Understanding Work

Is work a gift or a curse?

For many, work appears to be at best a means of making cash, and at worst just an accident of life.

Did work originate before or after the Fall? Is it part of God’s punishment on us? Or does the Bible have something completely different to say about our working lives?

In the beginning …God worked. Is that a shock to you? We can easily make the mistake of thinking that work only came along as a punishment for sin. Yet the truth is that the very first thing we know about God in the Bible is that he works. The God of the Bible is the Creator God and his creation of the heavens and the earth is described in Genesis 2:2 as his work. 

So what does our work mean to God? And what should it mean to us? 

A Creative Legacy.

God, by the power of his spoken word, has made everything out of nothing. But we also see from Genesis 1 that his work is methodical, carefully planned and brilliantly executed. It is supremely creative and totally entrepreneurial. At the end of each stage God did four things – he classified or filed away at the end of the day (named); he evaluated what he had done (looked at it); he found pleasure in what he had done (it was good); and he rested. Here is a crucial thing for us to learn – God enjoys his work! 

We also know that God made us in his image (Genesis 1:26). This means that when the Lord made us in his likeness, he made us with a God-given ability to find pleasure in using our creative gifts well. So, we naturally enjoy doing things well. Ecclesiastes 3:13 says if any person finds pleasure or satisfaction in their work, that is a gift from God!

Jobs for Life.

Genesis 1:26-28 tells us something of what we are made for – to have dominion over God’s creation. Remember that this God-given duty is described in the context of Adam and Eve having a close personal relationship with the Lord and before sin enters that relationship. 

It is dominion with responsibility and accountability to God. It is not, as some would suggest, an open door to the exploitation of nature, but rather an invitation to look after the world for its Creator. This is developed in Chapter 2 where Adam is to take care of the Garden of Eden for God (2:15). The Hebrew word used here for work suggests that Adam does his work in Eden out of a sense of duty, loyalty or service to God. Just as our worship of God and our service for him are done with the aim of glorifying God, so too work which is done by us within God’s creation can glorify him – even if that work is pruning the roses of Eden!

So, in the beginning we see two different aspects of human work: that which is part of our God-fashioned character, which gets a thrill from using our gifts and skills well; and that which is part of our God-ordained purpose within his creation, looking after it for him, in responsibility to him.

The Frustrated Design. We know that life on earth is no longer as God made it to be. In Genesis 3 Eve and Adam sin for the first time, turning their backs on God and his instructions. God punishes each of them, in the words traditionally known as ‘the curse’. For Eve, part of the punishment is that giving birth (her ultimate opportunity to take part in God’s creative design) becomes painful. Meanwhile, an equal part of the curse on Adam is that his work will no longer be easy, but painful, frustrating and unrewarding. Again, his chance to be involved in caring for God’s creation and participating in his own creativity is the element upon which God chooses to exact punishment.

The desire to find pleasure and satisfaction in work never goes away, and the potential to look after God’s creation purposefully in our work is never completely removed. But after the fall both of these created aspects of work become much more infrequent. So we see many around us who are frustrated in jobs which don’t use their gifts adequately, and we see many jobs which appear to have very little to do with the stewardship of God’s creation.

Is There Any Hope? 

The position in the Old Testament appears to be that the important thing about our work is why we do it, or rather who we do it for. Ecclesiastes talks about the futility of anything we do ‘under the sun’, that is anything which is done without God in mind. It is almost a definition of a secular or godless society. But the writer also says that whatever we do in life, we should do with our hearts and minds attuned to obedience to God, and in that way alone do we find meaning. Hence we can do any job with the aspiration of seeing God glorified through the way we work – it doesn’t matter if it is teaching a class, negotiating a sale, cleaning hospital equipment or whatever. A.W. Tozer said, ‘It is not what a person does which determines whether their work is sacred or secular, it is their attitude’.

In Genesis 11 we read the episode of the Tower of Babel. This construction project was probably carried out by bored structural engineers, trying to climb to heaven and earn themselves a reputation as architects (v. 4). Because the object of their work is their own glory, God looks at it and considers it worthless. He therefore sets out to confuse them and scatter them across the earth. By contrast in chapter 6, a man called Noah builds a boat the size of Wembley Stadium in the middle of a desert, using the entire world supply of gopher wood! This is a huge project. Noah, aided only by his three sons, has to chop down trees, cut timber, nail planks (and probably bash his thumb). This is manual labour, and yet, because Noah does his work for God, it is an amazingly sacred project which the Lord uses for the salvation of the human race.

Make no mistake, the same tools, the same techniques, the same frustration and the same joy would have been experienced in each of these projects, but only one of them was pleasing to God.

A Redeemed Purpose.

The New Testament teaches the same message even more clearly: we can always see our work as something to be done ‘for the Lord, not for human masters’ (Colossians 3:23). Paul reasons that we are redeemed by the death of Jesus on the cross and await his return. Therefore we should live in the light of both this past redemption and our future hope. This is the basis for any ethical Christian living in Paul’s mind – it is what motivates us to ‘live a life worhy of the Lord’ (Colossians 1:10). Since creation is being redeemed in Christ, so work can now be approached with its intrinsic pre-fall nature as something fundamentally good and – along with the rest of life – done for the Lord. Furthermore, in Titus 2:9-10, he declares that not only can we see our work as having the potential to glorify our Saviour, but we can also see it as a foundation for the promotion of the gospel itself!

So the Bible says work is a gift from God, a means by which we can seek to glorify him and by which we can hope to draw others to him. Nonetheless, it is a gift that is cursed and under that curse it often fails to provide the satisfaction or creative opportunity which we crave as human beings. This is so different from the popular view of work as something to be avoided, a painful addiction, or just a means to satisfying material lust. As Christians, the Bible gives us a radically different agenda with which to view our life’s occupations.