When I was a child, I thought work was God’s curse on humanity. As I was forced to do my Saturday morning chores, I reflected more than once on how dumb Adam and Eve must have been to take that fruit. Wouldn’t it be better if all I had to do was lie in a hammock and listen to the wind blowing through the trees? I was already looking forward to what life would be like when I turned 65 and could retire.
However, there was something fundamentally wrong in my thinking. Work doesn’t make its first appearance in the curse of Genesis 3. Rather, it first shows up in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (emphasis added). Work was actually part of God’s original design for us. “According to Psalm 8 it is our glory to work and so to present the image of God,” write theologians Bartholomew and Goheen.
Our culture frequently distorts the purpose of work by linking identity to work, rather than work to identity. When our identity is bound to our work, we fall under the curse of Genesis 3. We view work as toil, and do it only for personal survival.
Under the curse, we base our value and self-perception on what we produce and do. This may be the reason retirement, unemployment, and layoffs are frightening prospects for some people. Who will I be once I can no longer claim the title of farmer, pastor, nurse, etc.? When we base too much of our identity on what we do, we lose sight of who we really are.
We also begin to judge and value others by the same standards. Our family relationships become strained because of real or perceived laziness, or because one person’s job is deemed better than another. We choose relationships based on what we can get out of them, and fail to make real connections.
The opposite flow
Work must always flow out of our identity, not the other way around. Genesis 2:7 tells us we are created by the breath of God. In John 20:22, the same “breath” image is applied as the disciples receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 8 says if we are Christians, we have the Spirit of God in us (v. 9). Then, in one of the most powerful declarations of who we are as Christians, Paul writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.… The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (vs. 14, 16). Ultimately, this is our identity: deeply loved children of God (1 John 3:1).
A few months ago, I took our youth group to Youth Advance at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask., where my dad works. The kids in my group thought it was hilarious every time my dad and I walked into a room together. I kept hearing, “It’s like there are two of you!” There’s no denying that my dad and I carry very similar genetic makeup, and behave alike.
In the same way, we must work in a manner that reflects the character of our heavenly Father. Genesis 2:15 tells us work isn’t a curse. Why? Because work isn’t just about personal survival. Work is for the advantage and care of this world God formed.
Many theologians have suggested the creation of the world was an overflow of God’s triune love. In other words, God created a world out of love for the benefit of others. As children of God, we’re asked to continue that work of caring for and benefitting others.
When we live out of our identity as God’s children, our work can be a blessing and not a curse, as we reflect the love of our heavenly Father to those around us, and participate in his continuing work of redemption.