I don’t often win theological arguments with my dad; with an MDiv from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and over thirty years of pastoral ministry, Phillip Herring is highly versed in the intricacies of the faith. The one moment when I was right sticks in my mind: we were arguing over the nature of work.
“Work came after the fall, which makes it part of the curse,” he insisted.
“No! Work happens before the fall, so it’s good,” I maintained. Rarely can theological controversies be solved by just “looking it up,” but this turned out to be the case. We discovered that work begins in Genesis 2, and therefore I won the day.
I’ve thought back on that conversation several time over the years, because people often do not enjoy their work. “O no – Monday is coming!” might be an attitude made popular by Garfield the Cat, but it shows up all to often in the real workplace. In contrast to this negative attitude towards work, the Bible presents work as God’s vocation given to his highest creation.
The Story of Work
Genesis 1 recounts the creation of both man and woman: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let him have dominion over [all that exists]’” (Genesis 1:26). After creating the first man and woman, God said to them,
Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the 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)
Genesis 2 recounts the same events, but with a different emphasis. In v. 15 we learn that “the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Such a task, however, does not belong to men alone. God made him a helper (Genesis 2:18). Adam names all the creatures, and among them “there was not found a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). This task of working creation, of bringing forth the potential God had hidden within creation, was so complex that it required God to create the woman as a helper.
When Adam saw Eve, he recognized another like himself, one who could accomplish this work God had given them: “Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man’” (Genesis 2:23). Moses ends the chapter by tying this story to the origins of marriage (Genesis 2:24). While this passage holds immense implications for a theology of marriage, it also points to the fact that God calls both men and women to the work of stewarding creation.
In Genesis 3, everything changes. Sin enters the world through the man and woman’s disobedience, and work itself is altered. God tells Adam,
Cursed is the ground because of you, in pain shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread… (Genesis 3:17-19)
Work, in the aftermath of sin, is changed from something always enjoyable to something difficult. Like each part of the curse, however, the original goodness is not completely removed. Men and women are changed, but the image of God is not destroyed. Work was part of what God called “good” and “very good”; this goodness is marred but not destroyed.
Work becomes not just a means to a paycheck, but a way of worshipping God through our daily lives.Click to tweet
Pushing Back Against the Curse
Our sinful nature rejects the hard labor required for flourishing in this world. And yet, when we work well, we are pushing back the curse of sin upon the world. Richard Weaver explores this reality in his timeless book, Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver argues that every task carries within itself the “conception of its perfect execution.” It is the goal of the craftsmen to find that “conception” and make it manifest. When he does so, Weaver argues, the craftsman ties his reputation to the quality of the work. Rather than simply working for a paycheck or accomplishing the minimum amount of necessary effort, Weaver argues that when men do good work they have the satisfaction of fulfilling the potential within the task. Such a satisfaction links the work to the craftsmen’s integrity.
Weaver’s argument aligns with Paul’s view of work in his epistle to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Such work lies at the heart of our life in this world; it enables our generosity (I Timothy 5:8), and is so critical that Paul instructed one church that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Work is part of our vocation as human beings, and as Christians God calls us to bring forth the excellence within each task.
Work in this fallen world is difficult; it often feels tedious and unnecessary. The biblical record shows us a higher vision: as image bearers of the creator, we are tasked with making manifest the hidden potential of reality. That work is difficult, but good. When we work, Scripture shows us, we are fulfilling the image that God placed within us. Work becomes not just a means to a paycheck, but a way of worshipping God through our daily lives. Rather than a race to the weekend, work enables lives filled with dignity and integrity. Laziness only encourages our sinful hearts; when we work to the glory of God, we evidence man made fully alive taking dominion of God’s world for God’s glory.
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 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 67-72.