The Dignity of Labor

In our previous article we pointed out that men through the ages have pondered upon and struggled with the question of the basic motive and incentive to labor.

Here the happy wit will interject that he has the problem completely solved: He labors for the cash. That is simple enough. To this we could counter with the lame witticism that he can hardly write a sellable book on that theme, whereas men will continue writing books on some aspect of that problem and collecting royalties.

And indeed, it is a tremendous problem and deeply involved in the political-social- economic woes of our time.

And so we may well expect that men’s minds in reflecting on this, problem will be greatly affected by their attitude to the wisdom of the Bible.

One authority on the history of Labor and Wage theories, himself a Liberal, heads a section in his book with the words, “Religion Dignifies Labor: Aquinas and Calvin”. After a paragraph on Aquinas he continues: “It was, in the theological writings of John Calvin (1509-1564) that the religious incentive to labor reached its most compelling form. Recognized as a necessity by almost everyone, and dignified in the Christian tradition because almost all of the religious leaders had themselves worked, it remained for Calvin to give work its moral force. Labor became a Christian obligation. To labor industriously in a calling was God’s command to man. Men should not choose a calling because of the riches, to be obtained; but once in a calling, they should not be unmindful of the wealth to be obtained by a close application to duty, since an increase in wealth could be used for Christian purposes. Men were admonished to shun luxury and to be thrifty. Success was, accepted as a mark of God’s favor and of personal predestination.” John W. McConnell, The Basic Teachings of the Great Economists, 1943, p. 67.

Now although Calvin left no work that treats specifically of this economic problem, yet it can be safely said that Calvin did so judge of the dignity of labor. Apart from the rather fanciful meaning that the author gives to the connection between economic success and the assurance of personal predestination in the thinking of Calvin, it is certainly true that Calvin advocated labor for the Christian as a noble assignment from his God, and considered faithful performance of his duty, menial or arduous, as the experience of God’s favor and nearness. This is evident from his incidental treatment of various texts, that touch this point, such as Eph. 4:28: which reads: Let him that stole steal no more but let him rather labor (toil), working with his own hands the thing that is good, that he may have to give to him that has need.

His treatment of other texts is instructive, such as of II Thess. 3:10; Ps. 127:2 128:1, and of Gen. 2:15.

From the above it is evident that we will have to be guided by Scripture in our reflection on the problems of labor, and that we will be greatly influenced by its, light in our conclusions.

We may first ask, what is the essential purpose of labor?

The Bible from the very beginning gives us some very fundamental principles in this respect.

First of all we may refer to Genesis 1:28 where this principle of labor is expressed when it is said that God spoke the word of blessing over man whereby he received the urge and the power to populate the earth and to subdue it, and to have dominion over the creatures. Here the task, the working-task is assigned to man, namely, that he shall take control of the fullness of the created earthly things to use them to serve his Maker.

Further we have in Genesis 2 a description of the entire system of created things. But, so we read, there was no man to till (to expend labor on) the ground. (2:5) Unto this task, however, the Lord created man a living soul and then further for this man He planted a garden in Eden, and there He set the man (2:8) more particularly to dress and keep it (2:15) assisted by his helpmeet and wife (2:16).

In this divine revelation we are taught that man as he came forth from the Creator, immediately stood in an environment that called forth labor and that he was created competent for that labor.

The expression, “to dress and keep it” as applied to the perfect unimpaired state of paradise, means not “to weed and control” but rather “to foster, to train, to beautify” and thus man’s calling and assignment was to exert himself in the labor that he might develop, enhance and reveal the beauty and wonder that God had laid in His works.

And this same urge to be constructively, productively engaged has remained in man. Just as the irrepressible urge to multiply and populate the earth remains in man as impressed by the word of divine blessing, so also the urge to subdue the earth, to have dominion, to dress, train, develop the creature remains in man and continues to drive him.

Also after the fall we can still readily discern this urge in man.

How clearly it is distinguished from the slaves labor, from the drudging routine, from the “mechanical” job.

The child is absorbed in the delightful undertaking of building a block house or dressing a doll; later in building a snow-house or shanty, a cart, a raft, or a boat so called.

The young man comes home wearily from his job, and yet easily spends additional hours building or “improving” his car, so absorbed that he is unconscious of the speeding hours.

So it is with all purposive, productive, creative labor in distinction from routine, perfunctory, aimless work, be that ever so easy and simple.

From this it is evident that the fruit, the product of labor gives it its meaning, its stimulation, its joy.

The Dutch economist, Nederbragt says, “The socializing idea has not been able to guard us from the terrible evil that the crisis and the low conjuncture of economic circumstances has brought, namely, the evil of unemployment. He that realizes the great value of labor for man, will also realize what a scourge unemployment is. The painful barb of this unemployment is not the deprivation of an income—for that evil is well-nigh remedied by the social security provisions—but that barb is the lack of an opportunity to employ the potencies that God has given to man.”

And Luther says somewhere that man needs work as a fish needs water.

In a future article we shall try to apply this more specifically to our contemporary scene.