Work: A blessing or a curse?

work-in-progress1How do you view work? I find most people, including myself, have a love/hate relationship with work.  We find enormous satisfaction in a job well done, yet are frustrated by not being able to do what we want because we must work.

Not so sure?  Notice how many conversations revolve around vacation itineraries, weekend plans and retirement dreams at the water cooler and in social settings.  Then listen for people’s excitement as they talk about a case won, a deal closed, a promotion, a completed semester, a deadline met, a finished remodeling project, a garden planted.  There’s tension and a paradox in the subject of work.

Which isn’t surprising when one travels back to the first chapters of Genesis and looks at the topic.  The biblical story opens in Genesis 1 with God creating the “heavens and the earth” and every living thing.  (How he did this and how long it took isn’t the issue here, only the affirmation that God was the agent and designer behind it all.)  Then Genesis 2:13 states God finished the work he had been doing and rested on the seventh day.  Work and the need for rest from work have been the plan from the beginning.

The concept of work trickled down from the Creator’s example to the Creature’s mandate in Genesis 1:26-28.  God made mankind as male and female and gave them a job to do – often termed the “cultural mandate”.  The task included being fruitful, multiplying, subduing the earth and ruling over the living creatures.  God creates a workplace for the start of the process when he plants a garden and puts the man there (Genesis 2:8) to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).  Most likely this meant a responsibility to “cultivate the garden and keep it”. (NDBT)    

In the earliest writings of God’s self-revelation and pre-fall, the concept and example of work is established.  Work is not seen as drudgery, burdensome, or something to be avoided at this stage, rather “work is intrinsic to created human existence” and portrayed in a positive light.  (NDBT)

When did the hate relationship with work take root?  When God cursed the ground post-fall and told Adam work would now involve painful toil, sweat, and the soil would produce thistles (Genesis 3:17). The fulfillment of the cultural mandate would no longer mean labor in God’s garden, but rather hard toil on begrudging ground.  A few commentators and preachers stretch this curse on the ground to include work itself, but such a stretch conflicts with other biblical passages and the general attitude toward the subject.

For example, God carefully outlines his blueprints for the tabernacle (Exodus 25-30) and then charges Moses to employ the skilled craftsman needed to create these designs – some of the workers are specifically named (Exodus 31:1-11).  If work were cursed (judged or denounced) per se why would God give meticulous instructions for constructing a space for worship and designate individuals to perform the tasks?

Isaiah describes the new heavens and new earth and talks of the inhabitants building houses, planting vineyards and eating fruit (Isaiah 65:21-23).  Rather than heaven being a place of endless leisure, it will be a peaceful place characterized by fruitful work.

When the Israelites enter the land of Canaan, God speaks in glowing terms of this good land which will abundantly produce crops enough to provide sustenance and satisfaction.  Presumably this will be a partnership between God and man and require work and responsibility on the part of humans.  God will bless the efforts, but the warning given is to not forget that it is God who gives the abundance (Deuteronomy 8:11-14).  

From these few examples, we can see that scripture does not sugarcoat work, but neither does it demonize it.  The writer of Ecclesiastes readily acknowledges the tension and paradox of work when he charges people to enjoy their toil even while declaring much of the work to be meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, 24-25).  Who hasn’t experienced that feeling?  Why am I cleaning the floor when it will be dirty again in 24 hours?  Why does the boss want me to do this? It’s a complete waste of time.

Granted, much of work is mundane, boring, humdrum and involves frustration, sweat, toil and even blood; but it isn’t cursed.  God himself provided the example of work followed by rest and charged mankind to do likewise.  From the beginning God gave humans a job to do, a task to fulfill, a mandate to complete and the ability to enjoy the fruits of labor and the work of their hands.  We were not created for a life of endless vacations and leisure no matter how much we think that would make us happy and complete.

Nope, we were made to work and to find satisfaction in a job well done in partnership with a God who did the same.

NDBT – New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

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