And expects to work in God’s future kingdom
by Raymond O. Bystrom
I am listed as an adjunct faculty member on the MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS) Canada website. Until recently, alongside my name and in brackets, it also said, “retired.” That word, beside my name, irritated me, so I asked the seminary to remove the word and they did—almost immediately.
Why was I so irritated by this word?
For starters, “retired” implied that I am no longer available as an adjunct professor, which is not true. Adjunct professors are part-time employees who teach occasional courses, depending on the institution’s needs in any given semester or year and the faculty member’s availability. Even though I’ve not taught a course at MBBS Canada since the summer of 2011, that’s not really what was bugging me. I’m not storming the barricades, looking for paid employment these days. No, the source of my irritation was located elsewhere.
It’s true I am retired in the sense that I am no longer engaged in full-time paid employment. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve bought into our culture’s notion of retirement as an end to working. And this brings us closer to the source of my irritation.
A wider view of work
I’ve always embraced a wider view of work than just having a job. Only a small percentage of my work over the years has been paid work. I have spent, and still spend, a lot of time and energy shopping, cooking, cleaning and caring for our children and now my delightful five grandchildren. And it was—and is—work, work that is often demeaningly described as woman’s work. I’ve also done, and still do, my fair share of man’s work. Things like washing the car, gardening, mowing the lawn and umpteen renovations and repairs of my 33-year-old home.
But there is more: I also do the work of extending hospitality to family, friends, neighbors and strangers as well as my share of volunteer work in the context of my faith community. Well, you get the picture: I still work! About the only activities I would not describe as work are sleeping, eating (except business lunches), engaging in hobbies, playing sports, watching TV or a movie and attending a church service or a concert.
If I embrace a wider view of work than paid employment, how do I value it? What price tag do I put on it? I put God’s price tag on it.
I believe Scripture teaches that God values all our activities if—and it’s a big if—they foster a healthy and wholesome relationship with self, others, God and planet earth. Indeed, maybe, just maybe, our unpaid work is more important to God and society than our paid work. Or it’s at least as important, don’t you think? In any case, this septuagenarian is still working!
I think we have a problem today when talking about this matter of work. Too often our attitudes about work are grounded in unbiblical myths. I’m especially troubled these days by the notion that our lives consist of a period of work, which, if done reasonably well, then entitles us to retirement, which seems to imply no more work. As if paid employment was the only kind of real work we ever do.
God is a worker
I’ve got a problem with this idea because it’s not biblical. This notion of retirement as the end of work can’t be found anywhere in Scripture, not even in the future kingdom envisioned by the prophets.
We all know that work is part of the original creation design—at least I hope we do. But do we also understand that it appears to be the plan for the new creation? In the creation accounts, work is what human beings are equipped and commanded to do. Genesis teaches that our God is a worker and we are created in God’s image as workers. In the new creation accounts, in the eschatological accounts, work is what God’s Spirit will gift us to do, and it is what we will find joy in doing.
Consider Isaiah’s vision of “the days to come,” God’s final future, especially 2:4-5 (NRSV): “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
When the prophet pictures the future age, “he does not envision a massive work stoppage,” as biblical scholar Ben Witherington notes in Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. Instead, “he envisions a massive war stoppage.”
Work isn’t the human problem
Swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. The weapons of war are turned into tools for work. Isaiah’s vision of shalom is not a workless world, but a world at peace where people work together, rather than war against each other.
Isaiah 65:21-23 (NRSV) portrays the same message, but in different words.
“They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity ….”
And if you were to compare these passages from Isaiah with Zechariah 8:10-12, again you would see that paradise involves war stoppage, not work stoppage. Apparently, work isn’t the human problem: war and violence against each other are.
All of this has practical and ethical implications for how we work today as God’s people. Theological interpretations of work are not meaningless. As Miroslav Volf writes in Work in the Spirit: “A theological interpretation of work is valid only if it facilitates transformation of work toward ever-greater correspondence with the coming new creation.”
Thus, a Christian perspective of work takes into account the conviction that history is moving in the direction of the climax of God’s story. We work, live and play today in light of God’s good tomorrow.
Our work today aims to mirror the ends and character of the kingdom of God. Revelation 21-22 announces that in God’s good future, human beings and the cosmos will finally experience shalom, that is, right relatedness. Surely this means that our good future with God shapes our present work, whether paid or unpaid?
While we wait
We live between the arrival and the climax of God’s reign in the person of Jesus Christ. While we wait, the climax of God’s story forms and shapes how we work. For example, if God plans to renovate and renew planet earth from top to bottom in the new creation, I best do my part to treat it with dignity now.
If God cares about all the nations—if all the nations are going to come marching into God’s good future kingdom—I best relate to my Burmese, Chinese, Indian and Caucasian neighbors with love and hospitality now. If my body is going to be transformed and renewed in God’s new future creation, I best honor my body now. All of this requires work, that is, the expenditure of effort, energy and time.
I think this raises serious questions about our popular notion of retirement, either in this life or the life to come. The notion of work stoppage is not even a biblical idea, and it does not fit with biblical ideas about our future as God’s people.
This septuagenarian expects to work in God’s good future kingdom, and in the meantime, I want my unpaid work to foreshadow the kingdom of God and its ends, aims and character. How about you?
Since 2008, Raymond O. Bystrom has been an adjunct faculty member at MB Biblical Seminary, Canada. He was professor of pastoral ministries at MB Biblical Seminary/Fresno from 1991 to 2007. He is the author of God Among Us: Studies in John’s Gospel and Living Today with One Eye on Eternity: Studies in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, both part of the Luminaire Study Series published by Kindred Productions, the North American MB publishing ministry. Bystrom and his wife are members of Cedar Park Church (MB) in Delta, BC.
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