If I asked you when work came in the order of the creation narrative, what would you say? Did God give us work before or after the fall? On not a few occasions, when I’ve asked this question to a group of Bible study attendees I’ve heard some people in the group respond with a hesitant, “after the fall?” Whenever I teach on the doctrine of work, I usually open with this question because it helps me assess where my audience is on this topic. But asking this question also reaffirms my contention that a fair amount of Christians have imbibed the false notion that work is a result of sin and the curse.
It’s not surprising, then, when these same folks confess how much they struggle to rightly appropriate work into their Christian life. For many Christians, I fear the dissonance they experience between what they think the Bible teaches about work and the fact that they must spend the majority of their waking hours engaged in it is dealt with by either completely ignoring the problem or assuaging it with recreation and entertainment.
The solution to this cognitive dissonance, therefore, is to return to the creation narrative to learn exactly where work falls into God’s plan for humanity. If you’ve never studied this topic before, what we find in Genesis might surprise you.
Creation: The God Who Works
But before we begin to talk about human work, we need to step even further back into the creation narrative and observe how God works. Because we are created in God’s image, it’s reasonable that we would study the nature of the Original in order to gain insight into those who have been created to be like him. The first observation we make in the creation account is that God works: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).
Think of that. The very first verse of the Bible shows us that God is a God who works. The remaining sections of Genesis 1:2-31 reveal a God who crafts, forms, divides, sorts, exhibits immense creativity and wisdom, organizes his productivity to occur on specific days, and, in the process, enjoys the satisfaction of work well done. After nearly every completed day’s work, Scripture reports, “And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:10; 12; 17; 21, 25). When he fashioned and placed the final jewel in the crown of his creation, he stood back and rejoiced in his excellent craftsmanship: “and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
But are we reading too much into Genesis 1:1-31? Are we really supposed to view God as a craftsman, shaping his creation and finding satisfaction in his work? Yes, without hesitation. First of all, Genesis 2:1-2 summarizes Genesis 1:1-31 by categorizing God’s creative activity as “work”(mᵉlaʾḵᵉtô): “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
This word for “work” is used throughout the Old Testament to denote human work (e.g., Ex 20:9; Prov 24:27; Neh 4:15) and a few times with reference to skillful workmanship (see Ex 36:4; 1 Kings 7:14; Prov 22:29). Furthermore, later biblical writers view God’s creative activity as work. The Psalmists, for example, in their reflections on the Genesis account, call the creation “the work of God’s hands” (Ps 102:25), noting later that the members of his creation are glad beneficiaries of his work (Ps 104:13). Finally, Solomon characterizes God’s creative work as a demonstration of wisdom, skill, and delight (Prov 8:28-31). Given these strands of evidence, it is right to see the Genesis narrative portraying God as one who works. God is the original worker.
Redemption: The God Who is Always Working
Nor does God’s work end at creation. Consistently throughout the remaining biblical narrative we find God working to save and sanctify his people. For example, God works in delivering Israel (Josh 24:31; see also Judges 2:7; 1 Sam 14:6; Ps 33:4; Is 60:21). God works through his Son (John 4:34) and through believers (Eph 3:20; Phil 1:6; 2:13; 1 Thess 2:13). Indeed, when confronted for why Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath (i.e., worked), he characterizes his Father as the one who is always working: “But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). It makes sense, then, as we trace the Genesis narrative from God’s creation of the earth to his formation of man that we find work as man’s first assignment: “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it (Gen 2:7-8, 15).
Humankind: Created to Work
God created Adam then placed him in a garden to “work it and keep it.” In the context of the creation narrative, the word “work” refers to Adam’s assignment to cultivate the garden and bring forth its produce. Importantly, we must note that the word for “work” here is used universally throughout the Old Testament with reference to serving (or refusing to serve) the Lord (e.g., Deut 11:3; 28:14; Josh 22:5; Judg 2:19). I don’t believe this word use is coincidental. Rather, I take this as evidence for viewing Adam’s work in the garden—his tilling, cultivating, and otherwise productive labor—as service to the Lord.
This observation is important because of our tendency to think of serving the Lord almost exclusively in religious terms; we are only serving the Lord when we evangelize our neighbor or teach a Sunday school or serve the homeless. This means that for the Christian, productive labor in accordance with God’s calling—whatever that calling might be (doctor, teacher, engineer, pastor)—is a form of service to God. God’s Word undermines any kind of dichotomy we might erect between so-called secular and spiritual work. While it’s true that work became difficult when sin entered the world–our daily labor would now be beset by frustration and occasional futility (see Gen 3:17-19)–it would retain its original goodness inasmuch as it was still a gift from God and comprised a fundamental aspect of human personhood.
The New Testament affirms this understanding of work. Paul exhorts us to obey our earthly masters with a sincere heart, serving Christ through faithful service to the one who employs us (Eph 6:5-8). We are to do all our work heartily as unto the Lord (Col 3:23) and to earn our own living (2 Thess 3:12).
What Should We Aspire To?
Indeed, we are to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind our own affairs, and to work with our hands…so that [we] may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12). The word translated “aspire” in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 is the same word Paul uses in Romans 15:20 when he writes, “and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” and in 2 Cor 5:9 when he says that, whether in heaven or on earth, “we make it our aim to please him.” While living a quiet life and attending to one’s work may sound to some like a lukewarm Christian existence, Paul actually says that Christians are to make it their aim in life to conduct themselves in this way. Paul could not say such things unless God had endowed work with inherent dignity at creation.
A Place of Satisfaction and Good Works
When Christians enter into their daily work with a heart of faith and thankfulness, whether that work is done by a programmer writing code or mommy wiping noses, they can have the solid confidence they are pleasing the Lord (Col 1:10). Work is a gift from a Creator who loves to work. Although we conduct our work in a fallen environment upon a cursed earth, God still intends for us to work hard and to find satisfaction in a job well done (Eccl 9:10). Our jobs are also the place where we will fulfill the good works God prepared for us (Eph 2:10). Given the reality that God has made us to work and, by his good providence, located us in our present place of employment, it is reasonable to conclude that our daily occupation is one of the primary areas in which God has established for us to walk in good works (see also 1 Cor 7:17).
Receive this good gift, therefore, and bless God for it. Through your daily labors you glorify God and serve your neighbor, provide for your needs and reflect the image of your Creator, promote good habits of time-management and experience the joy of hard day’s work.