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Book Review: “Work Matters” by Tom Nelson

In the fallen world we inhabit, work is seldom viewed as a good in itself.  Instead, we tend to view work as a means to other things—a paycheck, a vacation, or a relaxing weekend at home.  We work so that we can rest.  The prevailing culture says that if work has any intrinsic value, it’s just icing on the cake and not a normative feature of work.  Work seems to be more of a necessary evil than an intrinsic good.

workmattersTom Nelson believes this view is fundamentally wrong.  In his helpful and accessible book “Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work,” he aims to cut through the cultural fog to dispel Christians of this false view of work.  In its place, he sets forth a truer and more compelling vision of work: that it is actually a gift from God, one that is central to our task of bearing His image in the world.

From the opening pages of “Work Matters,” Nelson makes war on the common notion that the “sacred” and “secular” realms of life are fundamentally separate.  As Christians who work in secular fields, we have a tendency to compartmentalize our spiritual lives from our daily work.  We tend to see our jobs as inherently non-spiritual, or somehow less spiritual than that of a pastor or theologian.  We attend church on Sundays, and we may have spiritually vibrant lives at home and with friends, but when we show up to work on Monday we often suffer from a kind of “spiritual amnesia” (109).  Nelson contends that this unhealthy bifurcation between the sacred and the secular—or more broadly, between the spiritual and the material—has no basis in Scripture.  Arguing from Scripture, he shows that our so-called “secular” work is actually pervaded with moral and spiritual meaning.  It not only produces external goods, like paychecks or vacations; it is intrinsically good.

To demonstrate this, Nelson points first to the opening chapters of Genesis.  Right after God created Adam and Eve, he gave them work to do: they were to fill the earth and subdue it.  They were to take dominion over God’s natural order, to shape and engineer it in order to create new goods (24-5).  Later in Genesis 2, this would take the form of tending the garden.  Nelson helpfully notes that these tasks are given prior to the fall.  This means that they are not results of the fall, or curses in any sense.  Instead, they are part of our original calling.  What happened at the fall was that work became extremely tiresome.  “By the sweat of your brow will you eat your food” (Gen. 3:19).  It is the tiresomeness of work that causes us to begrudge so much of our work.  Yet work in itself is still good, and we as God’s people are still made for it.

[pq]Our work is an act of worship whereby we become co-makers with our Creator.[/pq]

Nelson also draws from the Protestant reformers on the subject of work.  With Calvin and Luther, he argues that even the jobs that seem menial and arduous are in fact rife with divine purpose.  It was Christ, after all, who worked as a lowly carpenter for years prior to his ministry (86).  In Christ, we see a profound ennoblement of work.  We see that dirt and grime are not marks of futility, but of dignity and humanity.  This reinforces the broader biblical notion that God is a God of work.  In Nelson’s words, He is not “some cosmic do-nothing deity” (22).  He is the God who created, who saves, and who makes all things new.  When we perform our daily work, we are imaging the God of work.  Our work is an act of worship whereby we become co-makers with our Creator (29).

A key upshot here, for Nelson, is that Christians must not withdraw from the world.  Rather, we must be present in it, for we are called to serve the world.  Our work is a means of earthly redemption, and it is a tangible witness to non-believers.  When secular work is done unto the Lord, others will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).

Nelson’s words come as welcome gems of truth in a culture that often undervalues the spiritual nature of work.  Yet the book does leave a couple of important questions unanswered.  If part of our Christian calling is to perform quality work, and if non-Christians are also capable of doing good work, how does this set Christians apart from non-Christians?  Nelson does speak helpfully about integrating Christian values into our work environments—but what about when non-Christians already share those values?  What becomes so distinct about the Christian public witness when non-Christians, by common grace, utilize those same values?  This would have been an apt opportunity for Nelson to discuss the difference between common grace (the ways that non-believers image God) and genuine Christian fruit.

An additional question that Nelson leaves unaddressed is this: in what sense does our work “redeem” the world?  Nelson speaks frequently of “redemption,” but there are different kinds of redemption, some being eternal (e.g. salvation) and others being temporal (e.g. the restraint of evil on earth).  Nelson would have done well to specify the nature of the redemption he talks about.  I believe the kind of redemption Nelson writes about here is a temporal kind of redemption—one that should certainly be striven for, yet carefully distinguished from spiritual and eternal salvation.

As a final note, I must take issue with Nelson’s argument about work in light of eschatology.  Nelson rejects the common view that God will one day destroy the earth (2 Peter 3).  He then contends that to hold such a view would deem all our work to be futile.  If the world burns, then our work is “virtually meaningless” (73).  This effectively means that anyone holding a premillennial eschatology has no basis for meaning in their work.  In other words, to have meaningful work, one must adopt Nelson’s interpretation of 2 Peter 3. Instead, Nelson could have stated his own unique interpretation without making it the precondition for having meaningful work.

In spite of those few contentions, Nelson’s book is a good and needed contribution to the theological discussion on work.  Work is a subject that is far too seldom broached from the pulpit.  Christians looking to live out the fullness of their vocation before God will glean rich wisdom from this substantive, yet highly practical, book.