Genesis 2 - Work

In Genesis 2:7-8 we read that, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” And soon after in Genesis 2:15 we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

So, after his intimate creation in Genesis 2:7, man is placed in the garden of Eden and put to work, and it is here that we find that Adam was created to work. Which means that work is a creation ordinance. And this is incredibly important to understand. Because on one hand, some people say that work itself is a curse. It’s something that we have to do in order to enjoy certain comforts. This was the attitude of the ancient Greeks. According to this view we work so that we can one day retire. And the sooner the better!

But on the other hand, some people say that work is not just a thing that we do, but THE thing that we do. For these people their work is virtually their identity. Meaning that the main point of work is to achieve status and validation.

For some of us, our temptation is to embrace one of these understandings of work. Although, for most of us, we’re probably tempted to embrace both. However, the teaching of the early stages of Genesis is quite different to both of these conceptions of work. In Genesis 2 we are shown that work is a good thing, although it is not an ultimate thing. So work isn’t something to be endured. It is to be enjoyed. But although it is a good thing, it is not the thing that validates us. The thing that makes us special is the fact that each and every one of us has been created in God’s image. And as those created in God’s image we have to look to God in order to rightly understand work.

Picture a train travelling on train tracks. It’s moving freely and happily. But now imagine that same train in the middle of a paddock. In a way it’s free from the constraints of the train tracks, but in a very real way it is also stuck. It’s been designed to run on train tracks, and if it tries to do things in a different way it soon lands in all kinds of trouble. And it’s similar for us with regard to work. We have been created by God, and there is only true freedom in living his way in his world. And if we ignore the way he created us to live, we will soon feel like a train sitting in the middle of a paddock.

This is especially true with regard to work. If we treat work as a something to be endured so that we can enjoy comforts, then we will miss out on the joy of work. And the same applies if we try to use work to validate our existence. We will miss its intended purpose, and end up frustrated. And both of these ways of thinking involve idolatry. The first despises work but idolises comfort. And the second idolises status and tries to use work to achieve it. But both will eventually fail and leave a person feeling miserable.

And the answer to both of these false understandings of work is to worship God, and to stop looking to created things to give us what only God can give us. So we must look at Genesis 1 and see God’s transcendent glory, and then look at Genesis 2 and see his intimate creation of mankind, and realise that although he created us to work, he didn’t create us to worship work. Which leads us to conclude that work is good thing but not an ultimate thing.

Which means that we should find some enjoyment in our work. For although it can never replace God, it is a good thing from God. We were made to work, and we should find enjoyment in the work God that God has given us to do. Tim Keller remind us of what Dorothy Sayers said about work during the dark days of WW2. Sayers writes,

“The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done itself … I believe there is a Christian doctrine of work, very closely related to the doctrines of the creative energy of God and the divine image of man … The essential [modern] heresy is that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in the service of society, but only something one does in order to obtain money and leisure.”

She goes on to explain what happens as a result: “Doctors practice medicine not primarily to relieve suffering, but to make a living – the cure of the patient is something that happens on the way. Lawyers accept briefs not because they have a passion for justice, but because the law is the profession which enables them to live.”

However, during the war many people were drawn into the army and found a new, surprising sense of fulfilment in their work. Sayers writes, “The reason why men often found themselves happy and satisfied in the army is that for the first time in their lives they found themselves doing something, not for the pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the thing done.”

So people in Britain during WW2 found contentment in doing work which contributed to the survival of their nation. Which makes this a great example of people finding satisfaction and joy in their work. And we too should find satisfaction in doing our work. We shouldn’t work simply because we get paid, and we certainly shouldn’t do it to achieve some kind of status. We should work because God’s created us to work. And like a train on the train tracks, we are most free when we are living according to our design.

However, if we left it there it wouldn’t be an accurate picture of work in a fallen world. For while it is true that work is not a curse, it has in fact been cursed. In Genesis 2:16-17 God gave Adam and Eve one command in the garden. God said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

But, tragically, the man and woman did eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And in so doing they sinned against God. As RC Sproul has said, “Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying “no” to the righteousness of God. We are saying, “God, Your law is not good. My judgement is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do.”

And that’s what Adam and Eve did in the garden. They said “we know better, we will choose what is right and wrong.” But this kind of behaviour against God leads only to judgement. So when Adam and Eve disobeyed God the whole universe fell under a curse. And the realm of work wasn’t exempt. In Genesis 3 God said to Adam,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

So if you’ve ever wondered why work is so frustrating (and so hard) it’s because it’s been cursed. When Adam listened to the voice of his wife and disobeyed God, God cursed Adam, and he cursed the ground, which means he cursed work. Therefore, while work was originally a good gift, it has now been cursed. So although we still have to work, because we’ve been created to work, work is never going to be a pure joy. It will always be hard and frustrating.

But, that’s not the end of the story.  In the NT we meet the Lord Jesus, who came to live the life that we should have, to die the death we deserve, and to rise again in victory. He came to obey God in our place. And he came to undo the effects of the fall by becoming a curse for us. Galatians 3:13 tells us that, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” And we know that he has achieved his goal because he rose from the dead in victory. The Bible refers to this good news as the gospel, and the gospel has a huge impact on work.

In 1Corinthians 6:19 we’re told that if we trust in the Lord Jesus then we are not our own because we were bought with a price. And because we’ve been bought at a price and redeemed we are to glorify God to whom we now belong. And in Colossians 3 we are taught what that means with regard to our work.

In Colossians 3:22-4:1 Paul says, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

Now in this section Paul is speaking to servants and masters, and this raises many questions for the modern person. However, it is important to remember that slavery in the Greco Roman world was not the same as the New World institution that developed in the wake of the African slave trade. Slavery in Paul’s time was not race based, it didn’t involve kidnap, and it was seldom lifelong.

But even so, we can think of it like this: if Christian slave owners in the Greco Roman world were supposed to be humble, just and fair, how much more should 21st century bosses be humble, just and fair! And if slaves were encouraged to work heartily and to find satisfaction doing menial jobs that they didn’t choose, how much more should that be true of workers today!

The key to Paul’s teaching here is a change of mindset. Paul is encouraging people to ask themselves: who am I working for? And whose opinion matters most in the end? And, in this section, he is telling employees to do their job. He wants employees to obey their bosses, to work wholeheartedly, not by way of eye service (as people pleasers) but with sincerity of heart because they fear the Lord. And he wants people to stop working just for their boss (or themselves) and to realise that in their workplace they are serving the Lord Jesus.

So, every Christian has a new motive for work: to serve the Lord Jesus. And this motivation should encourage every believer to be fully engaged at work as whole persons; using their intellect, their passion, and their bodies to do the best job possible on the task at hand. And if we begin to work as if serving the Lord, we will be set free from the temptation to both overwork and underwork. Because neither money nor status (or the lack of either) is our controlling motivation.

Work becomes simply something we do in order to please God by doing his will. And it is doing this that transforms work from being a burden to being a joy. Because our labour in the Lord is never in vain.

Nick ArundellDavid Assender