How to connect our work to a higher purpose

1: In the first chapter of the Bible, God tells us: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).

This command is often called the “cultural mandate,” writes Timothy Keller asks in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

So, what exactly does that mean?

Human beings “filling the earth” suggests “civilization, not just procreation,” Tim writes.  “We get the sense that God does not want merely more individuals of the human species; he also wants the world to be filled with a human society.”

God could have “just spoken the word and created millions of people in thousands of human settlements, but he didn’t,” Tim observes. “He made it our job to develop and build this society.”

We are also called to “rule over” the rest of creation and even to “subdue” it.

“Some have complained that this text gives human beings a license to exploit nature,” Tim notes. “But that is not what it is talking about. Remember that this mandate is given before the fall, before nature becomes subject to decay and brings up thorns along with fruit.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

Before the fall, God’s charge to “subdue” suggests we have work to do.  Even in paradise, there is work to be done.  “He made it such that even he had to work for it to become what he designed it to be, to bring forth all its riches and potential.”

God calls us to continue this work “by being fruitful, they fill it even more; by subduing it, they must form it even more,” Tim writes.  As God’s representatives, [we] carry on where God left off. . . From now on, the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature.”

2: Do gardeners leave the land as it is?  No.  

“They rearrange it in order to make it most fruitful, to draw the potentialities for growth and development out of the soil,” Tim observes.  “They dig up the ground and rearrange it with a goal in mind: to rearrange the raw material of the garden so that it produces food, flowers, and beauty.”

That’s what work is.  “It is creative and assertive,” he notes.  “It is rearranging the raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish.”

The pattern applies to all different types of work.  “Farming takes the physical material of soil and seed and produces food,” Tim observes.  “Music takes the physics of sound and rearranges it into something beautiful and thrilling that brings meaning to life.  

“When we take fabric and make a piece of clothing, when we push a broom and clean up a room, when we use technology to harness the forces of electricity, when we take an unformed, naïve human mind and teach it a subject, when we teach a couple how to resolve their relational disputes, when we take simple materials and turn them into a poignant work of art—we are continuing God’s work of forming, filling, and subduing.”

This is what it means to bring order out of chaos.  “Whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and ‘unfold’ creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are following God’s pattern of creative cultural development.”

3: Another example of the creative nature of the work arises when God has Adam name the animals.  

“Why didn’t God just name the animals himself?” Tim asks.  “After all, in Genesis 1, God names things, ‘calling’ the light ‘Day’ and the darkness ‘Night’—so he was clearly capable of naming the animals as well.  Yet he invites us to continue his work of developing creation, to develop all the capacities of human and physical nature to build a civilization that glorifies him.”

The work we do creates human community and culture.  

“So whether splicing a gene or doing brain surgery or collecting the rubbish or painting a picture, our work further develops, maintains, or repairs the fabric of the world,” Tim notes.  “In this way, we connect our work to God’s work.”

Too often, Tim believes his fellow clergymen and women do not understand how conducting business is a way “of making culture and of cultivating creation,” he observes.  In doing so, “they will fail to support, appreciate, and properly lead many members of their congregation.”

The bigger picture?  We have important work to do.  God “gives us a clear purpose for our work and faithfully calls us into it,” he writes.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: How does my work bring order out of the chaos, make culture, and cultivate creation?

Action: Journal my answer to the question above.  Be specific.

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