“I do my job just to get by.”
-Three in ten American workers
“My job is just a steppingstone for something better.”
-Two in ten American workers[i]
Half of America agrees: work is a curse. And isn’t that what the Bible teaches? After Adam and Eve rebel, God levies this curse on Adam:
[C]ursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground…[ii]
Work is a curse. Historian Roger Hill agrees:
"From a historical perspective, the cultural norm placing a positive moral value on doing a good job because work has intrinsic value for its own sake was a relatively recent development… Work, for much of the ancient history of the human race, has been hard and degrading… the Hebrew belief system viewed work as a 'curse devised by God explicitly to punish the disobedience and ingratitude of Adam and Eve'… Numerous scriptures from the Old Testament in fact supported work, not from the stance that there was any joy in it, but from the premise that it was necessary to prevent poverty and destitution."[iii]
There you have it. Work is a curse. And haven’t you felt the curse of work? Haven’t you felt the thorns, thistles, and sweat?
I’ve held a number of jobs: umpire, swim coach, fast food restaurant cook, I’ve worked at a deli, worked at a call center, been a Detention Officer, worked landscaping, worked in fundraising, and, of course, as a pastor. And every one of those jobs had thistles and sweat. They were all hard in their own way. No one has a job without thistles and sweat.
There’s a scientific theory that I think sums up this thistles and sweat reality of work well: entropy. Entropy is the phenomenon that things break down from order to disorder. Why did our air conditioner break only two and a half years of installation? Entropy. Why does the sliding glass door stick? Entropy. Have you ever put earbuds in your pocket? Have you ever taken your earbuds out of your pocket like you put them in—nice and untangled? Nope. Entropy. Our world moves from order to disorder.
Entropy seems to speed up at work.
My first job out of college was as a Detention Officer. Entropy must work five times as fast in a jail. I would leave my shift in a tower and everything would be fine. There were no brewing fights, the tower was cleaned and stocked with the necessary paperwork. And then I walk back into 5-2 C tower 16 hours later and everything had fallen apart. The tower smells like Funyons, two different cellies are threatening to beat each other up, three inmates were supposed to be transferred two hours ago, and somehow all of the paperwork is gone.
Weeds and thistles. Sweat.
It can feel sometimes like we weren’t meant for work, like work itself is the curse.
But hold on. Work isn’t the curse. There is a curse attached to work, but work itself isn’t the curse. Hill gets it wrong.
Work wasn’t a result of the fall, the difficulty of work was a result of the fall. God created us for work.
Before Adam and Eve rebelled against God, work was pure joy.
Let’s flip back to Genesis chapters 1 and 2. God has created everything that is except one thing: human beings. He is waiting for this moment to create something that will reflect him, that will be his image. Here is what he says:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”[iv]
Did you catch what just happened there? God’s first purpose, his first mandate for human beings is for us to have dominion. When God creates us to reflect his image to the world, the first way that happens is through dominion. Dominion is a strange word for us, so what exactly does God mean? Dominion isn’t a word we use very often. Dominion means benevolent rule, stewardship, or care. It means work. We have been created for dominion—for work. Our creativity, our management, our organization, our labor– all of this reflects God to the world.
We’ve all had a taste of this. We’ve all done work that was meaningful, that we took a sense of pride in. I still remember the first time we got to do ceramics in the third grade. After the coil pot basics, our teacher put a lump of red clay in front of each of us and we got to create something. Anything we wanted. I crafted (in my humble ten year old estimation) the most glorious red squirrel that was ever made. I was so proud of it.
I remember moments of down time when I worked as a fast food Japanese cook in High School. I would try to craft new twists on dishes: barbecue pork Yakisoba was my favorite. And then I got to watch as the staff tasted the new concoctions and their eyes lit up.
The curse has not erased God’s intention for us to be those who work. The thorns and thistles haven’t choked out the latent joy and purpose of our dominion.
We are made for work. Let us be those who step into the purpose of work with passion and purpose.
[ii] Genesis 3:17b-19a
[iii] From Hill’s Historical Context of the Work Ethic, quoted in https://www.tomorrowsworld.org/magazines/2007/january-february/work-a-blessing-or-a-curse
[iv] Genesis 1:26