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FIRST-PERSON: What’s the big deal about work?


Editor’s note: Stan Norman is president of Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.

At the height of World War 2, British novelist Dorothy Sayers wrote an influential essay entitled “Why Work?”. In this treatise, she emphasizes the value and importance of the biblical doctrine of work. Sayers believed the only way for England to move forward from the devastation and ravages of WW2 was to recover a robust understanding and practice of work. Her essay was a pivotal watershed for her nation in her day, and her insights are still important for the Church today. 

Among the many nuggets of wisdom she shares, Sayers contends that work is a reality rooted in God’s purposes for His creation. Although work rightfully involves the labor and effort of our heads and hands, she argues that work is far more encompassing – work is about identity, purpose, service and worship. Work, when rightfully understood, is about who we are and what we do for the glory of God and the good of humanity. Work is a way created for people to honor God.

Sayers observes the Church has historically not done a good job of discipling the followers of Jesus with a biblically grounded understanding of work. As such, she believes the Church has been delinquent in equipping God’s people to faithfully live and serve the Lord where they spend most of their adult lives – at work. To overcome this neglect, Sayers believes the Church must reclaim a robust understanding of work that addresses the Christian’s quality of work as well as the Christian’s behavior while at work

How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern for 9/10 of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

Sayers points to the Carpenter from Nazareth modeling the importance of work well done. “No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth.” 

I found Sayers’ essay both encouraging and challenging – she has much to teach us. I believe the question and issues Sayers addresses are still relevant today. Why work? Because we were created to work. Because we find purpose in our work. Because our work matters to God. Because our work matters to creation. Because our work matters to others. Because our work matters to ourselves. 

In 2020, WBU launched an innovative initiative called Williams Works. The idea was that students would work as part of their educational experience. If a student followed the program, he or she could potentially graduate debt-free. Our initial concept focused primarily on the financial benefit for the student. We wanted to create a way that an exceptional, Christ-centered education was accessible and affordable for any student willing to work. 

Since that time, my beliefs and understandings on the value and importance of work have grown. The Bible has much to reveal to us about God’s purposes for His human creation and the importance of work for human existence. The Bible teaches a great deal about the doctrine of work. 

The doctrine of work is vitally important for Christian higher education. Christian universities and colleges have historically provided a great educational experience for the head and the heart of the student. In the spirit of Dorothy Sayers, however, few schools provide a robust educational experience that focuses on all three areas of the person: head, heart and hands.

In its early days, our school (known then as Southern Baptist College) advertised itself as “three schools in one.” What this meant was that the college offered three tracks of study. It had a program called the Rural Seminary of the South – a ministry training program. It had vocational education, providing certifications in heat and air and auto mechanic repair. Southern Baptist College also offered studies in the liberal arts. Thus, the school had three educational programs: ministerial, vocational and classical – three schools in one! Our history affirms the presence and important role work has had in our past educational endeavors. 

We are learning (or maybe relearning) what it means to be a university that meaningfully incorporates the doctrine of work in all facets of our school. A year ago, the reaccreditation team from the Higher Learning Commission encouraged us to strategically press forward in our efforts to teach and mentor our students in work education. They did not mean that we should become a technical or vocational school, as worthy as these forms of education are. Rather, they encouraged us to expand our Williams Works initiative so that the ideal of work is embedded in all facets of university life: academics, athletics, spiritual life, student life, administration, fundraising, etc. We have taken to heart their encouragement, and we continue to pray and strategize on the Bible’s teachings on work and its implications for a college education. 

I believe we are on the forefront of something innovative, something special, here at Williams. When fully implemented, we will be one of the few, if not the only, higher education institutions that seeks to incorporate the doctrine of work in all areas of our educational initiatives and programs. The Bible is very clear on these matters: God is a working God; God created work; God created human beings in His image; God created us to work; God commissioned His human creation to work; God instills purpose, identity, meaning, service and worship in work. 

Dorothy Sayers may have best summarized the benefits of work for God’s human creation when she wrote: “[W]ork is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.” Amen! 

    About the Author

  • Stan Norman