Recently I was in a fine leather store admiring a briefcase that I will never be able to own (at least, not if I want to stay married). While the sales clerk was showing me more affordable items, another customer came into the store. The clerk said, “How are you doing today?” The customer said, “Fine” (which, as I once heard a pastor say, is an acronym for “frail, insecure, neurotic, and exhausted!”). Not to be silenced by the curt nature of the reply, the clerk pressed a little further: “Just fine? Not doing great?” he said. She replied, “It’s never great when you have to work.”
Sadly, this attitude is shared by many. Work is seen as a necessary evil, an aberration to what would otherwise be a fulfilled and happy life. Our goal should be, the culture tells us, to work as little as we have to and retire as soon as we can. Many modern marketing strategies are predicated on this pervasive attitude. For example, I get junk e-mail every day telling me how I can work only a few hours a week and make up to $100,000 a year! And legions of commercials by investment firms promise that you can retire “early” and start living the “good life” by age 40 if you just plan right! Of course, to do that we must hunker down and work like mad, sacrificing everything else in the mean-time. The result of all this is frustration and stress. It is a vicious cycle that can leave us nowhere short of despair.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Once work was a fulfilling blessing for man. Thus, work itself is not the problem. Rather, it is sin, which came into the world and frustrated man’s labor and the fulfillment he derived from his work. What is needed today is a renewed understanding of what God intended for us in our work, how the Fall affected work, and how we as believers need to view our labors until the consummation.
Work Before the Fall
Can you imagine a time when work was nothing but pure joy? Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh often describes his work as “having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have,” but we all know this is a tongue-in-cheek comment. No matter how much some of us love what we do, we experience times of aggravation and frustration. For instance, I love to write, but I often find myself wandering the parking lot with writer’s block, searching for the right words. Even as I write this article, my knee is bouncing! And yet I love what I do. But before sin entered the world, there was nothing like this. There was no anxiety or stress associated with labor. It was pure joy to work.
God defined Adam’s job description quite clearly: “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ … Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Gen. 1:28; 2:15).
The pattern for Adam and Eve’s lives was established: They were to do their labors six days, and rest on the Sabbath as God had. Interestingly, the word translated “put” (or “placed”) in Genesis 2:15 is actually from the Hebrew word for “rest.” In his commentary on the book of Genesis, Allen Ross says, “It means ‘placed’ in this passage, but the choice of a word with overtones of ‘rest’ is important.” The idea is that the nature of￼the work Adam and Eve engaged in was “restful,” not wearisome like post-Fall labor. As long as they obeyed God, their labors brought them as much pleasure as did their recreations.
The Fall’s Effect on Work
Since Adam and Eve did not obey God, the consequences of their disobedience came upon them. God placed a curse on Adam’s work: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:17b–19).
Here we see quite clearly that the curse was not work itself; the curse was put upon Adam’s labor. The Fall affected man’s work specifically. Adam ate that which was forbidden, and God’s punishment fits the crime. Bruce Waltke notes that, in response to man’s sin of eating, God’s speech to Adam mentions “eating” no less than five times. Adam no longer would be the master of the ground, but would be mastered by it. He would have painful “toil” in his work, in that what once was gathered easily would now come only with difficulty. Every time Adam went to work, it would be a reminder of his transgression and what he had lost. In addition, he would have to deal with recalcitrant soil that would produce thorns and thistles that would inhibit his ability to work, as well as utilize precious soil that could be used for food-bearing crops. And as if that weren’t enough, God told him that death would be the only relief from this. All of life, as the preacher says, would now be vain (Eccl. 1:2).
This is what we have inherited, and these are the circumstances under which we now perform our own “bread-winning.” While most of us no longer till the ground, the effects of the Fall remain readily evident in every task that we perform: computers crash, bosses act unreasonably, employees don’t show up, spreadsheets don’t balance, children disobey, co-workers stab us in the back to get ahead, parishioners prove to be a pain, and the list goes on. Thorns and thistles are now everywhere, frustrating that upon which God conferred the divine benediction of “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
But thankfully, because the labors of Christ were not in vain, our labors are not in vain. In Christ, the restoration of all things has begun, and we and our labors are a part of that glorious task.
The Work of Christ
When someone speaks of “the work of Christ,” we usually infer from that a reference to our personal salvation. Our sin was imputed to Christ on the cross, and His righteousness was imputed to us. Obviously this is one aspect of Christ’s work, but the implications of His sacrifice on the cross go far beyond our personal salvation.
In Romans 8:20–22, Paul writes: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
Paul tells us that, in Adam, the whole creation fell, so that even “the stars are not pure in His sight” (Job 25:5). But as all fell in Adam, so in the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), Jesus Christ, all things will be restored. All too often evangelical Christianity has truncated the implications of Christ’s work to personal salvation only, ignoring God’s plan, revealed in Scripture, to renovate the creation through Christ. Thus, much of the church has retreated from anything that is not specifically ecclesiastical. This makes any “work” that is not directly associated with the church of no ultimate value. The consequences of this have been devastating. Christians have come to see their efforts in the arts, law, politics, education, economics, and other non- ecclesiastical endeavors as little more than treading water for a paycheck. Coupled with the curse on labor itself, this outlook has produced a work ethic of frustration and futility.
But we see that all authority has been given to Jesus in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), and that He is delivering the creation from bondage. As John Murray pointed out: “It is not only believers who are to be delivered from the bondage of corruption but the creation itself also.” Christ is redeeming His creation! Every area of life is being renewed: individuals, families, churches, communities, and states. Because of this, all work is of equal value to G
od’s purposes. As Martin Luther said, “The works of monks and priests in God’s sight are in no way whatever superior to the works of a farmer laboring in the field, or of a woman looking after her home.” It is in this reality that we find our sense of purpose in our labors.
Our Work for Christ
Since we know that the curse of the Fall was not work itself, and that Christ is renewing every area of life, we not only have a sense of purpose in our labors, but also a mandate. As Paul tells us, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We look forward to the consummation, when the curse will be lifted and God’s original design for labor will be restored. But in the meantime, Christ, not man, is building His kingdom, and He has chosen to accomplish that through His people and their labors. Therefore, we labor among the thorns and thistles, and all the frustrations that they bring, with hope and purpose. Whatever it is that God has called us to do has a place in His ultimate purpose of renewal.