Work: Curse, Blessing, or…?

Feb 20, 2018

As I drive to work in the morning, I sometimes glance into the faces of other drivers and the passengers in their cars. Because of the time of day and the normal patterns of life, I presume almost every one of us is headed for work. I must say I don’t see many smiles. We’re a haggard bunch, by and large.

The early hour may be one reason for the scarcity of even semi-happy faces, and the pressure of driving in traffic may be another. I suspect, however, that a larger component of the evident lack of enthu­siasm for the day has to do with the likelihood that many are headed for a day in which they wish they could be doing something other than what awaits them at work.

I further reason that surely some of the faces I see were in a place of worship the past week or will be in one the next week. Identifying who was and who wasn’t and who will be and who won’t be is not possible from the looks on their faces, however—and not even from the way they drive, I might add, but that’s another matter!

Only a bumper sticker here or there offers a distinguishing clue, and such symbols are no guarantees of the commitments of the drivers and passengers. If the car ahead of you has on its bumper a sticker that invites, “Honk if you love Jesus,” you would not be wise to accept the invitation at the moment a red light changes to green. I might say, too, that I tend to wonder about the drivers of those cars that have the sign of the fish, representing Christianity, on the trunk but also have a radar detector on the dash.

Nevertheless, assuming that at least some of the people I see as I drive to work are people of faith, I find myself asking what work means to them. What ideas do they hold about work? What does their faith teach them about work?

Through the centuries, faith has taught more than one view of the subject of work. In this chapter, I intend to summarize those views as identified in the Bible. Now, I’m aware that my statement of intention will turn some people on because Bible study is especially meaningful to them or because they hunger to know what the Bible teaches on this subject as well as perhaps on other subjects. Because I’ve spent a good number of years developing skills in interpreting the Bible, even to the point of being able to read the Greek New Testament, turning to the Bible for direction comes readily to mind; it’s second nature for me.

Maybe that’s not you, though. If so, as if you need it, then you have my permission to skip this chapter. I do believe, however, if you’ll read or even skim this chapter, you’ll pick up some insights you need about the biblical view of work. Furthermore, becoming aware of the multiplicity of views will help you broaden and deepen your perspec­tive on work. Such a broadened and deepened perspective might also lead you and other people of faith to greater inner satisfaction with work if not to more smiles on the way to work. The intent is to provide help in relating faith to daily work and seeing particularly how faith can express itself in daily work.

 Work as Divine Assignment

We can trace the idea of work as God’s assignment to human beings to the first chapters of the first book of the Bible. One reference to this assignment can be seen in God’s instructions to human beings to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Gen 1:28)

The order to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” surely relates to the function of extending the human family. The population—overpopulation—of our world is evidence that human beings have outdone themselves in obeying this instruction.

The instructions to “subdue” and “have dominion” can be understood as relating to the idea of work. Of course, the intent of these instructions may be simply to give the powerful message that human beings are to be caretakers of the world on God’s behalf as creatures made in God’s image. It is also possible, however, to understand that the instructions to “subdue” and “have dominion” involve functioning, working, on God’s behalf in developing the world God brought forth out of chaos. Genesis 2:2 understands God to be a working God who “rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” This working God is the God in whose image human beings are made. As creatures made in this working God’s image, human beings have been assigned the task of working on God’s behalf in the midst of God’s cre­ation to subdue and have dominion over it.

The creation account in Genesis 2 amplifies and personalizes God’s assignment to human beings to work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (v. 15). God had planted this garden and placed the man in it (v. 8). Note that as with the creation account in Genesis 1, the creation account in Genesis 2 pictures God as having worked, and then as having assigned to human beings the responsibility for working to care for what God had planted. This assignment means that we have a role in God’s plan for developing the world, and we fulfill that role when we work.

Illustrations of this view can be seen in specific places in the Bible, For example, Exodus 35:30-35 identifies God as the source of the skill Bezel and Ahola used in working with gold, silver, brass, and cloth, as well as other kinds of work. Such abilities were useful in constructing the tabernacle and its furnishings. Similarly, Isaiah 28:23-29 refers to God as the source of the farmer’s creativity in growing crops. Each of these illustrations implies that God is intimately involved in daily work and that the worker is participating with God in developing the world.

The divinely-assigned nature of work for Christians can be seen pointedly in Colossians 3:23-24. The message in these venues is directed particularly to slaves. Even though they are slaves, they are to do their work in recognition that God, not human beings, is their ulti­mate master. As they work, they are to work for the Lord, not for their earthly masters.

Work, then, is our divine assignment to develop our world on God’s behalf. Furthermore, work is the means by which we carry out that assignment.

We may wonder, of course, to what extent the specific daily work we do really contributes to developing the world of which God has made us caretakers. We do have choices to make as to which part of the garden we work in, and it seems reasonable to assume that we would be more productive in certain areas than in others. The overarching truth, however, is still the same. Our daily work is, at least potentially, a way to carry out God’s assignment to human beings made in the early chapters of Genesis.

Work was a divine assignment before work was ever viewed as a curse. Even in the paradise of Eden, work was a part of life and considered to be an assignment by God.

Paul affirmed this idea of work in his letters to the Thessalonian Christians, especially the second letter. To some of their company who evidently felt themselves above the need to work, Paul pointedly said,

Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess 3:10-12)

 Work as Curse

The idea of work as curse comes from an interpretation of God’s pronouncement to the erring man in Genesis 3. The man and the woman had yielded to the trickery of the serpent and eaten the forbidden fruit. God then gave to each—serpent, woman, and man—a punishment appropriate to their respective roles.

The nature of the punishment on the serpent, the woman, and the man provides answers to questions about each of them. Why does the serpent crawl on its belly, having no legs, and why metaphorically does the deceitfulness of evil so readily attack human beings? Why is woman’s way of childbearing so difficult and her relationship with man so conflicted? Why is man’s work of tilling the soil so hard and unproductive? The punishments meted out provide answers to these questions.

The curse on the ground is the specific source of the idea of work as curse or punishment. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (v. 17). Note the parallels in this punishment on the man to the punishment on the woman. As the woman is now in a contradictory, conflicted relationship with the man from which she was created (vv. 21-23), so also the man is now in a contradictory, conflicted relationship with the very ground from which he himself was created. Alienation, estrangement, discord, and difficulty now mark these relationships that once were characterized by unity and intimacy.

But is the curse on the ground the source of work? Not at all, for we have already noted that work existed in Eden even prior to the temptation, the yielding, the discovery, and the punishment. So, the result of the curse on the ground is not that work itself becomes a curse. Rather, the result is that now work, as commentator Gerhard von Rad describes so picturesquely, makes life so wretched, that it is so threatened by failures and wastes of time and often enough comes to nothing, that its actual result usu­ally has no relation to the effort expended.

As another biblical commentator, C. U. Wolf, summarizes more succinctly, “Sin did not make labor necessary, but it made it less rewarding and subject to frustrations and problems.’’ Genesis 3 thus suggests that the wrong choice of the man and the woman changed them as well as their circumstances. Therefore, work becomes drudgery.

The prospects for finding meaning and satisfaction in daily work seem rather dismal then, don’t they? In a similar light, a parishioner who had just heard the pastor speak about the terrible consequences of the Fall is supposed to have remarked, “Well, if it’s as bad as all that, then God help us.” Of course, that’s just the point of the rest of the biblical story.

God did not leave human beings in the predicament described in Genesis 3:16-19. God’s provision of redemptive grace can remove at least some of the consequences of life in a world gone astray from God. Work’s frustrations and problems are among the consequences with which God’s grace can assist if not remove entirely.

Then why is work so frustrating and not at all a paradise even if we are people of faith? One way of answering this question is to realize that even God’s grace does not return people to the paradise that existed prior to the Fall. Rather, following the biblical image, we continue to live in a fallen world where the consequences of sin are evident. That world includes the world of work.

Even so, we need not see work as being under a curse or a curse in itself. Rather, as theologian Dorothy Soelle affirms, “When God, incarnate in Jesus, became a worker, our understanding of work was finally freed from the tradition of the curse.” Jesus the carpenter demonstrated in his own life the redemption of daily work. So work itself is not a curse, however we may feel about our work on a given Monday morning.

Written by Ross West, excerpted from Go to Work and Take Your Faith Too! Ross is a writer, speaker, seminar leader and consultant for businesses and churches on the topic of faith in the workplace.  Used by permission. Content distributed by > Used for non-profit teaching purposes only.