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The Image of God in Work

by: Paul Goebel

In this piece, Paul Goebel shows his readers some of the implications of what it means for us to be made in the image of God and how that fits into the narrative of the whole of Scripture. He introduces the term “occupational dualism,” which exposes the root of many of the issues in our lives.

WORK IS HARD. It requires time and it requires energy—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. On our best days this hard work pays off. We feel a sense of deep accomplishment, a sense of personal pride that our labor has contributed to the common good. But on our worst days, our occupations can frustrate and exhaust us, leaving us in an existential crisis as we question the whole point of work in the first place. So, what is the point? Why do we work?

Shortly after I graduated from college, I took a trip to California with my roommates. While surfing (I use the term loosely) off the coast of San Diego, I met a man in his 60s who had been surfing those shores since he was a kid. When I asked him what he did for a living, he said that there were basically two kinds of people: those who live to work and those who work to live. He proudly informed me that he was the latter. He worked in order to surf. For him, work was just a means to an end. In the words of that great 80s song, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.”

I believe most people view their lives through the lens of occupational dualism. There is great divide between our work life and our personal life. There is the person we are Monday through Friday, that is, who we are at work, and then there is the person we are on the weekend, the life we wish we could lead seven days a week. This dualism takes on many forms: work versus play, work versus family, etc. In the church, this occupational dualism takes on a different form entirely: that which is secular versus that which is sacred.

The truth is that work is not just a means to an end so that we can pay the bills. Work is something that we were created to do. Work is a calling. This is true whether you are a banker, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a mechanic, a missionary, or a pastor. Because work can be difficult, it might be tempting to think that we have to work because of sin. The thought process goes something like this: if it were not for the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we would not be subjected to work. But this could not be further from the truth. It is true that work can be difficult because of sin, but work itself is our divine calling. Human work has been endowed to us a God’s image bearers. Just as God worked for six days to form creation, God has made us in His image as workers called to cultivate and subdue the earth. This means that human work is not a means to end, rather, human work has intrinsic value. Human work is a divine calling to display the image of God.


CREATED TO WORK IN THE IMAGE OF GOD

The United Nations estimates that there are over 7.3 billion people in world. To put this into perspective, UNICEF estimates that every day more than 350,000 babies are born—more than one new human being per second. Human beings populate the world in 196 different countries spread out over seven continents. We are diverse in race, class, culture, and religion. And yet, even in our sprawling diversity, we all have one thing in common—every person on the planet was created in the image of God. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.”1 Every one of us was knit together in our mother’s womb, fearfully and wonderfully made by God, the Creator of all things. This is true whether you believe in God or not. You were created to display the image of God. This is what sets our humanity apart in God’s created order. This is what makes us so unique, that we have been endowed with the very characteristics of Godliness, that we can know something of the character of God in the way He has created the character of human beings. In the opening sentences of ###i/i###, John Calvin put it this way:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.2

For Calvin, the image of God has so marked who we are as people that the knowledge of God begins with the knowledge of ourselves, and the knowledge of ourselves begins with the knowledge of God. In other words, we cannot fully understand ourselves without knowing God. But we cannot fully understand God without knowing ourselves. This overwhelming thought should humble us to the point of worship, for the greater God is to us in His majesty and power, the smaller we recognize ourselves to be in our dependence and weakness. Similarly, the smaller that we see ourselves in our depravity and desperation, the greater God becomes to us in His glory and grace.

So what does this have to do with work? What does being created as God’s image bearers have to do with human vocation? To answer that question, we must look to the creation narrative in the book of Genesis in greater detail:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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 1:26-27).

One could spend a lifetime in meditation over these three verses and not exhaust their benefit. From the Trinitarian nature of God (“Let us make man in our image”) to the fullness of humanity being created in male and female counterparts (“male and female he created them”), the first chapter of Genesis is foundational in our understanding the nature of God and His people. But one word in these verses is of particular importance to our understanding of human vocation—dominion. In verse 26, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion.” There is a deep and fundamental connection to our identity as God’s image bearers and our calling to have dominion over all the earth. The Hebrew word for dominion simply means “to rule.” And in God’s reign and rule over His creation, He has called us, as His divine image bearers, to be His vice-regents in the world. What is most important, however, is that we understand the dominion that we have as dominion that we have been given. Dominion is a gift that God has given us to steward.

The call to have dominion over God’s creation comes with a charge: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” How do we steward the dominion that God has given to us? By fulfilling our call to be fruitful and to multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. The primary way that we do this is in our everyday labors. We steward the divine call to have dominion over the earth in our seemingly mundane occupations. This sentiment is echoed in Gen 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” This has staggering implications in the way we see meaning in our work. God created the garden and then God created man to work and to keep His garden as His stewards. This then is the quintessential activity of all human occupation, to work and to keep God’s creation as His divine image-bearers. Dorothy Sayers eloquently said:

Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.3


THE IMAGE OF GOD BROKEN IN WORK

It is often difficult for us to see our work in terms of divine image-bearing precisely because our work is often difficult. In the same way that we must see God’s image in humanity as the ultimate reason for our work, we must not overlook the brokenness of God’s image as the ultimate reason that work is hard. The hardship that we face in work is not just the way things are, it is the result of the image of God broken in us by sin. Genesis 3 reveals that Adam and Eve’s sin at the fall has had deep implications for human work:

And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife

and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,

‘You shall not eat of it,’

cursed is the ground because of you;

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:17-19)

Because of sin, human work is cursed. It is painful. It is exhausting. In summary, human work is broken. And this is an important distinction. Work itself is not the result of the fall, though it might be tempting to think so. But work is not a punishment for sin. The problem is not work itself, the problem is that our work is broken. Because God’s image on humanity was broken at the fall, human work is also plagued with a deep and profound brokenness. Sin has broken God’s image in so many ways. This brokenness is pervasive in that it impacts every aspect of human life. The great English theologian A.W. Pink defined the scope of human depravity in this way:

Through the breach of the first covenant all men have lost the image of God, and now bear the image of the Devil (John 8:44). The whole of their faculties are so depraved that they can neither think (2 Corinthians 3:5), speak, nor do anything truly good and acceptable unto God. They are by birth, altogether unholy, unclean, loathsome and abominable in nature, heart, and life; and it is altogether beyond their power to change themselves.4

Because the image of God has been broken in us, every aspect of our humanity is depraved. It should not surprise us then that this depravity also affects our work. After Adam and Eve defied God, He declared that “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.” For those who labor in the agricultural industry, this curse has literal implications. The rest of us might not spend our days toiling in the ground, we all face “thorns and thistles” of various kinds in our labors. Misunderstandings with clients, disagreements with co-workers, a project that keeps getting delayed, deals that fall through, capital that can’t be raised, an economy that is trending downward—all “thorns and thistles” that frustrate our work because God’s image is broken in us. Of all the “thorns and thistles” that we will face in our work, the most damaging is idolatry.

The apostle Paul defines idolatry as “claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:22-23). Idolatry is the displacement of God by the enthronement of something else. Simply put, idolatry is elevating something good to the place of God. In the context of human labor, idolatry is the worship of work. If God has called us to work as a means to display His image then the primary way that this image has been broken is in our exchanging the image with God Himself. In other words, rather than worshipping God through our work, we worship work itself. No longer is work an image that points to God, work is our god. We see this in the way in which work has become the most central aspect of human existence. When we meet people, we often inquire of them “what do you do?” Why do we ask that question? Because of the idolatry of work. We define ourselves by what we do in our work rather than who we are in the image of God. We spend hours upon hours in office buildings toiling for a paycheck, pursuing success, pining after achievement rather than working to bear the image of God in all of our endeavors. This has certainly been a thorn in my own work as a pastor. When I graduated from college, I skipped seminary and went straight into ministry. I was arrogant enough to think I did not need training. Soon my arrogance metastasized into idolatry. Rather than leading people to worship God, I was worshipping my work and myself in the process. I was completely fixated on my own agenda and my own success. This is the essence of idolatry. It is sin. N.T. Wright describes the thorn of idolatry in this way:

When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around.5

It is not that our work itself is sinful, it is that the worship of work is so destructive to the image of God. Rather than reflecting the image of God and His character to the world, we project an image of ourselves. This is not a work problem—it is a worship problem. We need not quit our jobs in order to rightly reflect the image of God. We need the image of God in our work to be redeemed, and, as Pink wrote, that is beyond our power to change.


THE IMAGE OF GOD REDEEMED IN WORK

The word Gospel simply means “good news.” Just as the fall of Adam and Eve has resulted in the brokenness of every aspect of humanity, the good news of the Gospel has brought redemption to every aspect of humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ the image of God in humanity is redeemed. For Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15), and in Christ we “are being transformed into the same image for one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). This is indeed good news. First and foremost, it means that sin and death have been defeated through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Secondly, it means that image of God, once bestowed upon humanity at Creation, is no longer broken by the Fall. The image of God in humanity has been restored by Christ, the true image-bearer. This is good news for our work as well.

The storyline goes something like this: we were created to bear the image of God in our work, sin has broken the image of God in our work, and now in Christ the image of God has been redeemed in our work. This means that as Christians, our work not only reflects the image of God but it brings redemption to our broken world. To put it another way, the supreme occupation of the Christian is to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bear in our work. In Christ, we posses the waters of redemption to be poured out upon the thorns and thistles of our labors. This is not a call that is unique to those in ministry, this is a call for every follower of Jesus Christ regardless of their occupation. The bold reformer Martin Luther said it well when he instructed his people:

Leave the works in one class. Consider one as good as another. Fear God, and be just, as has been said. And then do whatever comes before you. This way all will be well done even though it is no more than loading manure or driving a mule.6

All human work redeemed by Christ is integral to the Kingdom of God. This is true whether you teach kindergarten or sell real estate or clean houses or perform surgery. Each occupation has value in bringing redemption to a broken world. How? By working to redeem the image of God in humanity. As John Calvin wrote, “We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men but to look to the image of God in them… an image which, by its beauty and dignity should allure us to love and embrace them.”7 As a pastor, people often ask me how to live as Christians in the workplace. Should we pray at work? Should we share the Gospel at work? Should we invite co-workers to church? The answer, of course, to all of these questions is yes. But the answer is so much more. To use your God-given gifts to do a job well, to honor co-workers with loyalty and integrity, to serve a customer with dignity and respect, to build a new company that promotes the common good, to work faithfully to meet a deadline, to structure a deal ethically: your work, itself, is redemptive. The Apostle Paul wrote: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). This applies to all good works, not just your good works on Sundays. As a redeemed image-bearer, you are doing good works at the office, in the classroom, and on the mail route. Your work, and all of your work, matters for the good of human flourishing and for the glory of God. Redeemed in Jesus Christ, your work brings the image of God to a broken world.


  1. C.S. Lewis. The Weight of Glory (New York, NY: Harper Collins. 2001 Edition), 46.
  2. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006 Reissue), I:1:1.
  3. Dorothy Sayers. Mind of the Maker (New York, NY: Mowbray, 1941), 17.
  4. A.W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 2013 edition) 30.
  5. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: NY, 2009), 182.
  6. What Luther Says, comp. Ewald M. Plass (St Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), III:1512.
  7. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, I:7:6
Paul Goebel

Paul Goebel is an associate pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, TX, where he is particularly concerned with helping young adults apply the truths of the Gospel to their lives. Paul grew up in Waco, TX, and graduated cum laude from Texas A&M before attending Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Paul is married to Jenni, and he is the proud father of two beautiful girls, Anne Elise and Margaret.

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