In many respects, work is a necessary evil. It demands participation by nearly every person throughout history, permanently deforms many backs and hands, distorts relationships and divides families, returns less monetary value than the blood and sweat equity most pour into it, and especially in our Western mindset is something to be retired from and replaced with a life of reward and ease, whereas in many other parts of the world is the hated act of survival that escorts most into an early grave.
There is something about work that is not right. It shouldn’t be like this. This is where we come to the theology of work.
Work itself is a good thing. God is always at his work. The problem being highlighted here, is not work itself, but the reason that work has become such a pain in our back sides. It needs to be noted that work can be viewed in both general terms as well as in more specific intent. Just as there is a biblical difference between general grace and salvific grace (like rain which generally benefits everyone versus selective revelation of Jesus as Lord to a certain person), so there is a similar distinction with work.
If a woman strives to plant and nurture a bush, and later enjoys the fruit that it produces, she is rightly the beneficiary of God’s general blessing. It truly is a blessing to eat tasty fruit gleaned from our own efforts, but that is only a general blessing. The time something becomes a specific blessing, is when it moves a person toward Christ. Such faith is not the typical result of eating strawberries. This reality applies equally to understanding God’s design for work.
Eating healthy food and enjoying pleasure purchased from our harvesting are general blessings from work that can apply to anyone. This is not the type of blessing being addressed here. Such a person remains under the curse and ultimately their work will do them no lasting good.
In truth, work involves both a curse and a blessing. In the beginning God placed humanity in a special garden to “work the ground” (Gen 2:5). The pleasure of tending a divinely established garden without damaging thorn or weed is practically incomprehensible to us today. We are the unfortunate descendants of many generations struggling through painful toil as a result of rebellion.
From Adam’s sin, we each have proved our family heritage by continuously repeating that hateful tendency toward doing our own thing our own way. From that fateful day, when the snake twisted his tale, God cursed the ground and work has never been the same since.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:17-19)
Work has been cursed. It doesn’t matter whether you like your job, or whether or not you make a good living—the ground from which you and I have been formed has fallen under a divine curse. No human can even eat without “painful toil”. The imagery is more than just about contaminated soil; it is about a contaminated heritage. All work, even the white-collar office job that avoids getting hands dirty, and even that penthouse job that collects millions off the backs of the poor, reeks from the stench of sin, abuse, greed, treachery, back-stabbing, loss, devaluation, and slavery. That is a lot of thorns to combat just for a morning bagel with coffee.
Work is designed to remind us of our sin through dealing with constant pain through what we labor at. Christians are the only ones capable of grasping this truth. For everyone else, work is simply the means to becoming a person of means.
However, work is more than a curse. It is at the same moment, intended to be a blessing. That ought to make your forehead crease. The two are not compatible, but they do play a simultaneous role.
To understand this extraordinary truth, it is important to reflect on an amazing revelation about our Creator. He actually likes us. Believe it or not, God wants us to still succeed. The following truism applies just as fully to Christians as to Adam when he was being sentenced with hard labor:
“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” (Pro 3:11-12)
God may have cursed the ground, turned work into a painful struggle, and subjected all humanity unto the final paycheck of death, but he did so with a blessing in mind. To grasp how this is all possible, one must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, believing and obeying all that he said, and put all their trust in what he accomplished upon the Cross and in his promised resurrection from their pending death. That is about accepting the Christian gospel.
But here, we are looking more specifically at how to understand work through Christian eyes. For the vast majority of people who have little interest in Jesus, work has a few temporary perks but ultimately ends in getting fired for eternity. That special blessing that God intentionally included along with the curse is a specific, salvific blessing that is offered to the discerning few who have been given the ability to see it and reach for it. Work may have its thorns, but those who allow work to “train” them, are capable of receiving the hidden blessings.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Heb 12: 11)
Not everyone is trained by their work. Most assume they must be first trained in order to do their work. However, God does things differently.
Work cannot be approached in normal fashion, or it will perpetuate the curse. Our jobs and service tasks will produce diseased crops, if we do whatever we are trained to do for the purposes common to this world. Doing work to eat, is short-sighted. Doing work to benefit the company is worthless. Doing work to support a family is honorable but remains under crushing debt. Doing work to gain a sense of identity and self-worth is empty. Doing work to avoid idleness, misses the point. Doing work to live a good life, dons the mask of deception. Doing work because it is religious or because God says so, has a form of godliness, but denies the power. That is not what work (which has been cursed) is designed by God to accomplish.
Adam and Eve approached their work in the garden as something they thought they could do any-old-way-they-wanted, but it back-fired in their face. The same will be true for every person who thinks they too can approach their God-given command to work for their food on their own terms, in their own personal style, to whatever degree of effort suits their fancy. Approaching work like that is no different than the snake-oil which suggested that if you do your jobs the way you want to, by reaching out and taking what is ripe for the taking, then you will be like God, knowing how to discern good from evil in all your business ventures.
As a Christian, if you want to do your work in a manner reflective of God’s intent, which will transform everything you do, and even the very soil of your eternal heritage, into something glorious, then consider what the Lord has to say about work.
If your work can be done with routine effort that checks-the-box enough to get paid, look for how you can shift gears and “do it with all your might”. This is not to burn yourself out, or become the super-employee, or strain your limits, but rather to press against the natural tendency to go easy, to cut corners, to just get by, to only do what is required. Do what you do with the best of your ability, rather than per what comes easiest. The curse within work must be attacked by rejected the human nature approach and replacing it with devoted commitment. Of course, such commitment is first of all toward God, and as a result toward what you do and why, not principally about company loyalty.
If your job requires you to go a mile, look for what you can do to go two miles. This is not about making more money, or working longer hours, or trying to out-do everyone else, but rather about doing the extra for the benefit of others without measuring for personal gain. That disciplines the natural human tendency to work for personal gain, and allows work to train Christ-like character into what you do. Going above-and-beyond reflects Jesus’ instruction to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, and we can implement that belief toward work as an antidote against the curse of doing-for-self.
If you work to please the one who pays your salary, what about the one who paid your Debt? “You cannot serve two masters.” You may continue to serve under a boss, but how are you demonstrating that your eternal Lord supersedes the conflicting authority and godless rules imposed by your company? Does your work promote the work of God or do you save that for Sunday’s masquerade?
Do you do what you do to keep you job or to please God? Whose eyes are you laboring to impress? Believers honor authority, but “not to please men”. Rather, they do their job principally and without compromise “as working for the Lord”. If you believe that, then take a look at your desk, your car, your room, your outfit, your storage, your computer screen—would Jesus be pleased with what he sees?
Is your job so important, so necessary to your survival, that you are willing to compromise your beliefs to keep in the doe? Your next check may show 666, unless you are willing to put your job at risk, or even walk away from a good job, in order to put the honor and morality of Jesus as your priority. Work that rightly trains a Christian can only occur if the efforts remain submissive to his word and honors his name. Anything else is work for the Beast.
If your personal needs demand a high paying job and long hours, perhaps you should reconsider your lifestyle choices. Living like the world, and chasing what it values, can never produce the life that God designed for you. Specific and eternal blessings come to those who work as for the Lord and not for Lincolns. The two pursuits are incompatible, and though work remains a requirement on all, the reasons, pursuits, types, and costs will reveal whether you are eating forbidden fruit or fasting for faith.
If your work succeeds, is that determined by stock value, ROI, and promotions, or by upholding the will of God? Did you pick weeds per the will of God today? Did you make that call, write that brief, or dig that hole to honor what God wanted of you today, or did you even bother to ask God what he wanted? Your job operates under a curse and there is only one way to turn that bad omen into a blessing, but it will never happen if you keep feeding the vulture with what is natural. Success is not a function of momentary pleasure or increasing pay, but rather by surviving into eternity through surrender to the will of God.
What is the by-product of your work? Waste is often the tell-tale sign of a well designed process. Is the discarded leftovers of your work a blessing or a curse? Is the impact you leave on others received as a blessing or a curse? Is the use of your money a cause of blessing for others? The rich who were judged by Jesus as unworthy of his kingdom wanted to do good within their means, to offer help out of the excess of their abundance. What the wealthy refuse to do is put their hard-earned riches at risk or even at sacrificial loss for the benefit of others and the self-disciplining act of restraining the natural greed to eat their own desired fruit off the forbidden tree. Our remains may be cursed ashes or nurturing sustenance for those less fortunate. Work can train this in you and me, or it can cling to the slime.
This listing could go on near endlessly. There are so many ways to work the curse. Under the Old Covenant, blessings were promised and measured by material wealth; not so for the Christian. Our sights ought to be set on our promised inheritance stored up in heaven with the expectation of finding satisfaction now in the “harvest of peace and righteousness”. Whether you get it or not will be shown by how you approach work.
There are so few who realize that such cursed work can be done with eternal blessing. The curse of work should drive us toward God in humble acknowledgment of his discipline of every child he loves. The offered blessing of work should equally drive us toward expending our effort selectively toward what honors God and restrains our natural tendencies which incline toward cursed territory.
The one who benefits from such training by viewing work for what it should do and for why we are often so pained in the process, are positioned to receive from Christ the hidden manna which can be had without labor or struggle. To those who rebuke your Christian view and approach toward work, you may enjoy Jesus’ response as your own: “I have work to do that you know nothing about”.
To those who chased him down after having been fed without having to do any work, Jesus rebuked and invited with the words: “Work for what lasts”!