that we are called to work for a higher purpose. To understand the purpose of our work, we need to know why we were created. We must understand what our work should accomplish and how, through this work, we can better steward all God has given us.
The work we do here and now is important to God, as it brings about flourishing and serves as a signpost to the future new city, the City of God, where all His children will live one day in perfect shalom. Until then, our calling is to work for the shalom of this present world.
The Creator’s original objective in creation was to bring glory to Himself. We see this idea throughout the Bible. In the book of Revelation, we read, “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created” (Revelation 4:11). Just as a great painting reflects the glory of the master artist, God created everything to mirror His glory.
On the sixth day of creation, we read, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). As God looked out upon His finished creation, He saw that all the good things He created worked together extraordinarily. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. In accordance with God’s design, in the beginning every aspect of creation was distinct, interconnected, and interdependent. Everything worked exactly as He intended and brought Him great glory. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we find an essential biblical reality: The more things work the way God originally intended, the more He is glorified. As John Schneider writes in his book “The Good of Affluence,” “This creation that God majestically called forth into being is good. It is good in its individual parts, and it is good as a whole, as an integrated system. In fact, in this integrative cosmic sense, the text informs us that God declared it to be very good.”
In the Old Testament, this idea is called shalom. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., in his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be,” writes that shalom is the “webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” Shalom means “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be — the full flourishing of human life in all aspects, as God intended it to be.”
Shalom (including its Greek counterpart “eirene,” found in the New Testament) appears more than 550 times in the Bible. In most of our English Bibles, we translate shalom as peace, but it means much more than an absence of conflict. The concept of shalom in the broadest sense of the word is one of the most significant themes in the Old Testament. Biblical scholars tell us that shalom signifies many things, including salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness (to God, others, and His creation), righteousness, justice, and well-being (physical, psychological, and spiritual).
Shalom denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when He created the universe. This was God’s original design for His creation — without scarcity, poverty, or minimalistic conditions. He desires that we enjoy the fruits of His creation and the fruits of our labor because by doing so, we bring Him glory. C.S. Lewis speaks to this idea in his “Reflections on the Psalms”: “The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.”
A Way of Being in the World
The creation story in the first chapter of Genesis also explains why we all long for shalom, “the way things are supposed to be.”
The purpose of our work is to reweave shalom. God created a world made for shalom and then filled it with his image bearers and told them to go and make more shalom because the more God’s creation works like it was supposed to, the more He is glorified.
It has been woven into the very fabric of creation. Bible scholar Jonathan Pennington writes: “Human flourishing alone is the idea that encompasses all human activity and goals because there is nothing so natural and inescapable as the desire to live and to live in peace, security, love, health, and happiness. These are not merely cultural values or the desire of a certain people or time period. The desire for human flourishing motivates everything humans do. … All human behavior, when analyzed deeply enough, will be found to be motivated by the desire for life and flourishing, individually and corporately.”
Every person has a powerful, relentless drive to experience shalom through right relationships with God, with our families, with our communities, and with the physical creation. This is because shalom was God’s original design in creation. Yet these relationships were broken at the Fall, and the shalom of creation began to unravel.
Yet we see the restoration of shalom as God’s design in redemption. Understanding shalom is the key to realizing how God intends to use the work of our hands to participate with Him in the restoration of His creation, beginning in this present age. David Dark, in his book “Everyday Apocalypse,” says it this way: “The movement called Christianity cannot be understood apart from the Jewish concept of shalom. The Christian gospel does not call people to give their mental assent to a certain list of correct propositions, nor does it provide its adherents with a password that will gain them disembodied bliss when they die and the pleasure of confidently awaiting their escape until then. Shalom is a way of being in the world. The Christian gospel invites us to partake in shalom, to embody shalom, and to anticipate its full realization in the coming kingdom of God.”
Our Work As a Signpost
We will never create complete shalom in this current age. Such fulfillment awaits the age to come when Jesus establishes everlasting shalom in the new heaven and the new earth. Still, like the exiles in Babylon, we are called to “work for the peace and prosperity (shalom) of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). Through our work, we are to be a blessing by bringing more flourishing to the communities God has called us to serve. This is made possible only because we have found our identity in Christ, the Prince of Shalom. Because of Him, we know what real shalom is supposed to be.
Therefore, the work we do here and now is important to God, as it brings about flourishing and serves as a signpost to the future new city, the City of God, where all His children will live one day in perfect shalom. Until then, our calling is to work for the shalom of this present world. To the glory of God and by the grace of God, reweaving the unraveled fabric of our broken world.
This work does not end when we reach a point financially where we do not need a job to support us. It only gives us a wider range of opportunities to do more work in areas that were not previously available.
Throughout Western civilization, almost every good thing accomplished was done by Christians who understood that their calling from God was to use their work to bring about flourishing for their communities. Christian influence on values, beliefs, and practices in Western culture was abundant and led to the flourishing of societies for more than 2,000 years. As Christians, in a world desperate for shalom, we need to find our way back to this level of influence.
We are to work knowing that our labor in the Lord has both temporal and eternal consequences; because of the work of Christ, we do not labor in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). We do not work to earn or prove our salvation. Our motivation to work comes solely from the love of our Savior and our desire to please Him.
We must also realize that we often do not see the result of our work right away. Many of the historical Christian figures mentioned above did not live to see the fruits of their labor, which were fully realized sometimes generations after they had fulfilled their earthly sojourn.
As Tim Keller writes in “Generous Justice,” “Reweaving shalom means to sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others.” We find the shalom we so desperately seek when we help others find it. This stands in stark contrast with the worldly wisdom, “Take care of No. 1.”
One of the most significant ways we reweave shalom is through our vocational work. Our work is one of the principal means God uses to bring flourishing to His creation. When we, as Christians, live holistic lives and integrate faith and work using all the tools God has given us, we are reweaving shalom. This results in the flourishing of both the community and the individual. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “Shalom is not only an incredible gift; it is a most demanding mission.”
Social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson gives us an updated description of this concept of shalom, which she calls flourishing in her book “Positivity”: “People who flourish function at extraordinarily high levels — both psychologically and socially. They’re not simply people who feel good. Flourishing goes beyond happiness or satisfaction with life. Beyond feeling good, they’re also doing good. … People who flourish are highly engaged with their families, work, and communities. They’re driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning.”
Our Work Brings Flourishing to God’s World
The purpose of our work is to reweave shalom. God created a world made for shalom and then filled it with his image bearers and told them to go and make more shalom because the more God’s creation works like it was supposed to, the more He is glorified. We taste God’s shalom in this world as we bring flourishing to those He has called us to serve in our families, our churches, our communities, and in our vocational callings.
We are not only called to be included in the redeemed new heaven and the new earth, but we are called to be working toward that restored creation right where we are. As N.T. Wright says, “We are called to model and display that new creation in symphonies and family life, in restorative justice and poetry, in holiness and service to the poor, in politics and painting.” We are to bring about flourishing to the communities we serve, seeking to glorify God, serve the common good, and further God’s kingdom in this current age.
Reweaving shalom is to live a purposeful life beyond just surviving, living life as God intended it to be — full of significance, joy, and flourishing.
Blessed are those who reweave shalom, for they will be called children of God.
Hugh Whelchel is executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. He is the author of “How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work,” and has been published by The Washington Post, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and byFaith magazine.