Work is Not the Curse…but It Is Cursed

In my last post, we saw that all work when done to the glory of God is sacred. There is no such thing as “sacred” work (like the work of a pastor) and “secular” work (like the work of a engineer or lawyer). We get tastes of the beauty and sacredness of work in this life. However, our world is more like Genesis 3 than Genesis 1-2. Sin has brought a curse upon everything—even our work.

In Genesis 3, right after Adam and Even disobey God for the first time, God issues a judgment to them. He says to Eve, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16). Eve’s work was primarily homeward in orientation. She would bear and raise children. This would now be painful.

Adam’s work was primarily outside the home in orientation. He worked the field. Now, God said, Adam would eat of the ground “in pain” and it would bring forth “thorns and thistles” (vv. 17-18). Fruitful labor would only come through hard, sweaty work. And eventually, God said, it would kill Adam (v. 19).

Because of sin, everything that formerly was under the dominion of God and his servants, Adam and Eve, is now under a curse. Work is hard, painful, and, eventually, it kills us.

Genesis 3 is the reason when you plant a tree in your front yard, you dig down and hit the gas line. Genesis 3 is the reason you need to trim the door 43 times before it will shut properly. Genesis 3 is the reason why no matter how many resumes you send out, you don’t get a call back. Genesis 3 is the reason why your body aches on Friday and when Monday morning rolls around, you ask, “Is this all there is to life?”

Everyone in the world feels the pain of Genesis 3. Everyone knows work is hard. You can’t get away with working 70 hours a week for 40 years. That’s why we have labor laws.

Now, for Christians, there are two sinful extremes we need to avoid when living in a post-Genesis 3 world. The first is believing that work is the curse. This produces laziness. You may believe that when sin entered the world, work was walking right alongside. Have you ever felt that temptation? If you have ever been lazy (like I have), then you functionally believed that work is the curse. But Genesis 1-2 are clear work is sacred and good and God made work before the fall.

The second sinful response to be avoided is to make work your identity. Sin has brought about what I call “identity mis-calibration.” Sin moves us to search for identity—significance, worth, and meaning—in anything other than God. For many of us, this means we look to work for our identity. Instead of becoming lazy, we become obsessed with work. We embrace the sweat, go overboard and use work to find fulfillment and happiness. But Genesis 1-2 are clear that our identity comes from being made in God’s image. Not from the work we do.

In our flesh, we will resort to either one of this. But if you belong to Jesus, you are not merely flesh. So if we are going to work Christianly in the world, we need to see how Jesus transforms our work. That’s what we’ll address in Monday’s post.


God Made You to Work and This Is Very Good

Eusebius of Caesarea was a bishop and a church historian during the time of Constantine (late 3rd to early 4th century). One of the indelible marks Eusebius left on the church was the idea that there were two kinds of callings in the Christian life. The perfect life and the permitted life. The perfect life was that spiritual, contemplative life reserved for those who worked as priests, monks, and nuns. He said this life was “above nature, and beyond common human living” (Proof of the Gospel, Bk. 1, ch. 8)

The permitted life, on the other hand, was that physical, active life reserved for those who worked a farmers, soldiers, merchants, and even those raising families. Eusebius went so far to say that those who live the permitted life have “a kind of secondary grade of piety (Proof, Bk. 1, ch. 8).

For the last 17 centuries, this dualistic view of work has plagued the church. We have divided work into sacred and secular, higher and lower, varsity Christian and JV Christian. Don’t get me wrong—it is a significant thing to be a pastor or a missionary. But it is not better or more holy or more important than being a surgeon, a mother, an architect, or a garbage man. Few of us would ever admit that there is a perfect life, of course. We would never say, “My pastor is living the perfect life. He’s a walking slice of heaven on earth!”

Yet the dualism Eusebius created is so ingrained into our culture (and Christian sub-culture) that we affirm and perpetuate it it when we say things like, “She’s going in to full-time ministry.” (As if there is part-time ministry for a disciple of Jesus.) “Those missionaries are doing God’s work.” (As if a mom changing diapers is not.)

Obviously some people earn their living by teaching the Scriptures, shepherding, and spreading the gospel. But that does not mean all other work—“permitted work,” as it were—is lower class.

Rather, the Christian perspective on work (labor, occupation, etc.) is holistic, robust, and profoundly empowering no matter what you do for your occupation. In fact, the beginning of the biblical story is abundantly clear that all work when done to the glory of God is sacred.

In Genesis 1-2, we see that God made human begins to “have dominion over” every created thing (1:28). Genesis 2:15 says, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” In these two chapters we learn at least three potent truths:

  1. We are image bearers of God. Our inherent worth and value comes from being like God in some way. Our primary calling in life is not to something but to Someone—namely God. We were made to worship him and find our joy, meaning, significance, value, and purpose in him.
  2. A result of being made in God’s image is that, like God, we work. As image bearers of God, we reflect him. Therefore, God made humans to work. Adam and Eve were under-lords, charged with exercising dominion on God’s behalf by using their intelligence, creativity, organization, and diligence. The difference between God’s work and ours, of course, is that we aren’t creating from nothing. Human work takes the raw material of creation, brings it order and makes something beautiful. But work is not our identity—that comes from being made in the image of God. Still work in the beginning was the primary way human beings praised and glorified their Creator. Adam and Eve weren’t having church services all day long. They walked with God and worked in God’s garden.
  3. Work is very good. After each day of creation, God saw that what he made was good. But it wasn’t until he made human beings, male and female, and those human beings to work that everything was “very good” (1:31). Adam’s work was worthy and valuable and good! And get this: Adam was not a pastor or missionary or monk. He was a farmer (and, as my wife pointed out, a zookeeper, too)! If Eusebius was right—that there is a perfect life and a permitted life, then God was wrong because Adam’s occupation was working and keeping the Garden. But God was not wrong. Work, all work, when done to the glory of God, is very good. It is sacred and beautiful.

Most of us, Christian or not, get glimpses of Genesis 1-2 in our lives from time to time. Have you ever worked to create something or put something into order—a budget, a bridge, a song, a tomato plant, a sandbox, swept a floor, organized a pantry, unloaded a delivery truck—and had a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction? Have you ever said about your work, I was made for this? You felt this because you were made to work. In that moment, whether you admitted it or not, you believed God’s original design was very good.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a Genesis 1-2 kind of world. We live in a world where sin has degraded everything, including our work. In the next post, I’ll consider Genesis 3 and what sin does to work.