Here is a big question: what is the purpose of working? It is an important question because work is something which we’re all faced with, and it’s also something we frequently dread. So why do it? What are we hoping to gain? We should get at the heart of this question and find an answer that really satisfies.
The first and most obvious answer is that we work to get money. Whatever our job may be, we get paid to do it, and that seems to be the first thing people look to when asked about their purpose for carrying out daily tasks. There’s trouble with this simple answer though. It doesn’t go deep enough.
The first problem is that this answer really just leads us to another question: why should we make money? It hasn’t really given us a resolution. It’s only pointed to an effect of our work, which isn’t necessarily the purpose. The second problem is that we don’t always work for money. We do all kinds of work, and some of it we really enjoy for one reason or another. If we want to understand the true purpose of work, we need an explanation that spans all types of work. We need to find the shared purpose for everything from digging a ditch to studying biology.
I think we can find our answer in scripture (go figure!). The first mention of work is in Genesis when God places man in the Garden “to cultivate and care for it” (Genesis 2:15). In other words, God puts man on earth to work. This may strike us as strange for a couple of reasons, but the reason I want to focus on is that work doesn’t satisfy us entirely. Creatures with immaterial souls and the capacity for supernatural beatitude (the Vision of God) will never be satisfied working with material things. We know that God created us to be perfectly united to Him eventually, so why at the moment of our creation does the Bible tell us we were put in a Garden to work?
I think the answer is that we were put in the Garden and told to work as a way of getting to God. In other words, we would eventually attain the Beatific Vision by digging ditches and studying biology. This sort of value can only be attributed to work done out of charity. If we work for ourselves or for money in itself or for pleasure, we will never find real value in our work, and we’ll never get closer to God through it. But if we work because of our love of God, for God, and for neighbor through God, then we will find that every bit of work will bring us closer to God. We have been given the gift of loving God, and the more we act out of that love, the more God strengthens our love, until one day we are perfect lovers – and that’s heaven.
We can see evidence for this view of work in many authoritative places. St. James tells us in the Bible that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). The Council of Trent says that “justice received is…increased before God through good works.” St. Thomas Aquinas discusses in the Summa how we grow in charity through acts of charity. This has been affirmed again and again throughout the tradition of the Church.
So our question has been answered. We should all keep working because, when done out of love for God, we get ever closer to heaven.