While Paul’s theology of the cross overturns worldly measures of achievement, and in turn leaves no room for boasting (except in the Lord), it is very clear that Paul expects believers to work, be productive, and achieve certain outcomes.
A classic text for this is 2 Thessalonians 3:7–13:
For you yourselves know how you must imitate us: We were not irresponsible among you; we did not eat anyone’s food free of charge; instead, we labored and struggled, working night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you. It is not that we don’t have the right to support, but we did it to make ourselves an example to you so that you would imitate us. In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” For we hear that there are some among you who walk irresponsibly, not working at all, but interfering with the work of others. Now we command and exhort such people by the Lord Jesus Christ that quietly working, they may eat their own food. Brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to follow his example, reminding them “we labored and struggled, working night and day” (v. 8). This was so as not to be a burden to them, though having a right to support (vv. 8–9). Not only are some of the Thessalonians not willing to work, they interfere with the work of others (v. 11). Paul commands them to work “quietly” (i.e., without fuss) in order to provide for themselves rather than burden others (v. 12). Instead of avoiding wearisome work, believers are to “not grow weary in doing good” (v. 13). The instruction to work is so serious that Paul tells the Thessalonians not to associate with someone who disobeys it (v. 14).
Work is good, and the provision for oneself and others is an inherently good achievement.
It is clear that work is good and idleness is bad. Work is simply a fundamental part of living and getting by in the world (Genesis 2). Paul’s point here is straightforward, but I’m sure in another context he might have nuanced it a little further to acknowledge the legitimacy of other types of work that do not directly achieve financial provision per se, such as household duties, study and training, and other unpaid occupations. Not to mention the fact that some people will be unable to work for various reasons.
In this context, however, the goal of work is to provide for oneself. Provision is the desired outcome, or, we may say, it is the appropriate achievement produced by work.
Provision for oneself is not the only possible achievement from work, as we see, for example, from Ephesians 4:28, in which the former thief is to work in order to provide for those in need (not only for himself). Incidentally, this verse also reminds us that it is right to support those in need. Thus, it is not always appropriate to apply the maxim, “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” Sometimes we need to rely on the help of others.
There is more yet to say about Paul and work, but the point here is simple. Work is good, and the provision for oneself and others is an inherently good achievement.
Next week, we will turn to the vexed question of “work in the Lord.”