Though Labor Day is historically rooted in a promotion of the American labor movement and trade unions in the late 19th century, it has since become a universally accepted celebration of the “social and economic achievements of the American worker… (and to) the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
But why exactly do we celebrate our work? And, maybe more importantly, why should we celebrate our work?
As we reflect on all the goodness brought by the innovative and industrious production of American labor, there is cause enough for a day of celebration. However, there are more fundamental reasons to honor workers. It is typical in our culture to focus on us as individuals and our independent accomplishments and pride. But there are better and truer motives for our labor that provide a beautiful and sustaining foundation for appreciating work itself and those who do the labor.
God is a Worker
We find meaning and purpose to work itself in the creator of work and the nature of that creator. One of the first descriptions of God all the way back in Genesis 1 has him doing the “work” of creating. It explicitly mentions him as the “maker” of things, reflecting on “everything that he had made,” describing it as “very good,” (Gen. 1:31) and then resting “from all the work that he had done.” (Gen 2:2)
This establishes God in his nature as a worker, that work itself is good, and that reflection and rest on labor’s accomplishments are appropriate.
We are Workers
The same passage that describes God as a worker also describes humans as “made in his own image.” (Gen. 1:27). The obvious implication of humanity reflecting God’s image in this passage is to see that creativity, work, and producing things of the world will be fundamentally a part of our nature and existence. And this is exactly what is affirmed in the following passages where the task is given to “work the ground” (Gen. 2:5, 15), name the animals (Gen. 2:19), “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28) in as benevolent steward/ruler over God’s good world.
When we reflect on the labor of our time and culture, we hear the echoes of both who we were created to be and the reflected nature of God to labor as something inescapably a part of who we are. I often see it when I walk the streets of my suburban neighborhood with the variations of designs house by house, the tended gardens seeking to add a bit of beauty and order, and even the paved street and utility poles bringing resources to us for transportation, communication, and basic life needs. And I also see it in the massive metropolis in our downtown Los Angeles skyline symbolizing many of the driving engines of our economy and commerce as it churns away day after day.
Of course all these images of our labor and productive lives are riddled with brokenness and instances of injustice and impoverishment as well. They remain far from the goodness and potential God desires and will one day bring in fullness and completion in the New Heavens and New Earth.
But this should not prevent us from rejoicing, reflecting, and resting in the goodness and accomplishments God has allowed through those who yet bear his image. All of us, both Christians and non-Christians, fulfill in partial and measured ways, his good purpose for the world through our work.
Be grateful this Labor Day and say a prayer for God to better reflect his good nature through your good labor.
“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17)
Steve Lindsey is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work Los Angeles. As an engineer at Boeing for nearly 40 years, he often worked towards seeing how his work served God’s greater purpose for the world. He and his wife Margaret established the CFWLA in 2017 to help people reframe vocation and understand how all work, no matter the industry, has meaning and purpose.