Work often seems like a drudge. We spend our weeks longing for the weekend, when we can stop working and put our feet up. We spend our working years longing for retirement, when we can stop working altogether and do the things we enjoy.
At best, many of us tolerate work. At worst, we despise it.
Yet we have to work anyway. Indeed, humans have always had to work. Why is this the case? Why is work such an integral part of the human life?
Let’s look back to the creation story in Genesis 1-2 to discover why we have to work — and why it many not be such a bad thing.
We work because we have material bodies with material needs.
In Genesis 1 we learn that God made human beings with material as well as spiritual components. He made man out “of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [or spirit] of life” (Genesis 2:7). The teaching that human beings consist of body and spirit is repeated and developed all throughout Scripture in many different contexts (Matthew 10:28; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Colossians 2:5; James 2:26).
So, in the beginning, God made man a composite unity, a material/spiritual being, and placed him in the created realm within the garden of Eden. That humanity has a spirit is one of the ways in which we are like God, for “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Yet in possessing a physical or material body, we are fundamentally unlike God the Father. This is one of the innumerable ways in which we have been made “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5).
Later, though, at the incarnation, Jesus took on a material body, thus becoming like us (Hebrews 2:14). The Gospels tell us Christ has a resurrected physical body (Luke 24:39), the same type of glorified material body believers will one day receive (Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:21; 1 John 3:2). Having a physical body, then, cannot be inherently bad. In fact, as God declared at the conclusion of his creation, the material realm, including man’s physical body, is very good.
Since we have material bodies, we naturally have material needs. The good news is that God has made provision within his creation to meet humanity’s material needs. For example, before the fall, God situated Adam and Eve in a presumably temperate environment and gave them the fruit of the trees for food (Genesis 1:29; 2:9). Later, after the fall, God gave them animal skins for clothing and meat for food (Genesis 3:21; 9:3). On further reflection, it seems amazing — indeed, it must be a mark of God’s foreknowledge and grace — that he would build into the pre-fall world the resources necessary to meet humanity’s post-fall material needs, such as clothing and shelter.
One of the significant points of the creation narrative is that, of all the living beings God made, only people were given a job and directed to work. The animals were given permission to breed and to roam the earth, but only Adam was given an explicit, divine command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Beyond this, Adam was assigned the tasks of tilling the ground, tending the garden of Eden and naming the animals (Genesis 2:15, 19). Remember, this labor was all prescribed before the fall; thus, it was part of the divine blueprint for humanity and was inherently good.
Christianity is different from all other world religions in that it does not teach that sin entered the world after a golden age of leisure, nor does it teach that the afterlife will include the cessation of labor. Indeed, in the ancient biblical world, Christianity must have seemed odd in its view of work. The Roman gods were divine rulers, the Greek gods were philosopher-kings and the Judeo-Christian God was a carpenter. We must understand the nature of God and man, as well as the foundational design for work, because true freedom is the ability to do what we were created to do — to function in accord with our nature, working to meet our own material needs.
We work because of the imago Dei.
Turning back to the creation narrative, another highly significant teaching is that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him” (Genesis 1:27). The concept of the image of God is a complex theological issue that stretches well beyond the scope of this article. With this in mind, we’ll focus on one part of this important biblical teaching — the functional aspect of image-bearing. In short, since God made us in his own image, God expects us to act like him. How can we accomplish this monumental task?
After creating us in his own image, the Bible relates that God gave humanity two specific tasks at which to labor. The first was to procreate—that is, to multiply and bear children (Genesis 1:28). If we reflect on this command apart from our familiarity with the text, the instruction to multiply may seem odd. Think about this for a moment. Of all the possible commands God could have given, why did he charge Adam and Eve with procreation? Wouldn’t they have done so anyway? God could have given humanity any directive, yet he chose to command procreation. Why? The opening chapters of Genesis are about God’s work of creation; therefore, after making Adam and Eve in his own image, God essentially told them, “Bear my image. Function like me. Create.” God is creator, and his image-bearers are commanded to pro-create.
The second task God gave Adam and Eve was to subdue the earth and to “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). As with the command to procreate, so the task to exercise dominion has its roots in us being created in the image of God. Since the Lord is sovereign over all things, and since he created humanity in his own image, he then directed his image-bearers to function like him in exercising dominion (or sovereignty) over the creation.
By engaging in these two areas of labor — procreation and dominion — we can functionally bear the image of God. This is what we were designed to do. This is what brings satisfaction to people and glory to God. But we must not limit the scope of these two tasks to the obvious applications of childbearing and exercising authority.
Fundamentally speaking, procreation is the creation and fostering of human relationships; this is manifested in childbearing within marriage. However, viewed more widely, procreation entails creating and fostering relationships in various social contexts, including families, churches, schools, cities, governments and so on. In this sense, the duty to procreate can be applied culture-wide. This is part of our work.
In a basic sense, exercising dominion entails creating order out of chaos or bringing direction to that which is aimless. As with procreation, so the scope of exercising dominion is vast and culture-wide. In regard to human relationships, exercising dominion may involve cultivating leadership, providing order or exercising self-control. Concerning the natural world, exercising dominion may include building infrastructure, developing agriculture, domesticating animals, enhancing education, furthering the arts and countless other contexts in which order and direction are needed.
These directives to exercise dominion and to procreate are often referred to as the “cultural mandate.” When we apply the cultural mandate spiritually within the fallen world, the resulting paradigm is what theologians call the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). The work of evangelism is, in a sense, procreation of spiritual life as people are born again. Similarly, exercising dominion over sin and bringing order to all areas of a believer’s life is the process of spiritual maturity or personal discipleship.