As we take a break to celebrate Labor Day, it’s disheartening to think that 92 million working-age Americans are not working, a healthy percentage by choice. The unemployed-by-choice have taken themselves out of the job market, most choosing early retirement or unemployment benefits rather than employment. As The Washington Post recently reported, “In 2007, 66 percent of Americans had a job or were actively seeking work. Today, that number is at 62.8 percent—the lowest level since 1977.”

It seems the goal of an increasing number of people is to not work; and for many who do work, the goal is just to make it to retirement. Americans can access their Social Security retirement benefits as early as 62, and 45 percent of men and about 50 percent of women are doing just that. Taking retirement benefits at 62, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a person stops working. In fact, many people take early Social Security and begin new careers or make a career out of volunteering. In other words, they keep working.

But given that Americans can expect to live well past 84, those who choose—at age 62 or so—to stop working altogether are paving the way for a quarter-century of life without any productivity at all.

This phenomenon is not quarantined within America. Greece allows its workers to retire at 58. Germany plans to lower the retirement age for a large segment of its citizens to 63. The average retirement age in Europe is 61. Related, France has a 35-hour work week; parts of Sweden are experimenting with a 30-hour work week.

Just as the Lord prescribes a Sabbath day’s rest at the end of the work week, it stands to reason that He might allow for a Sabbath season at the end of a productive life. Indeed, there comes a point when our muscles and minds fail. But a quarter-century of work-free leisure doesn’t seem to be in tune with God’s plan—nor does choosing unemployment over employment.

After all, we were quite literally created to work. Genesis 2:15 tells us God put Adam “in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Genesis 2:5 even suggests that God was holding back the plants from blooming and blossoming because “there was no man to work the ground.”

Moreover, as Genesis 1 makes clear, the Creator is someone who knows about work from first-hand experience. The Creator God was busy creating stars and suns and planets and moons; forming the earth like clay; separating light from dark, oceans from land; designing animals for the air and for the sea and for the land; creating Adam and Eve; seeding the earth with trees and vegetation; planting a garden for Adam; and teaching Adam about life and living.

“God saw all that He had made”—all of His work—“and it was very good.”

From this, we can conclude that work is not a punishment. To be sure, after the Fall, work became harder, as a world poisoned by sin became broken and hard and scarred. The thorns and thistles were a product of the curse, but work was not. Scripture makes it clear that work predates the curse, that work is an essential part of life, that work was always part of God’s plan.

This is emphasized throughout the Bible. Without God’s work, after all, there would be no creation. The Lord uses a portion of the Ten Commandments to drive this point home: “Work six days and do everything you need to do … Six days you shall labor.”

It doesn’t say, “six days you shall rest” or “work six hours a day” or “work until you’re 60.” Instead, God calls us, invites us, even commands us to contribute and create by working.

Scripture discusses working in the temple and the fields and the vineyards and the soil, proper treatment of workers, fair wages for workers, the dignity and value of work, the requirement to work. In fact, variations of the words “work” and “labor” appear 670 times in the latest edition of the NIV Bible.

Jesus reminds us, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ, and one way we imitate Him is by working. At our best, we can actually glimpse traces of His creativity in the work we do.

Another way we imitate Christ is by how we work. “Whatever you do,” as Paul told the Colossians, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”

That certainly puts the day-to-day grind in a new light. Even when your supervisor isn’t looking, even when your clients and customers are oblivious, the One you serve is always interested in the quality of your work. He knows if you are working at half-speed or full-speed. He knows if you are shaving a few minutes from closing time or adding a few minutes to lunchtime. And as for those who employ others, He knows if you pay a fair wage, if you demand too much, if you offer too little, if you expect more from your employees than from yourself.

Avoiding the Extremes

We all know people who live at the extremes of over-work and under-work; perhaps we see them in the mirror from time to time: At one end of the spectrum, work becomes the most important thing in life, an idol. It encroaches on everything else, crowds out time for faith, family and friends, and even takes the place of faith, family and friends. At the other end, leisure and comfort become all-consuming goals. All of life is focused on avoiding the responsibilities, burdens and sacrifices of work. And the self becomes an idol.

God doesn’t want us to live at those extremes, because those extremes are not living. His example shows us that work gives life meaning, focus, and purpose. But too much of it can do harm, which explains God’s commandment about a day of rest. In the same way, too little of it can do harm — depriving life of meaning, focus and purpose — which explains God’s clear injunction to work.

If work is seen as a necessary evil, a nuisance, a means to the weekend or to vacation or, worse, as something to be avoided, then we won’t approach it with joy. We won’t get much out of it. We won’t put much into it. And we won’t be living the abundant life God planned for us in His own work.

If work is seen as both the means and the ends of this life, as the most important part of life or, worse, as the source of joy, then we won’t have time for the real source of joy. We won’t know how or when to rest. We won’t have anything left for those who matter most. And we may find that those who matter most have left us to our work.

But if work is seen as a blessing, an opportunity, a way to share and show our God-given talents, a means to a greater end, a God-given example to follow rather than a curse to be avoided, then God can use it—and us—to do great things.