I had the providential pleasure this past Labor Day of reading Work That Makes a Difference (P&R, 2021) by Dan Doriani, completing a pair of books now dedicated to the subject. The recent holiday is proof that as a nation we do—or did—honor work. This is a good thing, considering that God created us for it. His very first words to Adam in the Garden were in large measure about labor: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). We are told specifically that man’s primary mandate was to “work” and “keep” the Garden of Eden (2:15). Being called to work is an aspect of what it means to be made in God’s own image. God works, therefore man works, too.
With that in mind, a book on work is much more than a look into a specific sphere of human life and activity. “Work both reflects and shapes our identity,” Doriani writes (20). Elsewhere, he concedes that “if we fail to work or can’t work, we wither a little” (35). Properly capturing the biblical idea of labor is part of the pursuit of understanding mankind. To know what work is, why it matters, and how we should do it is a vital part of finding fulfillment in life. It’s part of regaining what was lost in the Fall, when work became bitter and toilsome, and our reflection of God’s glory was muddled and mired. A Biblical conception of this topic aids us in living once again with God-glorifying and soul-satisfying purpose. That reason alone should be motivation to read this book.
Doriani opens in the first chapter by giving twelve general biblical principles of work, juxtaposed to 9 popular ideas of work that are decidedly less than biblical. This latter list took the form of surveying influential theorists and academics who have proposed deficient understandings of labor over the centuries, from men like Plato to Marx.
After laying this groundwork, the subsequent chapters delve into more specific matters. Doriani differentiates helpfully between work and a job, between calling and gifting (Chapter 5—a standout section in my estimation), and good work and the best work. While defining work as “a sustained exercise of strength and skill that overcomes obstacles in order to produce goods and accomplish goals with intrinsic and extrinsic value,” Doriani, borrowing from the Westminster Confession, clarifies that God-glorifying work must have 3 elements:
- The right motive: love for God,
- The right standard: God’s Word
- The right goal: the glory of God and the good of a neighbor (22).
I appreciated that Doriani emphasized that these three elements can be accomplished in any work setting. That is, he dissuades readers of the notion that for work to be particularly good or meaningful it has to in some manner relate to the church. A calling is not exclusively sacred. “Society needs all of its legitimate workers,” he writes. “No honest calling is morally superior to another” (55). This discussion should motivate all Christian laborers to work as unto the Lord, wherever they may find themselves Mondays through Fridays, 9-5 (Col. 3:23). “Some Christians think their highest goal at their workplaces is to start a Bible study or to share their faith.” While this is noble, Doriani wants his readers to get to a place where they recognize there is supreme value simply in working well. He goes on, “People are far more likely to accept an invitation if they have seen the inviter work with talent, diligence, and kindness” (83).
While all work has been corrupted by the Fall, Doriani provides really excellent insight in how frustrated toil can be redeemed and enjoyed: we must find the best goals for our work, use God’s standards in our work, be renewed in mind and spirit to have the character to work faithfully, and trust Spirit-wrought discernment so we can distinguish between right and wrong at work. This four-fold rubric can and should be applied to all types of labor, so that believers can say they are actively “join[ing] God in good work” (42).
That being said, Doriani is not shy to state that “some labor is vain” (43). The Fall has ushered in all sorts of depraved industries that can in no way be redeemed. The aforementioned discernment will keep sincere believers far from these types of employment. The book is filled with this sort of honest and hard-hitting assessment of sinful work and sinful men and women at work. He at times very candidly reveals both our pride and folly that compound the problems of work in a fallen world. For example, in the chapter on calling and gifting, he informs us that we can feel we are called all that we want to a particular field, but if we don’t have the skillset for it we are deluding ourselves. “Our aspirations entitle us to nothing,” he writes (62). If more people grasped this truth there would be far less frustration in our labor. He also challenges us to rethink unemployment (and in latter section, volunteering), and to see that it very well may be God’s calling (in his language, “life assignment”) for a time (61).
Work That Makes a Difference is brief the way you hope a primer on an important subject will be brief. A minor critique would be that the outline became muddled at various times and made the good and helpful points of the author hard to follow. One final matter worthy of praise: this book is unique in that it doesn’t simply talk about work, it actually gives concrete steps in how to implement impactful and meaningful projects in the workplace, and compels us to do so. These are dubbed “faith and work projects,” and one gets the impression this was Doriani’s driving force in tackling this subject again even after recently publishing a separate book-length treatment on labor. Work That Makes a Difference actually provides a guide for how to make a difference at work! In this way, it would make for a useful study guide among co-workers who share a desire to labor unto the Lord in their communities.
It is commonplace for a reviewer to commend a book by telling others to “take up and read!” Perhaps it would be more appropriate here to say, take up and get to work!
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of The Christians True Identity and What Happens When We Worship. He is also a hymn writer, whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.