The most recent Truth Project lesson I watched at work was on labor and economics. With an increasing number of people in the U.S. out of work and the very nature of work changing in our country (manufacturing to a knowledge economy; career stability over the long-term to changing jobs or careers often), it is worth reflecting on the nature of work and how we should approach work.
I think it is rare for people to enjoy what they do for a living. Most people think of their work as a necessary evil – something they have to do for money in order to support themselves. Perpetual complaining about Mondays and longing for Fridays reveal this attitude. In the myth of Pandora’s Box, one of the evils unleashed upon the world is labor. Should we view work as a curse on humanity?
To gain a proper view of work, we should look to see if work is part of ideal human existence. Was there work prior to sin and death? In Genesis 1, we learn that God Himself is a worker. The acts of creation are presented in Scripture as work: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work (Genesis 2:2)” Likewise, God calls mankind to work (ruling and having dominion over creation), and we see the first man working, tending the Garden (physical work) and categorizing/naming the animals (intellectual work). Indeed, just as God is a creative worker, so has He endowed humanity with inventive powers to create and produce. So work is not a curse, but part of the essence of God and humanity.
Why then is work often so frustrating, tedious, and unsatisfying? Our experience of work is blemished because God cursed work as a punishment for sin (Genesis 3):
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Since the fall, nature has resisted our efforts to subdue it (as anyone with a lawn or garden can attest!). Thus work is frustrating because we often cannot achieve our goals in subduing creation for our benefit.
Yet in spite of the curse on work, productive, creative labor remains God’s ideal for humanity. The fourth of the ten commandments, what is thought of as the Sabbath command to rest, also focuses on work: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work…” How we should approach work is also part of the moral vision of the New Testament:
5Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free (Ephesians 6:1-5).
If slaves should approach work this way, how much more should we who labor freely work wholeheartedly! In Christ, labor takes on a whole new purpose: we are not just working to make a living, but to do the will of God, achieving ends God cares about. Through our work, we can beautify the earth, provide for not only our own needs but contribute to the welfare of humanity, and through our excess help care for the poor. Viewing our work from the perspective of divine purpose, we can learn to replace “Oh man, it’s Monday, I’ve got to go to work today” with “Yeah, it’s Monday, I get to go back to work!”
At the bottom of Pandora’s box, after all its horrors had been unleashed, was hope. As we struggle against futility to find joy and purpose in our work, we labor with the hope that in Christ we can “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).”