Faith that Works: The Story of Work, Part 2

By Daniel J. Lee

In our last post, we began tracing the story of work as it unfolds in the Bible. We saw that in creation, God defined work as his calling to humanity to image him by cultivating the raw material of creation for the purpose that life would flourish in all its dimensions. Work was a part of Adam and Eve's glorious calling; by it, God's glory, beauty, and justice would fill the world, and fill every heart with awe, forever.

The question is, why didn’t things turn out this way? Why isn't work this amazing? Why is it so hard, so meaningless, so joyless? Why doesn’t it do any good? The answers are largely found in the next chapter of the drama of Scripture: the Fall.

THE FALL: PROBLEMS AT WORK

Genesis 2:15-3:7 records for us Adam's tragic turn, in which he failed to do the work that God had assigned him. Instead of submitting himself under God on the one hand, and exercising benevolent dominion over creation by cultivating and protecting it, on the other, Adam placed his thoughts above God's, and in turn allowed the creation – the Serpent – to have dominion over him. Instead of believing God's word – about the tree, about his vision of flourishing, about the work God had assigned him as the means to this flourishing, and about God's faithfulness to make good on his promises – Adam believed the Serpent's word, and his own word. Instead of following the joyful, truly creative path of imitating God, Adam carved out what he thought was a shortcut to glory. 

The result was awful: in essence, the ruin of the family business. A parable might help. There once was a loving Father, the proud Owner of a business, who wanted to see it grow, its employees productive, rested, cared for, joyful, and thriving, and its products and services perfected, responsible, and bringing only wholeness to its customers and community. In order to do this, the Owner placed as CEO over the company his beloved son, entrusting to him its entire management, with authority over everyone except himself. The son was just like his Father, having abilities, intelligence, and character like his; he was his spitting image. If as CEO the son would trust his Father's vision, business would only boom. Well, work began, and things were looking up. What a company it was, and what a world of endless good they could do, with Father as Owner, and son as CEO.

But in time, the son began to hear of new ideas for the business. They came from a man whom he knew to be his Father's greatest competitor, the vilest enemy of the family, who sought the ruin of the business, and the death of his Father. His Father had instructed him not to let this man near the company. But the son was intrigued, and intrigue gave way to consideration, and consideration to persuasion. In an act of insane treachery, the son chose the way of the enemy over his Father. As CEO of the company, he executed a plot in conjunction with the competition to enact a hostile takeover of his own Father's business, attempting to rip it away from him, effectively rejecting his own status as a son, and planning to hand ownership over to the enemy. When the smoke had cleared, the family business was left in ruins, smoldering. His relationship with his Father was destroyed; he was no longer a son, but a traitor, and a slave to the enemy.

Adam was this son, the failed CEO, and God his Father and Owner of the company. Adam failed in his work, and the result was horrifying: the fall of his entire race of Divine-Image bearers, and, with them, the marring of the domain over which they were placed to be kings and queens. Creation was scarred, broken, in tatters. Where endless beauty, peace, and life could have blossomed and been made permanent, now chaos, rebellion, and death seeped in like cyanide. Paradise was lost. And the effects on work remain to this day.

 

reflection

The Fall affected both Adam and creation, and the work that bound the two together. In the same way, it affects both us as workers, as well as the work that we do.

We are now by nature fallen workers, workers “in Adam,” who imitate our first mother and father.

It's often tempting to believe that obedient, ethical work is hard and inconvenient, that it will not bring true flourishing. We fall to this temptation whenever we choose expediency over integrity. But as it was for Adam, the road of expediency may look well-paved, but it sometimes meanders across the borders of ethics, and when it does, it eventually leads off a cliff.

What temptations are there at work to take shortcuts, to choose expediency over ethics? Have you ever had a crisis of faith at work?

What would it take to resist this temptation? How can you pray for and practice integrity?

 

Our relationship with work is distorted.

As God's Image-bearers, we had dignity, but now the Image of God in us is broken. Our work was meant to express our dignity, but now we look to it to be the source of dignity. We distort work, or any of our other callings – rest, recreation, and relationships – when we let any one of them eclipse our primary calling – worshiping God – or when we let one eclipse the others. When we worship rest, we're lazy; when we worship the approval of others, we act transgressively. When we worship work, we look to our work to save us, to fill the emptiness in our hearts, to give us meaning, a sense of self, or to give us the status, reputation, or money that will give us these things. But work can’t do this; only God can. We’re meant to serve God through our work, not to serve our work as god. We’re not meant to be workaholics, empty, looking to be filled by work, running on fumes; we’re meant to be God-aholics, fueled and sustained and besotted with God, so that we can work in freedom and serve him with joy, able to put down our work when it's time to rest, recreate, and relate.

Which calling tends to take the place of worshiping God in your life: work, rest, recreation, or relationships? Over which of them, if it were ever lost or threatened, would make you feel most livid? Distraught? Empty?

How can you recenter your life on worshiping God, rather than on work, rest, recreation, or relationships? What concrete steps can you take to better balance your callings? How do you find your "sabbath rest," and do you need to protect it better?

 

Instead of using our work to serve people, we use people to serve our work. 

Our relationships are marked by hostility, selfish competition, control, manipulation and domineering (3:16). God placed us in our work to serve the flourishing of all our stakeholders – our clients, coworkers, employers, employees, families, and cities. But instead of seeking their welfare, we use them to get ahead, to make a name for ourselves; thus we dehumanize them. We stop caring about the people around us at work, we manipulate them to get ahead, we refuse to help others when they slow us down. We stop caring about the justice of our work, whether our work has a positive impact on society. We throw up our arms in the face of the machinery of injustice; what can we do, as one small cog stuck in the middle of it?

Who are the stakeholders of your work? Name a few. What do you need to do in order to better serve them with your work?

How do you tend to use people at work? Does the way you work hurt people? Are you the type of person who ignores people, or the type who butters them up but only for selfish gain?

How does your work, your industry, and the products and services it produces, serve society? How so? Is its overall impact more positive, or negative? How can you be salt and light and make your workplace more just, its products and services more helpful?

 

Workers no longer work as they were meant to, but work itself no longer works as it was meant to. 

The relationship between human beings and the rest of creation – the material of our work – has changed. Creation is now "cursed," so that as we cultivate it, it produces what is needed to sustain human life – "plants" to eat – but along with them, "thorns and thistles" (3:17-19). Work is hard, costly, taxing, and unfruitful. We don't always see the results we dream of come to fruition. We don't always do the work we want to do. Work now deals not only with a raw creation; it also deals with a creation marred by sin and its effects – suffering, injustice, decay, and death. Our lives of toil inevitably end with death. 

What challenges resist you as you cultivate the raw material of your work? How is work hard, or unfruitful for you? Do you need strength, patience, encouragement, and hope? God is ready to hear; ask him for what you need.

Where do you see suffering, injustice, decay, and death in the realm of creation you work in? How does your work deal with suffering in the world? How do you suffer at work? How can you ask God for mercy to alleviate the suffering?

It might be helpful to spend some time each day at work praying for God's mercy, to help you fight temptation, and to alleviate suffering. In the next post, we'll explore how God has begun to make good on the promise that we, along with our work, can be made whole again.