God makes humans and then he invites humans into the work of creating other humans. God calls us to himself as disciples and then invites us into the Great Commission work of making other disciples. The same is true of the other, more mundane work that fills our days. In one sense, it has inherent goodness, because we inherited it from our Creator. Whether we are writing articles, caring for children or serving food to make a living, the work is an invitation to participate in God’s provision for us.
It can be hard to remember what work used to look like before this bewildering year. Did you get to serve coffee with a smile instead of a squirt of hand sanitizer? Did you get to write an entire email in one sitting without being interrupted by the children who now share your home office?
As the coronavirus’ shadow continues to stretch into the future, it can leave us longing for what used to be. But the good ‘ole days weren’t all good either.
We still fell short of our productivity goals more often than not. We still had spilled coffee and computer problems (and the occasional coffee-spilled-on-the-computer problem). There were still days we questioned whether the work was worth doing at all, so dogged was it by setbacks and our own shortcomings.
That’s because the good work, which God laid out for his image bearers to do when he created that first pair of humans, was quickly tainted by their sin.
This virus is a new strain of sin’s same-old consequences, one that has a unique ability to draw the sin out of each of us as we continue to endure work and life in close quarters. But its continued presence also gives us an opportunity to remember and rehearse the theology of work: Why it’s good, why it’s hard, why it’s still worth doing, and when it will be redeemed.
Work Is Good
Let’s start by looking at the first time the Bible mentions work. In the beginning, God creates the world and all that is in it; land and sea, birds and beasts, plants of every kind. And then, the triune God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” before giving men and women dominion over all that he had created (Gen. 1:26). It isn’t until the description of the seventh day, when “God finished his work that he had done in creation,” that we see the word “work,” referring to all the action that just unfolded (Gen. 2:2).
So, God’s act of creation was work. And he created us in his image, “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15)
Much as we might picture paradise differently, the Garden of Eden was a delight not because of a lack of work but because of the presence of the Lord as they worked. Adam and Eve worked alongside God to cultivate creation and they walked with him in the cool of the day. Their work, pre-fall, was free of frustration, futility, failure, and pain.
Imagine, for a moment, gardening alongside the Creator before the fall, before sin tainted it all. No swatting away mosquitoes to harvest the last of the tomatoes, pockmarked by the other garden pests. No toiling over tulip bulbs only to have them eaten by the squirrels. Human work was only good, as God intended.
As Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes in his book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, this means, “human work is an imitation of God’s work, a participation in God’s creation and His creativity. Ruling, subduing, multiplying, causing plants to grow, making things—these are what God does, and yet God gives them as tasks to human beings.”
This is a marvel to me, when I stop and think about it. God makes humans and then he invites humans into the work of creating other humans. God calls us to himself as disciples and then invites us into the Great Commission work of making other disciples. The same is true of the other, more mundane work that fills our days. In one sense, it has inherent goodness, because we inherited it from our Creator. Whether we are writing articles, caring for children or serving food to make a living, the work is an invitation to participate in God’s provision for us.
Work Is Hard
But anyone who’s worked a day in his or her life knows how hard it is. It was hard before the coronavirus left us juggling extra loads of child-caring, home-schooling and anxiety on top of work demands (for those still fortunate enough to have paying work to do). We can trace that hardness back to what happened just after God gave those first humans work, declared it good, and gave them a pretty simple rule to follow (spoiler: they broke it).
Tempted by Satan in the form of a serpent, Eve and Adam ate of the one tree in the garden God had told them was off-limits. Suddenly, all that had been easy—being with God, being with one another, working on and eating from the earth’s bounty—became hard and cursed.
The food that had come freely from the trees and plants of the garden would now come “By the sweat of (their) faces” (Gen. 3:19). They would still work, but now it would be hard and frustrating, and sometimes it would produce nothing at all.
Their bodies would labor and toil over their work, and the work itself would be inherently foiled by this taint of sin (Gen. 3:17-18).
The writer of Ecclesiastes also observes how difficult and seemingly futile work can feel, calling it “toil” throughout: “What,” he asks, “do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecc. 1:3).