Part one in our series on the biblical narrative of work
This series takes a broad look at the biblical narrative of work — including our jobs, creative work, unpaid work, hobbies, philanthropy, and more — and why it matters to God.
The creation of work: humans were created to work, and work is good
It can be hard to believe that we are created to work; it’s often frustrating, hard, and doesn’t produce the results we may hope for. For those reasons, and many others, we can all take our experiences of work and create our own narrative about the purposes of our work.
- Some view work as something to be minimized. This view says,
“I should make as much money with as little work as possible”. Work is simply a means to end.
- Some view work as the source of our identity. This view says, “I should work as hard as I can because the output I generate communicates something about me personally. Work is an extension of me.”
- Some view work as a curse. This view says, “In heaven there will be no more work. We only have to work now because sin entered the world, and in heaven we will just get to relax.”
Those are some fairly negative ways to view work, but most of us have probably lived under a similar mindset at times in our career. But what does the Bible have to say?
The first action God gave to his people was to work
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” — Genesis 2:15
“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.’” — Genesis 1:28
This task that God gave Adam and Eve happened right after they were created, and before Adam eats of the tree. So what is evident is that even in the midst of good creation there is work to be done.
Without people, God would not have created plants and fields
Genesis 2:5 indicates that man working the ground is an integral part of God’s primary plan for his image bearers and our inhabitance on the Earth — long before man was even created or sin entered the picture. Work is a key descriptor of man.
“When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground.”
We understand how to work by watching God in his work
We are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:26–27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’” As image bearers of God, we must ask the question, “what is God like?”
Part of his nature and character is that he is a worker. In fact, one of the first aspects of God in Genesis 1 is seeing Him create things; we see that he is a worker. And we see this in many places throughout the Bible.
“My Father is working until now, and I am working.” — John 5:17
“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” — Philippians 2:13
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” — Hebrews 1:3
Humans were created to enjoy work
If we are image bearers and called to work, the question must then become, how should we interact with work?
God does good work
God does good work, and acknowledges that it is good. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).This should make sense to us; God should make good things… it would be strange if he made things that were mediocre. And it makes sense also that God rightfully delights in his good creation.
“And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2).
Why would God rest? If God is not bound by time, or resources, or power, he rested not because he was tired, but because he looks upon his work with satisfaction and can rest in the contentment of his work. God’s rest is enabled by his complete contentment. And just like God, we are able to find contentment and satisfaction when we engage in and complete good work.
“What is the Christian understanding of work? … [It] is that work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties… the medium in which he offers himself to God.” — Dorothy Sayers
A question for further thought
- What tasks or types of work do you find contentment in after you complete them?
The fall of work: a broken environment
If it is true that we were created to enjoy work — and find meaning and fulfillment in doing good works and serving God — then why is this seldom true for so many of us?
Because of the fall of man (when sin entered the world through Adam’s disobedience), work is now more difficult and our relationship with it is more complex.
“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.” — Genesis 3:17–19
The complexities of this broken relationship can play out in negative ways…
- Lower yields from our efforts in our line of work
- People we work with (and ourselves) become selfish
- Relationships become more challenging
- Work often feels tedious and hard
- Work can feel meaningless
Work is not cursed, but the environment of work is
It’s important to note here that while the curse does in fact make our work more difficult, and lowers the yield of our work, and makes the environment we work in much less hospitable, it doesn’t change the original intent of work. Work itself is not directly cursed; God curses the ground. We are still intended to work and to find joy in it.
So to define humanity, part of that definition must describe our nature as workers; even as workers who are supposed to continue working even after the fall (Genesis 3:23). In fact, it’s a privilege to work with and for the Lord.
God could have chosen to curse work directly
This grace to continue engaging in meaningful work is a privilege. God could have chosen to make us work without end, like Greek mythology story of Sisyphus, who was forced to roll a heavy boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back to him… for eternity. In a way, our work could have been cursed where there would be no rest from our toil. Or, he could have even forbid us from working, and taken away our capacity to join him in his work of subduing the Earth and stewarding its resources.
It may help to consider this on a personal level; think for yourself of a time when a parent, friend, or coworker took some work that you cared about out of your hands. Maybe it was the IT guy who asked you to step aside to fix your computer, or a friend who interrupted your train of thought so they could solve the problem without your input.
Whatever the situation, most of us know or have experienced that when meaningful work is taken away from us, it takes away a part of us that is created to work, and removes part of the value we bring as image bearers of a God who works.
That leaves us knowing this for sure: that being human means, in part, that we engage in meaningful work. And the good news for us is that God has plans and purposes for our work despite us living in a broken world.
Questions for further thought
- What are some things about your job that you find joy in? Why do you find joy in those things?
- What can be frustrating about your work, and what are the causes?
- How is your industry or even your workplace specifically affected by the brokenness of sin?
Click here to subscribe to get monthly For The Nations updates and new Field Memo editions.